Dancer in the north

Visitors to Buddhist festivals in Thailand are often struck by the presence of scantily clad dancing girls who, along with highly amplified bands, provide evening entertainment. This ribald behavior has come to the attention of the Queen. She has voiced concern over televised “lewd dancing” at a Buddhist festival in Nong Khai. According to the report in The Nation, the dancing featured “coyote dancers” in “provocative dresses and dancing with sexually explicit moves.” The Nation reports that “Her Majesty the Queen has issued a command cautioning over television images of female dancers in provocative dresses at a Buddhist charity session.” Her Majesty is quoted as saying:

Buddhists in general should always bear in mind what is good for the image of the country… Any shows or performances organised in association with any Buddhist festival should be held with respect for Lord Buddha and Buddhism.

The royal alarm is very understandable. On the face of it, this sort of lewd behavior hardly seems consistent with Buddhist piety. But there is, I think, something a bit more subtle going on. There is a considerable anthropological literature on the role of sexual imagery in Buddhist ritual. But there is one specific point I want to make here. Buddhist festivals are exceptional times in which certain sacred values are marked off from the mundane concerns of day-to-day life. The sacred sphere of the festival is set apart from the mundane world of the day-to-day by a range of techniques – special forms of dress, offerings, prayers, sermons, food, decoration and, of course, the provision of entertainment. This entertainment plays a crucial role in intensifying the effervescence of the sacred occasion. Scantily dressed dancing girls, given their exceptional nature, play a part in marking Buddhist festivals as times of exceptional, and sacred, assembly.

Of course there are innovations in the way this separation from the world of day-to-day pursuits is expressed (though to my untrained eye coyote dancing looks like fairly standard gyration) but it would be a mistake to think that the sacred and the lewd are a new combination. Consider this passage from Richard Davis’ classic account of northern Thai ritual (Muang Metaphysics) where he quotes from the songs that accompany the New Year rocket festival (warning, some readers may find the language offensive):

We’re not just sots showing off, so why don’t you ladies break off a tree limb and place it on the dike close-by here to sit on? Careful not to open your legs and leave those soft private parts exposed. Now don’t get the idea that we’re just drunk and saucy. We just want all you people to keep your legs together nicely. Some people just leave their cunts bare and pouting. The one with the coconut breasts says I’m handsome. She’s afraid they’re going to lift her dress and sqeeze it, those bawdy drunkards. Lord, they are a shameful bunch. And where do you live, little sister with the low strut, coming to watch the fireworks as if you were a queen? Whose little girl are you? Your big brothers have taken a liking to you and your broad bright smile. I’ve a mind to bend your neck over and give you a kiss. I only dislike breasts that droop like bee’s nests. But you, sitting there like that – Lord, I’d like to give you a hug. Great round breastrs and dark nipples. Let these reckless fellows give you a feel, inside and out. Squeeze and feel those big nipples as rough as elephan’t hide. … This is the bawdiest New Year yet. Spines bent back like lizards on the spit, brassieres barely covering the nipples. Small and trim-waisted with breasts like watermelons. (123)

Coyote dancing seems almost modest in comparison!