Born and raised in Malaysia, Mazlan is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage. He likes to write about its culture and current issues.
Asian Traditional Dance
The diverse cultures, religions, and traditions of the Asian countries are reflected not only in their lifestyles but also in their dances. Each country in Asia has several indigenous and ethnic groups within its own country. These groups have their own unique identities and traditions, which are also visible in their dances. These create several dancing diversities for each country.
Asian Dances and Their Origins
The mythical stories, the tribal, and religious rituals from their everyday events that signify good and bad are what inspired some of these Asian dances.
This article celebrates the diversity in Asian dances but will highlight only a small collection of dances from some of these Asian countries.
Characteristics of Asian Dances
Some of the common characteristics of Asian dances are the movements and costumes that are rigidly codified and preserved. The movements from the gesture, rhythms, footwork, gestures, and costumes all tell a story. These are the common traits that you will see in the Asian dances listed below.
Dunhuang Dance - Traditional Chinese Dance
Dunhuang Dance, a dance influenced by Buddhism and the images of Buddha, originated from the province of Gansu in West China. This is the gateway between China and Central Asia, Middle East, and Europe. It is through this gateway, known as the 'Silk Road' that saw the introduction of the new culture, arts, trades, and religion to China. This included Buddhism.
Dunhuang and Silk Road
The 'Silk Road' connection also made Dunhuang known worldwide for fresco paintings of the 4th - 14th century, many of which can be seen in over 1000 caves in the area. The cultural influences from Eastern Europe, Middle East, and India are also in these cave paintings.
These excellent images became the inspiration for a dance form. Using images and folklores as dance inspiration is typical in Asian dance culture.
Leading dance experts studied these fresco paintings and created the Dunhuang Dance in late 1980.
The hip, body, and hand movements in Dunhuang Dance were inspired and very similar to the Middle Eastern and Indian dances. Another important feature of the dance, the ribbons, were originally part of the dancer's costume, but later became an integral component of the Dunhuang Dance.
Dunhuang dance was well received by audiences not just in China but also abroad for its elegant movements and images. It has now developed into a theatrical performance that includes acrobatic performance for some of the repertoire.
Barong Dance - Indonesian Traditional Dance
Barong is a dance with strong elements of trance and worship and originates from Central Java, Indonesia. It spreads to neighboring Malaysia in a slightly different dance form and is performed in its southern state of Johor.
However, this dance is more prominent as a dance drama on the Indonesian island of Bali. The dance re-enacted the battle between the lion, Barong, and the demon queen, Rangda - a fight between good and evil.
Rangda vs Barong
In this mythical story, Rangda was condemned by her husband for her daily rituals in black magic. When he died, their son Erlangga became king. Frustrated with this outcome Rangda, who aspires to take over the throne, took revenge. She summoned all the demons and evil spirits to attack Erlangga.
Unable to fight off the powerful black magic troops, Erlangga enlisted the help of Barong, a lion-like creature and king of good spirits. After several magic spells and fights, Barong finally won the battle forcing Rangda to retreat to the jungle.
Prayer and Blessing
During this dance, the dancers will go into a trance and if they are weak, can easily get hurt. So, a priest will offer prayer and blessing to all the sacred items, especially Barong and Rangda's masks prior to the dance.
Barong Dance Video
Joget - Malay Traditional Dance
Before the British ruled Malaya (the old name for Malaysia), it was under the Portuguese and then the Dutch. But it was only the state of Melaka that was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch, as it was the wealthiest and the most progressive of all the states then.
The Portuguese occupied Melaka in the 16th Century and even after the Dutch and the British took over the rule, many of the direct descendants of these Portuguese soldiers and merchants continued to live in Melaka. They retain many of their own cultures as well as merging the cultures of the locals. Among the many influences of the Portuguese is the dance Joget and it is one of Malaysia's favorite dances.
Dance With An Upbeat Tempo
This is a lively dance performed by couples in a fairly quick and upbeat tempo. Watch the accompanying video to see this good-humored and teasing dance among the dancing couples. Joget is now mostly performed at weddings, social and official functions.
Another variation of Joget is Joget Lambak, which is performed by a larger group instead of a smaller group of 4-5 couples.
Joget is One of Malaysia's Favorite Dances
Tinikling Dance of the Philippines
Tinikling Dance may be one of the oldest dances from the Philippines and is now considered the country's national dance. This dance originated from the Visayan Islands, one of the groups of islands that comprise the Philippines.
In the state of Sabah, Malaysia, the ethnic group Kadazan has a similar dance probably due to the country's close proximity to the Visayan Islands.
Bamboo Dance, another name for Tinikling Dance
The dance involves a pair of bamboo pole holders moving the poles rhythmically to the music. The dancers, also in pairs, step in and out of the bamboo blocks in rhythmic movements and become faster as it progresses.
Watch the accompanying video to see this dance.
The dance imitates the Tikling bird that tries to dodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers, hence the dance name.
There is no specific costume for the Tinikling dance. The men will generally wear the Barong Tagalog, a formal Filipino attire. Lady dancers may wear Patadyong, a checkered skirt, and a traditional Philippine blouse made from pineapple fiber. The dancers will be barefooted for the dance.
Khon, Thailand's Traditional Dance
The influence of Brahminism and Hinduism are very prominent in some of the dances in Thailand and Khon is one of them.
Originating in the 16th century, Khon is a masked dance-drama that tells the much-beloved mythical stories in Thailand. It combines acting, martial arts, dancing, and chorus singing in the telling of these stories. Originally performed for the royalties, the dance drama also includes praise and support for the Monarchy.
Khon can be an elaborate dance-drama involving over a hundred performers, a large piphad orchestra, storytellers, and the chorus group.
A Version of Indian Classic Ramayana
The most popular and famous of these dance dramas is Thailand's version of the Indian classic Ramayana, the Ramakien. In the past, only men were allowed to perform, playing even the role of the female, demons, and monkey god characters. In 1800, women were also allowed to perform.
Khon, Masked Dance Drama
In Khon, masks are worn by non-speaking dancers to denote good and evil characters. The costume colors also play an important part in Khon dance drama. For example, in the Ramakien epic, the hero wears green. His loyal brother wears gold and the monkey god wears white.
Thailand's version of the story tells the tale of Rama, the heir to the Ayodhya throne but exiled by his stepmother.
In this long and complex tale, good triumphs over evil. Rama regains his throne to rule Ayodhya again. This story is similar to the Indonesian Barong Dance, which is also influenced by Hinduism.
In Thai dance, hand gestures including arm and finger movements are emphasized, unlike Khmer and Indian dances.
Khon Dance Drama
Apsara Dance Cambodia
Angkor, a region in Cambodia, was the seat of the powerful and influential Khmer Empire between the 9th to 15th centuries. It was during these periods that they spread their influences to the rest of Cambodia and the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. These included arts and cultures.
Hinduism and Buddhism
The Khmer civilization was very much influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Many Indian scholars and artists were brought to Angkor and the Sanskrit language and its literature flourished. This was the golden age of the Khmer Empire.
But when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, almost all of these arts and cultures including classical dances were brutally wiped out and destroyed.
Reviving Cambodia's Arts and Cultures
With the fall of this repressive regime in 1979, efforts were made to revive the lost arts and cultures of the Cambodians.
Under the guidance and support of Queen Sisowath Kossamak, traditional dance experts studied the many drawings and etchings on the wall of Angkor Wat and other historical and ancient monuments. Their efforts to revive and reconstruct these lost arts happened between the '80s and '90s.
What you see as Apsara today is the results of these intensive studies. It is a dance-drama love story with graceful fine hand movements to portray emotions and feelings.
You will see similarities between Cambodia's Apsara and Thailand's Khon in terms of costumes and dance movements as both were under the Angkor Khmer Empire's influence.
Apsara Dance from Cambodia
Bharatanatyam Dance - Indian Classical Dance
Bharatanatyam dance is a classical dance from Tamil Nadu, a state in South India. The name is derived from the basic concept of other dances, which are Bhava, Raga, and Thaala. It was originally performed by maidens dedicating themselves as temple dancers and musicians. It is now practiced and performed by both male and female dancers.
Traditional Dance Music
Bharatanatyam, also spelled as Bharathanatyam, is known for its grace and sculpturesque poses. The detailed hand movements and disciplined footwork consisting of a half squat are the prominent features of this dance.
It comprises three main aspects:
- Nritta, or technical dance, with a sophisticated base vocabulary
- Nritya, or expressional dance. It uses facial expressions, body postures, and body language
- Natya, or dramatic storytelling
As with most Asian dances, Bharatanatyam dance encompasses traditional dance music and theatre. It also carries religious themes and messages.
Bharatanatyam Dance - A Re-Interpretation
The Bharatanatyam dance that you see today is no longer the original dance steps. It is now based on the modern re-interpretation by the Thanjavur brothers during the early 18th century.
The brothers formalize the performance pattern and codify lessons with the dance basic steps and different rhythm patterns.
Bharatanatyam Dance Video
Buchaechum or Fan Dance From Korea
Buchaechum (Fan Dance) from Korea originated and rose to prominence during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 until 1910). This is the period that saw the rise in art and culture, science, technology, and trade in Korea. It was also the period where Korea chose Confucianism as its official religion instead of Buddhism, and Seoul was adopted as the capital city of Korea.
Korean Dance With Fans
This Buchaechum dance is performed by women with a breathtaking display of fans as its main feature. The fans are in an assortment of colors and patterns and the movements are displays of natural phenomena such as blooming flowers, birds, butterflies, and sea waves, closely related to their religious beliefs.
The dancers all wear identical costumes; the Bangui dress with long, flowing sleeves and a headdress, called jokduri that looks like a golden tiara.
Buchaechum or Fan Dance Video
Bon Odori Japan
One of the popular and famous Japanese dances is Bon Odori. It is a dance to welcome ancestor's souls and to express gratitude. This is held during the Bon week, usually in August, and celebrated in every Japanese city. One of the largest Bon Odori celebrations that are held outside Japan is in Shah Alam, Malaysia. This is due to the large Japanese expatriate community there.
Pay Respects to Their Ancestors
Besides the song, dance, and food, memorial services are also held during Bon week, a practice originating from the Chinese Buddhist culture and tradition.
During the Bon celebration, people gather at the park or open spaces and do the Bon Odori dance. The dance is performed in circles around a raised podium where the musicians are seated. It is held at night as they believed the ancestors' souls would come back during the night.
Bon Odori Dance Steps
The dance steps are inspired by the area it comes from and made to coordinate with the lyrics. This usually describes actions such as "harvesting the rice" (for an area that has rice fields) or "scooping the coal" (mining area).
It is easy to follow and anyone can participate. It is danced in a circle with the advanced dancers in the middle and beginners in the outer circle.
The dress style is free and easy but they usually wear the yukata, an unlined summer kimono.
My Favorite Dance Is:
FAQs on Asian Dances
These are some of the frequently asked questions on types of Asian dances for your reference:
What is the Significance of Asian Folk Dance?
Each of the Asian folk dances differs in their significance. Generally, they are about their beliefs, customs, reflections of their lives, daily activities such as farming, harvesting, and also things related to the festivals.
What is Asian Folk Dance?
As described by Wikipedia:
"The Asian folk dance is a dance to reflect the life of the people. Not all ethnic dances are folk dances. For example, ritual dance is not a folk dance and is a "Religious dance" because of its purpose."
What Are the Traditional Dances in Asia?
The Asian dances described earlier in this article, are examples of traditional dances in Asia.
Asian Dances in Danger
Asian dances are also in danger of being extinct. UNESCO realized this problem and formed a special unit under the Intangible Cultural Heritage Program to revive and preserve heritage such as dance, songs, languages, etc. You can read about these endangered Asian dances that received assistance from UNESCO, here: 'Preserving Asian Dance'
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Mazlan A
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on January 24, 2017:
Patricia, thanks for dropping by and commenting.
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on October 27, 2015:
Hi Leah M. If you have problem with your knee, bamboo dance may not be that suitable. It is a fun dance though and it is hard to resist. The Indonesian or Malaysian traditional dances are more gentle on the knee. Give it a try.
Thanks for dropping by and I hope you have a great time doing all the many selections of Asian dances.
Leah M on October 26, 2015:
There are some many Asian dances that I would like to practice! I already started the bamboo dance using my Slip On Dancers since I have this problem in my knee.
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on January 31, 2014:
Eve Marie, thanks for the read and your compliments. Enjoy the weekend!
eve marie ronna D masongsong on January 28, 2014:
IT'S SO AMAZING . I LOVE IT MMMUUUAH
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on November 16, 2013:
@idigwebsites, yup, bamboo dance looks easy, but it is not esp. when the tempo goes more upbeat. However, it is a fun dance to watch. Fan dance? Now that's difficult and need a lot of grace and good poise, but I am sure you can handle that. Thanks for dropping by and commenting
idigwebsites from United States on November 15, 2013:
Very fascinating hub! Tried participating on a bamboo dance once and I was quite amused as the bamboo snapped my clumsy footwork. Hahahaha. I really enjoyed the experience.
The Korean fan dance looks really elegant and beautiful. Someday I will actually get to try that if ever I visit South Korea. This might be actually more difficult than it looks :)
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on December 21, 2012:
@dindy cabsag, thanks for dropping by and I am glad you loved the photos
@mizjo, Thank you for the compliments and I think all the dances are great. The Malaysian Joget is also a great dance and we used to learn that in primary school. I can't remember the steps now and even if I do, I don't think I dare give it a try. I will probably make a fool of myself!
mizjo from New York City, NY on December 19, 2012:
Beautifully done, Mazlan. Asia has so much art and culture in its make-up, going back centuries. It is heartening that they are not allowed to die out, as it almost did in Cambodia at the bloody hands of Pol Pot.
One can see the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism in the dances of Bali, Thailand and Cambodia, in the similarities of costume and dance movements (particularly the hands) and the story of the Ramayana.
I liked all the dances you showed, but the Tamil one is the most ornate, and the Filipino bamboo dance the most joyful.
dindy cabsag on December 10, 2012:
this picture is beautiful...
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on October 12, 2012:
@Derdriu, thanks for your insightful contribution and detail explanation to the history of Dunhuang. This will certainly help readers who are keen to know more on Dunhuang dance.
Derdriu on October 12, 2012:
Greatstuff, Although I enjoy all the above-mentioned dances -- particularly so since my graduate advisor specialized in Malaysia and Myanmar -- I have particularly special feelings for the Dunhuang dance.
Dunhuang and the Gansu Corridor are more anciently Celtic and Persian than Chinese. The name Dunhuang relates to the old system of fire or watch towers by which messages were relayed in the ancient Celtic and Persian worlds. (An example of the practice -- in another context -- can be found during the attack on the White City in The Return of the King segment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.)
Buddhism was introduced into China by the descendants of the Tarim Basin's Celtic peoples, known to history as the Tokharians and Yuezhi and about whom I've shared three hubs written as a trilogy of odes and descriptions opening with original photography by fellow Hubs-Pages-er Fordie, who lives with his family in China.
After being defeated by the Yiongnu and expelled from Dunhuang and the Gansu Corridor, some of the Celts stayed in the Tarim Basin areas of Cherchen, Loulan and Subeshi. Many moved from mountain communities ever southwestwards until they settled in northern India, from whence some of their descendants returned to the Tarim Basin and then on to Dunhuang and the Gansu. From there, they introduced Buddhism into China and left gorgeous cave paintings attesting to their cultural presence.
Respectfully, and with many thanks for sharing, Derdriu
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on October 01, 2012:
CassyLu1981, You should write a hub on that festival, and we can link them! Thanks for the vote and share
CassyLu1981 from Spring Lake, NC on October 01, 2012:
We just went to an internation folk festival here in NC and I actually saw some of these dances!!! Excellent hub! Voted up and shared!
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 24, 2012:
@teaches12345 : you can write to the US Korean embassy as they sometime will bring in cultural performances as part of their activities. Or check their website. Alternatively the Korean association in USA
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 24, 2012:
Om, the bamboo dance is very popular and I thought it is only in the Philippines and Eastern part of Malaysia, didn't know you have it in Thailand too!
Dianna Mendez on September 24, 2012:
I would love to see a fan dance and ribbon dance in person. I think they are beautiful. I don't know where you would be able to catch any of these in the states. Maybe some day I will get to visit these countries to enjoy them in person. Great hub post and well done.
Om Paramapoonya on September 23, 2012:
This is an amazing hub, greatstuff! All these dance styles are very beautiful and intriguing. My grandmother loved watching khon performances. The bamboo dance is also quite popular in Thailand. Never knew it actually originated from the Philippines. I performed it once when I was a kid. I remember being quite worried that if I did it wrong, my ankles might get hurt by the bamboo poles. lol
Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on September 23, 2012:
@aDayInMyLife1: there are several dances in Asia and this is just a small selection. Thanks for reading.
Amanda S from CA on September 23, 2012:
Interesting Hub on Traditional Asian dances. Asians also have common dances they preform at parties. Thanks for this sample.