By Ma Thanegi
As much as the Myanmar people love festivities, they enjoy dance. Many of the nationalities have group dances to celebrate harvests and New Years when men and women may dance together but decorously without even touching hands, as is traditional to the culture. Dance performances are enjoyed by all, even the amateur groups of boys and girls going around their village dancing and singing to raise funds for a community project.
Then, their musical instruments are the drum hung across the shoulders of one man, bamboo clappers in the strong hands of another, and brass cymbals that timed the beat with satisfyingly jarring clashes.
Myanmar dance is in two forms, the slow and dignified dance of the palace or the lively steps of the ‘Ahnyeint’ style.
Actually, Ahnyeint, meaning ‘slow and gentle’ is a dance that was once performed in the palace, from the time of the ancient kingdoms of Pyu (2nd Century BC to 9th Century AD) and Bagan (11th Century AD to 13th Century AD) up to the last Konbaung Dynasty in Mandalay (18th Century to 19th Century).
With the innate sense of showman ship the masters and dancers set up the Ahnyeint show to include four comics who are on stage all the time, from calling out the dancers in pretty verses to keeping the audience rolling not in the aisle but on their mats with their wit.
The quick give-and-take patter between the four is mostly not rehearsed, as ad-libbed wit is a tradition of great comics who also work in other genres of performing arts such as the marionette stage. The comics are as important to a show as much as the lead dancer.After exchanging banter with the dancers, the comics could rest and smoke cheroots at the edge of the stage while she dances and sings. The first three or four dancers to appear in turn, never in groups or even in twos, are the younger and not so well known ‘assistant’ dancers, beginning with the youngest girl who opens the show with appropriate modesty and shyness, asking the “mothers and fathers” of the community to forgive her inexperience.
The leader, whose name is the same as that of the troupe, appears last and stays on stage the longest. These famous solo dancers of the past are still remembered with admiration and adoration, beginning with “Emerald Anklets” Ma Ngwe Myaing and “Laybarti” (Liberty) Ma Mya Yin who rooted for independence from the British in her own way. Other famous dancers were “Golden Butterfly” and “Kawlaik” (College) Myaing, a favourite of college students. It may be because their songs, especially written for them with their names featured prominently are still sung to this day. For famous dancers a new song each month was usually commissioned, with great respect paid to the composer and the fee presented as an “Offering to His Talent and Wisdom”: in arts and literature it is never ‘done’ to speak frankly about such gross things as mere payment. Some songwriters were as famous and as much loved as the dancers they wrote for.