Grace in the Gospel: Thai Christian Dance

eubank_5_258
“On Eagle’s Wings” dance,
based on Isaiah 40:28-31.

Graceful beauty, brilliant color, meaningful movement, distinctive music and worshipful poise are all adjectives used to describe Thai Christian dance. However, because of its association with other gods and spirits, Christians have historically resisted the use of dance in worship. Early missionaries and converts fostered this prejudice because of their legitimate fear of compromising the faith.

Thai dance is particularly suitable for worship because of the graceful, non-suggestive movements. There are special movements that refer to deity, love, sorrow and other emotions.  Gradually, Christians have accepted Thai dance to express their worship and understanding of Jesus Christ.

In October 2006, in its General Assembly, the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) is holding a night of special celebration for thirty years of conscious effort to present the gospel in ways easily understood in Thai culture. The CCT is the largest Protestant church in Thailand and includes Baptists, Disciples, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites and others under Thai leadership. 

Christians and Thai Dance
In 1976 the faculty of theology at Payap University (which is owned by the CCT) launched a program to make worship and evangelism more Thai. They began with a Thai dance and dance-drama, called Likay. When the group wanted to present a Thai Christian dance in the First Church of Chiang Mai, they were not allowed on the chancel platform; instead, they had to stay on the main floor. They chose an adaptation of Psalm 150, which specifically calls for praise “with…trumpet…harp and lyre…tambourine and dancing…strings and flute…resounding cymbals,” for their first dance. To help the audience accept the dance the group explained its meaning by referring to Miriam’s celebration of the Red Sea crossing and King David’s dance before the Ark of the Lord. The audience expressed their appreciation for the dance, but it was several years before local congregations presented their own dances in worship. 

eubank_3_288
A hill tribe dance to Psalm 100.

To use Thai dance, drama and music, it was necessary to redeem this art in order to convey the gospel. By tradition, Thai performers have to pay respect to the spirits of the teachers who had handed down the art. The musical instruments that accompany the dance have a magical aura about them. Before every performance, the dancers, actors and musicians must put their hands together in a prayer-like manner, which the Thai call a wai, to pay respect to the spirit teacher. In their belief, the kru (teacher) includes all teachers, going back to the spirit teacher who originated and still controls the art form. This ceremony is called Wai Kru. When some of the artists were asked about this, they said that they did this to show respect and gratitude; many also believed there could be punishment if they did not follow the custom. Many reported seeing artists actually possessed by spirits when they performed this ceremony.

 eubank_2_257
The Christian dance, “Behold, I Bring You
Good Tidings,” based on Luke 2:9-14.

As Christians, the students and faculty wanted to worship and be protected by the Holy Spirit. Before every performance they lifted their hands in a prayerful wai as they had been trained; however, the prayer was changed to thank God for their teachers and the art. The prayer included requests for the full use of their talents, protection for themselves and their families and success in communicating the message. This continues to be a part of the preparation before every performance.

Although the use of dance is now used nearly everywhere by Christians, it is nonetheless still done only on special occasions. Some of the dances include:

  • The Christian dance, “Behold, I Bring You Good Tidings,” based on Luke 2:9-14

  • A hill tribe dance to Psalm 100
  • A blessing dance used to introduce programs, which is adapted from the Thai classical dance, the “Sachatree”
  • “On Eagle’s Wings” dance, based on Isaiah 40:28-31

The response to the use of Thai dance and Likay was so positive that the university established a full-time troupe at the Christian Communications Institute (CCI). The CCI intends to use every art form possible, both traditional and modern, to communicate the gospel. More than fifty dance-dramas have been produced and taken on tour across the country and abroad. These dance-dramas are helping break down the prejudice against Christianity as a foreign religion. They also help the audience see that the truths of Jesus Christ fit their own culture. Dance-dramas deal with the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, racial prejudice, step-children, conflict resolution, grace, AIDS, drugs and prostitution. The following two pictures are presented from the Likay, “A Time for Reaping,” which was adapted from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

eubank_6_250
Angels dance out to get Boon Noi (Lazarus)
as she dies in a Thai Likay version of the
parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

eubank_7_250
Angels dance in the last scene with Abraham
and Lazarus.

Thai youth culture demands a more modern style. CCI has developed modern Thai dances to express themes such as creation, grace and temptation.

eubank_8_210
Creation Umbrella Dance.
eubank_9_201
The Dance of Grace is
performed to an original
Christian song by CCI
about
the saving grace
of Christ.

 

eubank_10_201
The Battle for Your Soul

is based on James 4:7
and
1 Peter 5:8-10.

The CCI received a grant from the Thai Government Health Department to produce the modern dance-drama musical about AIDS, “Who'd Have Ever Thought!” The grant paid for the cost of producing a video and taking the musical on tour. See photos below.

eubank_11_200
Carefree teenagers.
 eubank_12_300
Trapped in death.
 eubank_13_305
Hope in Jesus.

 


L. Allan Eubank founded the Christian Communications Institute (CCI) in 1981 and served as director for fourteen years. He and his family have served as missionaries in Thailand for forty-five years. They have worked in rural evangelism and church planting.