Dance of the Realm*

7 Dec

*Chapter 3 of Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement by Gerald Jonas

Dancing has never just been a set of bodily movements that move through space, with music. It tells stories. Portrays different characters. Describes so many emotions. Defines social status. Distinguishes royalty to common people.

Asante Dance

The Asante culture greatly defines the importance of having a leader in their community through dance. Dancing lets the chief prove himself worthy to lead and serve the people. Asantehene’s (the elected king of Asante) remarkable title is the “master of the music and the drums” which is another way of saying “master of dance”.  From this, we can see that their culture is synonymous to dancing and drumming, since the only way to dance is to the beat of the drums. Drums in their culture are the perquisites of chieftancyThese are used for warrior or heroic dances and can made to “talk” through skilled hands of their accomplished drummers— they can carry elaborate dialogue with the dancer. The drummer challenges the king of the Asante when he is displaying his royal virtues and honoring his ancestors through dancing as if saying to him, “Some men fight, some run away. Which kind of man are you?” (p. 71) The Asantehene calls out with a choreographed response which shows strength and virility — “Try me and see!” (p. 71) His movements show the people who their king is. While the gestures are energetic, they are never jerky because they believe a king is more majestic when he moves slowly and elegantly. The dance also signifies that the people should remember the victories that he and his ancestors have won, starting with the Asante  war of independence against the Denkyera Empire in 1700.

Baring their souls through dance

Their dance is high standard because when a dancer fails to execute the correct and accepted gestures/movements, he may fall victim to “drum censorship”. This is when the drummers cease playing. This brings humiliation to the dancer because he or she has no choice but to shy back into the crowd and make way for the next courageous dancer to try his or her best before the caretakers of Asante culture. This shows that dancing tends to be properly done with skilled/trained dancers as to avoid public embarrassment for those who fail to meet the high standards that the court is demanding. This kind of ritual came to be viewed as national identity. Surprisingly with this kind of emblem, the courts survived the demise of the court itself. This just shows that through dancing, the courts have preserved both their tradition and reign.

The Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581)

Louis XIV was the king of France and he had found a way to control the clamorous nobility of France by making his court revolve literally around the dance floor. This showed that his court used dance as an instrument of political power. Since this is the period where classical literature were rampant, the mythical characters and endless adaptable stories educated the audiences with contemporary significance. This is where ballet originated from. Like all entertainments, ballet required huge expenditures of time and money. The court hired painters, set designers, costumers, musicians, librettists and dance masters to come up with a spectacle that is just once in a lifetime. The dancers were members of the court whose primary reason of participation is to display their extravagant status as well as social acknowledgement. During this time, to succeed at court, a man had to be accomplished in dancing, riding, fencing, and fine speech. When he acquires all of these, he will be able to “preserve a certain dignity with a lithe and airy grace of movement.” (Baldassare Castiglione, 1528)

During this era had the battle for power and dynasty began in Europe. Different courts or kingdoms strive to be pretentious to show their greatness to maintain their lavishness. This competition frenzy of the royal houses were soon causing bankruptcy  of the treasuries because the courts are trying to outdo each other’s productions. This is what they call in France, ballets de cour.

The symbolic Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581) not only showed a production for a royal wedding in Louvre. The movements of the dancers, the placements of the props and the design of the set held symbolic meanings for knowledgeable audiences: the two equilateral triangles within a circle signifies Supreme Power.

What Louis did, in practice, is to enshrine himself as an object of worship, not just for common people but also for the higher nobility who had long been accustomed to thinking of the king of France as no more than “first among equals” atop the feudal system. (p. 75) — This, for me, perfectly describes how such dance productions were used to manipulate people’s minds into thinking that without dance, the court is just a mere place with people governing them.

Order of the Court Dance determines the social status of the dancers.

The order of the dances was so strictly by rank that anyone observing the branle knew immediately who stood above whom at court. (p. 75) — The feudal system is greatly defined by this statement and social ranking can be identified through the order of their dances at court.

In 18th century Java, there is a dynastic split and two competing courts were established fifty miles apart. Each court has evolved its own version of the classic Javanese court dance which is called, bedoyo. The bedoyo dance is a dance ritual attributed to an indigenous ocean diety. It is performed at a Muslim court and incorporating Hindu myths with overtones of Buddhist quietism. This shows that the Javanese culture is a mixture of different religions with their different traditions and beliefs. The bedoyo dance is a product of the Javanese thought of combining disparate, opposing elements into a tranquil and harmonious dance.

The bedoyo projects the disciplined self and its essence is balance. These two factors are what the Javanese highly regards its society. And the dancers betray no emotion as this shows their calm, inwardly focused, deliberate, modest and restrained demeanor.

Bedoyo Dancer

Bedoyo depicts an elegant style of movement that once served as a standard against which the bearing and manners of the nobles can be measured. There is a deep paradox in their culture that concerns the nature of power. The court believed in two opposing thoughts about power: 1. It is connected to specific possessions and 2.  It is held invisible–if you flaunt it, you should not possess it. As a result of this, the two opposing attitudes should be dealt with competing patrons as what was held to be the nest of ancient Javanese culture. This is to reestablish equilibrium among the courts. Also, the original bedoyo dances were not really open to the public eye, meaning, those who are not associated with the courts are forbidden to watch. It is because they consider dance as a sacred trust which is important to the well-being of the people and the continuity of the dynasty. But as time (and courts) has changed, the dances were taken out of the palace to express the values that continue to “color the life and customs of Javanese society today” (p. 97). They believe that dance represent a “tool of legitimacy”. (p.97)

For the Javanese culture, dance should be a means of education rather than form of entertainment (Romo Sas). I believe in this statement because dance should educate people of the culture that it represents. It should build a heritage where people will be able to know their identity through their culture (dance). Yes, dance can entertain people, but the propaganda must be to let the people be proud of their heritage and be proud of their identity. Since we said that dance is the language of the soul, it should reflect the beautiful things about a culture or society.


A few years back, I was able to watch a Butoh dance in CCP. I was so intrigued by the movement of the dancer because they are not the usual movements in a dance. And there were no music to guide every step, it was a 15 minute silent performance. I wasn’t able to fully grasp the idea of the dance but the control and precision of the dancer are what entranced me. And after researching about it, I found out that this form of dance is dark, sinister and depicts a diverse range of emotions. The movements transform the dancer into a vehicle of riot.

After reading the material about Japanese court dances, I wonder about the contradiction of the different dances of their culture. Since Japan is also a collection of small islands or what the natives refer to as “prefectures”, their dances vary from which they originated from. But the central idea is to show continuity. Most of their dances channel the energies of its people toward worship and they personify the natural concepts of their ancestors. The courts also preserve Japan’s self-image and through their religious festivals, they were able to show the maximal effect of their dances with minimal material. They encourage outsiders to become aware of their fast-changing culture and society.

Courts existed as instruments of political, military, spiritual and cultural power. They manifest power. Courts have gained authority through their expensive and elaborate dances and they encourage their people to participate to show diversity. Dance should be able to communicate the past glories of the community, not just the social status or hierarchy of its members. It should eloquently express the history, tradition and heritage of a community.


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