Kainnari and Kainnara Dance of the Shan People in Myanmar

Traditional Shan Kannari and Kannara dance ⓒ SYO Group Taunggyi

The Shan people are called Nokgingala, which is also the name of their distinct language. Their heritage is shaped by their beliefs in myths and legends. The Kainnari and Kainnara legend, for example, is behind their traditional dance. According to legend, Kainnari, the female, and Kainnara, her male counterpart, are half-human and half-bird. There are different versions of the love story between Kainnari and Kainnara. According to one legend, the lovers were captured by a king. Another tells that they were separated by a flood for one night and wept for seven hundred nights. Despite the different versions, the Shan people adore the Kainnari and Kainnara story for the great love that they had for each other. Because the Shan also believe the characters are symbols of a good omen, and the characters are beautifully depicted in Shan festivals, ceremonies, and special events. During traditional festivals in Shan, Myanmar, it is common to see dancers dressed as the mythical creatures with gaudy wings .

Traditional Shan dance ⓒ SYO Group Taunggyi
Kainnari and Kainnara are also associated with Buddhist heritage. Shan people believe that when Buddha returned to the human world after preaching his knowledge to his mother in heaven, humans celebrated his arrival with an abundance of food and flowers and humans danced with various mythical creatures, including Kainnari and Kainnara. This is why the dance in honor of Kainnari and Kainnara is danced every October, the end of the Buddhist Lent season. During the monarchy period, as a paying homage for Saopha (King of Town), Shan people held festivals where they performed the Kainnari and Kainnara dance. The dance was also performed during rice harvest ceremonies, the Shan New Year, novice ordinations, and other special days.

Costumes and accessories of Kainnari and Kainnara dance are believed to be sacred; no one is be allowed to use their clothes, wings, and musical instruments. Before the dance performance, the dancers have to pay respect to the Kainnari and Kainnara costumes, which include a headdress, mask, clothes, and wing accessories. The wings are attached to the dancers’ arms, necks, and wrists, so that they can move easily and open and close the wings. Females wear a headdress while the males wear a mask. In the past, women were not allowed to perform the dance in religious ceremonies. Nowadays, however, men and women dance together. Traditionally, men wore masks, but recently the rule has become more relaxed.

The Kainnari and Kainnara dance is accompanied by traditional instruments such as drums, gongs, and cymbals. The musical score is based on the Shan’s long drum sound. There are three purposes for performing the Kainnari and Kainnara dance: (1) to pay homage, (2) to tell narrate a story, and (3) to show a repertoire of dance variations. The dance for paying homage and storytelling are performed in festivals and on special days while the third version is performed in the towns.

Shan New Year Festival ⓒ SYO Group Taunggyi
Traditional Shan Kainnari and Kainnara dance has recently become popular. Shan associations and some cultural bearers have been teaching the traditional dance to young generations. People who learn the traditional dance must promise to teach the dance to other people. The transmission of the traditional Kainnari and Kainnara dance has been continuing from generation to generation because of young people’s interest in learning it.