Thu Thu Aung
Research Officer, Department of Archaeology and National Museum, Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, Myanmar

I n Myanmar traditional dance, Yein Aka (group dance) is a form in which dancers perform solos, alternating with their fellow group members. It is performed with the accompaniment of a traditional orchestra known as Hsaing Waing. There are various kinds of Yein, including Thagyan Yein (water festival dance), Nat Kadaw Yein (a dance to pray to spirits), A Pyodaw Yein (ladies’ dance), and Simi Yein (candle light dance). Most group dances are performed by women,
although some are for men.

Among these group dances, Nat Kadaw A Pyodaw Yein is considered very traditional. This dance is performed during special ceremonies and also at the Zat Pwe theatrical performances and dramatic shows. In Zat Pwe, Nat Kadaw (spirit medium) Aka (dance) is traditionally performed the first night, while the A Pyodaw (maids of honor) dance is performed on the second. Nat Kadaw is the purest and oldest form of Myanmar traditional music and dancing. It was traditionally performed as a solo dance by a woman dancer but now, as A Pyodaw, it takes the form of a group dance. This dance serves as an act of propitiation to ask that the Zat Pwe performance will proceed smoothly, with no accidents.

The dancers, Nat Kadaws, dress in red tops and traditional
skirts (longyi) with red shawls around the chest, and wear red headbands with their hair hanging down and tightly knotted. More recently, Apyodaw dancers have also been seen to dress in white tops and red traditional skirts (longyi), but not to wear headbands—instead, they wear flowers with their hair hanging down.

With the opening music played by the traditional drum circle orchestra, prayers to the Buddha and the ritual dances are performed by Nat Kadaws and Apyodaws. Even though the Nat Kadaw dance is traditionally performed the first night of Zat Pwe and A Pyodaw on the second, today the dancing styles tend to be mixed and danced the first night as group dances for the further excitement and interest of the audience.

It is tradition in the Nat Kadaw dance to make an offering to the Lamaing Nat and Guardian Spirit of Land with a bowl (kadawpwe) made of green coconut, three hands of bananas, and other items. This appeasement of the spirit is usually done by a spirit medium dancer (Nat Kadaw). Chanting folk songs about nats (spirits) is an essential part of the beginning
of Zat Pwe. These ritual songs pay respect to the Sakka, the lord of the first and second levels of existence of the nat devas, thirty-seven national nats, and to the local guardian spirit.

The Nat Kadaw dance is a great demonstration of the skill of the dancer; it comprises many elements of choreography and can take up to 45 minutes. At the beginning of the performance, the dance is delicate and the music is legato. The song begins “Mingalar yay te mha man taing,” and the Nat Kadaw sings and dances in propitiation, repeating the sequence three times with the offering bowl. After a vocal injunction, the dancer quickens to the rising intensity of the music, and the movements and the music reach a frenziedly escalation. At this performance, special songs for the nats such as “Atulay
yey te yhain karpyaine yhain karpyaine hpell mwaerar shway kawjaw rawnhaaw lhoethtine” (Sitting together on the golden carpet) are sung with accompanying dances. This ecstatic song and music style is also used in A Pyodaw Yein.

These traditional dances are transmitted to new generations by training at the National University of Arts and Culture in Yangon and Mandalay. The aim is to preserve, promote, and disseminate Myanmar ICH. Nat Kadaw and A Pyodaw dances are included in the curriculum of dramatic arts courses at Myanmar universities. Nat Kadaw A Pyodaw Yein and the special songs dedicated to the nats are safeguarded and transmitted not only for purposes of worship but also as elements of a distinctive cultural heritage.