Answering the call of the traditional dance
Born into a farming family in Magwe Region, Wai Yan Aung followed his own path in pursuit of his dream to become a dancer
HE was not made to be an agricultural genetics engineer. Sweating heavily through his make-up, the young man in the vest adorned with a horse’s head waits backstage, so intent he does not heed the crush of people around him. At the cue, he springs out before the audience and dances to the music.
Wai Yan Aung has come a long way from his home in Natmauk township, Magwe Region. The child of a farming family, he followed the path laid out for him by his parents until the age of 16.
“I was raised in the countryside. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know there was an arts museum in Mandalay,” he said in a recent interview. But something in traditional Myanmar arts called to him nonetheless.
“My parents didn’t agree when I chose a dramatic arts major,” he said.
In his third year, he was chosen as an outstanding student to take part in a goodwill tour of Japan, and when he entered a performance competition – singing, dancing, composition and playing musical instruments – his mother went with him.
Deciding that Mandalay did not offer a big-enough stage, Wai Yan Aung headed for the bright lights of Yangon, working as a dancer at Karaweik restaurant from 5pm to 9pm daily. Then he took part in the “Legend (Dantaryi)” entertainment program in Bagan.
“There’s not much of an audience in the rainy season. I have to go to Bagan starting in September. Now I dance at ceremonies that I hear about through contacts,” he said.
He is doing what he wants to do, though the money is not good, and there is always more to learn. He’s studying to sit the tour guide exams, and taking English and Chinese classes at the Hledan from 9am to 3pm daily while staying with his aunt in Yangon.
Foreign audiences, he says, appreciate traditional dance more than locals do.
“I want to learn English so I can talk to my audience and answer their questions. I don’t think Myanmar people are very interested in dance,” he said, adding that as a 22-year-old dancer he faced heckling. Reciting Buddhist scriptures and studying dance history helps him maintain his inner calm.
“I study dance history, dance steps that I need to know and that foreign audiences ask me about, as well as the books from the curriculum that I learned in school. If my friends tease me when I practise, I don’t react. I just go and read a book,” he said.
Though he avoids stress, he misses home and calls his family regularly.
“I’m satisfied with my life, which is the life I chose. But I still need to learn more,” said Wai Yan Aung.
Sometimes he has to remind himself that his life’s dream has come true. “It’s strange that I became a dancer. My parents were against it even though I knew it was what I wanted to do from an early age. I made it through an effort of will, and now they recognise me,” he said.
Wai Yan Aung performs at a restored heritage house in downtown Yangon on July 10.
Above and below: Wai Yan Aung at home in Yangon.
Performers prepare for the July 10 event.
A harpist accompanies the July 10 dance.