Note: This is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!
When I was working on the article, “Dance!” in Folklife Today last month, I had planned to include the wonderful performance of the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa at the Library of Congress on July 26, 2006 as an example. But when I reviewed the video, I realized that among the beautifully presented music and dance performances is a dance for the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha found in Lao culture as well as among northeastern Thai peoples. So it seemed appropriate to give it its own article, coinciding with the time of year that the dance is traditionally performed: the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Boun Bang Fai (the Rocket Festival Dance) is introduced by Khampheng Manirath at about fifty minutes and forty seconds into the video (00:50:40). 
The birth of the Buddha is thought to have occurred in the sixth century BCE (about 563) at the full moon on the eighth day of the fourth month. The date for modern celebrations is usually determined by Asian solar-lunar calendars, which vary among different ethnic groups. The date is also calculated differently, some choosing the eighth day, and some choosing the full moon date. For those adopting the Gregorian calendar, that is, for Japanese Buddhists and for many Buddhists in the United States, this is standardized as April 8th. But using traditional Asian calendars, the holiday usually falls on the eighth day of the fourth month or on the first full moon in the fourth month (usually in May). For some ethnic groups, the festivities begin days earlier and end on the birth date. In 2016, for South Asians and Southeast Asians, Buddha’s birthday is on the full moon, May 21st. 
In Laos and for Laotian Americans, Buddha’s Birthday is a major festival, lasting three days. The holiday in May occurs at the same time that the rainy season begins, filling the rice fields with water, ready for planting. So there are really two celebrations at once, the spring planting traditions and the celebration of the Buddha. Also, the dominant religious tradition in Laos is Theravada Buddhism, which holds that the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha occurred on the same day of the year (Mahayana Buddhism celebrates these as separate holidays). So it is clear that in Laotian culture, this time of year is one of powerful religious meaning as well as celebration.
Before the fourteenth century, Hinduism was common among the lowland people of Laos and neighboring parts of Southeast Asia. Then, as today, highland ethnic groups had different animistic religious traditions that emphasize connections between human beings and nature. The Hindu texts of the Ramayana were lost during a war and the tales entered oral tradition. The epic in Laos is the Pha Lak Pha Lam. The stories changed, taking on some of the beliefs that existed before Hinduism. When Theravada Buddhism came to Laos it replaced most of the Hindu and other religions, mainly in the lowlands where Hinduism and other denominations of Buddhism already existed. But the old traditions did not disappear, just as some had persisted when Hinduism arrived in ancient times. Hindu traditions, too, became blended with Buddhist beliefs. The stories based on the Ramayana became stories about early incarnations of the Buddha.
Dances found in the performance of the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe illustrate the blending of customs and respect for beliefs of the ancestral Lao and of the Lao who are not Buddhist. This group performs for Buddhist ceremonies in the United States, with many non-Buddhists in their audiences. Their belief-tolerant traditions serve them well in their efforts. About time code 00:15:00, the “Welcome Dance” is the first dance introduced. It is a very common opening to Lao events of all kinds, to express good wishes to audiences and to put them at ease. At 00:21:20, the dance of Hanuman the Monkey God, a beloved character in the Pha Lak Pha Lam, makes his appearance. This solo performance by a male dancer wearing a white costume richly embroidered with red and gold is a Laotian version of a rich tradition from Hinduism. The ancient trickster character Hanuman made a leap, as a monkey would, into the Buddhist traditions of Asia from Hindu tradition. At the end of the dance Khampheng Manirath explains that before the performance of the dance of Hanuman, a small religious ceremony honoring the god is performed backstage. A dance celebrating the many ethnic groups of Laos is introduced at 00:42:30. Lao Americans come from many different ethnic backgrounds, including Hmong, Khmu, Lao Loum, Lu Mien (Yao), Tai Dam, and Vietnamese, among others. The women dancers each wear native costume of a different ethnic group and interact with each other as part of the dance, celebrating unity in diversity.
The Rocket Dance that is traditional for Buddha’s birthday celebrations is performed at about 00:50:40 in the video. The Boun Bang Fai in Laos is an outdoor festival that includes parades with floats, dancing, music, and martial arts demonstrations, among other festivities. It ends on the third day with launches of large gunpowder rockets by competing teams representing different local communities. The Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe had to find a way to present a scaled-down version of this festival that would fit on the Coolidge Auditorium stage. So dancers carry a rocket prop and play instruments loudly as two martial artists perform a choreographed fight. Of course, they cannot launch a rocket inside the Thomas Jefferson Building, so you will need to imagine that, as they exit, the men are going off to the rocket launch.
The story behind the Rocket Dance is a war between the sky god Phaya Thaen and Phaya Naga, the king water serpent associated with the Mekong River. A new Toad King was teaching and drawing worshipers who had formerly worshiped Phaya Thaen. Phaya Thaen was withholding rain in a jealous rage and so Phaya Naga retaliated. There was a reason for the ascendance of the Toad King, as he was the Buddha in an incarnation long before he was born as Siddhārtha Gautama. Initially the Toad King joined the Naga in the fight, but in the end he mediated a peace between the Phaya Naga and Phaya Thaen. Then the rains came, the Mekong River swelled, and the people could plant rice.
The firing of the rockets into the sky at the end of the Boun Bang Fai every year is to said remind Phaya Thaen of his promise to bring rain in the spring. It is also seen as a way to carry prayers skyward. The life of the Buddha being honored in this case is not only his life as Siddhārtha Gautama, but past lives as well, especially as having on behalf of the people to provide life-giving rain.
This tale is thought to have originated with an ancient Lao myth that has since been adapted for Buddhist celebrations. The fundamental importance of the ancient ceremony is to make certain that the people have rice to eat. So it is understandable that at least two traditions merged to create this festival celebrating spring planting as well as the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.
If you have not done so already, go to the time code 1:08:00 in the video to see a dance celebrating the profits of the spring planting. A traditional dance is choreographed around threshing rice in autumn. The dancers wear farm clothes and the musicians stand, as they also stood during the Rocket Dance. These dance ceremonies were not originally performed on a stage, but in the fields, so everyone stands as they would if they were performing them in the original context.
The Rocket Dance and the rice threshing dance are reminders of an agricultural past in Laos shared by many Laotian Americans. Following the Vietnam War, a communist regime took power in Laos in 1975 and, during that period of unrest, a wave of Laotians immigrated to the United States. As has often been true for Asian immigrants, most settled in cities. The majority had been agriculturalists so they needed to learn a very different way of life in their new country and make a living when they came with little or no English and limited job experience. The next generation of Lao American children grew up knowing little about the customs of their parents’ homeland; partly due to long hours their parents needed to work to get by with low-paying jobs. Performing groups like the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe work to change that, so they have important roles as educators as well as entertainers. Their performances help to preserve Lao language and traditions. They can also help to bridge cultural understanding between Lao Americans and their non-Lao neighbors. Among the musicians in the video during the Harvest Dance, there is a girl on the left who joins the musicians as she plays the finger cymbals, smiling and watching the dancers. At the end she comes to the center stage with the dancers. Hers is a face we can see that represents the hope for young Lao Americans, who may live very different lives than their ancestors did in Laos, but still hold onto their cultural heritage.
- At this link there is an essay written for this concert by folklorist Riki Saltzman,”Natasinh Dancers and Musicians: Lao Music and Dance from Iowa,” 2006. [PDF, 2 pp., 301k]
- For ethnic Chinese and Koreans who observe, Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on the 14th of May in 2016.
Center for Lao Studies, San Francisco, California.
Holt, John, 2009. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. University of Hawaii Press.
Lao Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.