If you have watched a Muay Thai match in Thailand, you must have noticed the dance each fighter performed before the bell rang. The locals call this dance-like performance “Wai Kru.” But do you know what Wai Kru Muay Thai really is, and what does it signify?
Wai Kru Muay Thai is a ritual where the boxers perform dances to pay respect to their masters before a fight. These masters refer to both their coaches/teachers and Muay Thai deities. The dance forms vary based on the school. However, most dances include two phases with 4 directions in each.
Like everything else in Thailand, Wai Kru Muay Thai is more than just a dance. Read on and explore the beautiful side of Muay Thai and its nuances.
What is Wai Kru Muay Thai?
Many foreigners mistake Wai Kru Muay Thai as a way the fighters greet each other. Not to say that it’s completely wrong. However, it is much more than that.
Essentially, Wai Kru Muay Thai is a pre-fight ritual emphasizing the teacher-student relationship.
But before discussing Wai Kru Muay Thai, you need to know what “Wai Kru” means.
Wai Kru is a Thai word composed of “Wai” and “Kru.”
“Wai” is the Thai way of greeting and paying respect. And “Kru” means teachers and masters. So basically, Wai Kru is a ritual where students pay respect to their teachers. This ritual isn’t limited to Muay Thai but also music, dance, plays, and education.
Each art form has a different way of Wai Kru. For example, music performers Wai Kru by performing specific songs while mask-plays actors by prostrating and chanting sutras.
In Muay Thai, Wai Kru comes out as a dance.
Boxers dance to express respect and gratitude towards those who had taught them. These people can be their trainers, coaches, staff, and even the mythical entities of Muay Thai. That is why all dances include lots of Wais and prostration.
In the warring era of Thailand, each warrior performed Wai Kru in front of their masters before leaving for the front line. The martial art their teachers had passed on could save their lives, so they show appreciation through dancing. After all, it could be their last chance to do so.
Nowadays, Muay Thai has transformed from a tool to saving and taking life to a sport. However, the art of Wai Kru still remains.
Many modern Muay Thai schools have their own dance steps. Some even have unique movements added to the ritual, distinguishing them from the rest. If you’re a Muay Thai connoisseur, you can tell which school a fighter belongs to by looking at how they dance.
And here’s the thing. Since each fighter dances differently, some might finish the ritual earlier than others. So, the (somewhat) awkward moment where one fighter is left dancing alone in the ring often happens.
Besides showing respect, Wai Kru Muay Thai can be done for luck too.
Many boxers believe you must pray to the sacred spirit of the martial art and the boxing ring. If you don’t do that, you might get serious injuries from the fight.
How do Muay Thai fighters dance?
In the early days of Muay Thai, only a few masters existed. So, defining how to dance was simple. There should be one universal dance with minimal variations.
Nowadays, thousands of Muay Thai schools and masters have risen to fame. And each has its own dance to teach its students. So defining the one general movement and order to describe all of them is nigh impossible.
However, some elements unite most dances together.
For non-experts, all dances can be divided into 2 phases: sitting and standing. Each can, again, be divided into 4 directions: front, back, left, and right.
As the name suggests, this phase involves movements requiring the fighters to kneel.
It often starts with a triple prostration, greeting the sacred spirits. Depending on the school, the prostration can be simple or over the top.
Then, the dance moves on to the 4 directions. Basically, the fighters turn to four different sides of the ring and perform one dance move for each.
The order varies from Front > Left > Back > Right to Left > Right > Front > Back. Any order works for different fighters. The important thing is to pay respect to all four.
In each direction, the fighter may perform different dances. They could perform the same for all, but many believe that some movements only belong to a specific direction.
- Front: Hanuman Whaek Mek (หนุมานแหวกเมฆ), simulating Hanuman (a monkey warrior deity) cleaving the cloud.
- Back: Chang Sabut Nguang (ช้างสะบัดงวง), simulating an elephant raising its trunk.
- Left: Praya Krut Yutthayat (พระยาครุฑยุทธยาตร), simulating a Garuda entering a battlefield.
- Right: Hong Hern (หงส์เหิน), simulating a swan spreading its wings
There are numerous moves in each direction. And that means the school can pick anyone they see fit.
Notice that, in each direction, the fighters usually spiral their fists around each other as a transition move.
This probably originated from rope wrapping in the old days. Since boxing gloves were not a thing in the early days, locals used a rope to wrap their fists, reducing damage to their hands. And this applies to the standing phase too.
In contrast to the sitting phase, standing involves movements requiring the fighters to stand up straight.
It starts with a Wai to greet the spirit, just like in the sitting phase.
However, the tricky thing about this phase is that several fighters prefer to dance in only front directions. This doesn’t mean they are too lazy to do the others. It’s just how they have been taught. And it takes much less time, which works better with TV broadcasts.
Like the sitting phase, the fighter would choose one move from a massive collection to perform in each direction.
The most iconic one is arguably the frontal Phraram Phlaeng Sorn (พระรามแผลงศร), simulating Rama (one of the reincarnations of a Hindu deity as a human) shooting bow and arrows.
Other examples are…
- Back: Phayak Dom Kwang (พยัคด้อมกวาง) or Phayak (mythical beast) eyeing a deer.
- Left: Hong Hern standing variation
- Right: Nok Yoong Rumpan (นกยูงรำแพน) or peacock fanning its tail.
Besides the two main phases, many fighters opt to perform several prefaces. There are more variations than a hand can count. But here are some recurring instances you can see inside the ring.
Before everything starts, the fighters usually Wai their coach/teacher directly. In turn, the coach gives them the sacred headband called Mongkol.
In addition, the fighter may go beyond and Wai the opponents and their coach. Just to show respect.
Fighters go to the four corners of the ring and perform a Wai before they dance. This is done to ask for blessing from the spirits of the ring. Usually, they would start at their corner. Then the order varies.
After the corner phase, some fighters prefer circling around the ring before dancing. They might clasp their hand on their chest and chant sutras in the process. This phase is more like a meditation moment than a dance.
Is Wai Kru Muay Thai a religious ritual?
You can consider the Wai Kru Muay Thai a religious ritual in many ways. After all, there are numerous references to Hinduism in the dances.
For example, Rama and Garuda.
Rama is the protagonist of an Indian Tale called Ramayana. He is a human reincarnation of the great Hindu deity, Narayana. In the tale, he wields a bow and arrows, leading an army of monkeys to fight against a ten-faced giant in a great war.
Garuda is a mythical half-man-half-bird being. It’s usually portrayed as a fierce hunter overlooking the sky. Hinduists revere this being as an animal-vehicle of Narayana.
However, Wai Kru Muay Thai also encompasses the element of Paganism. Some schools pay respects to significant figures in Muay Thai history or other spirits and animals that don’t belong to any religion.
For example, Khanomtom (นายขนมต้ม) and Phayak.
Khanomtom was the name of a Muay Thai fighter who lived in the warring era of Thailand. He was said to be capable of beating 10 men in a row with his bare hands.
Phayak is a mythical beast in Thai tales. It’s usually perceived as a Tiger with minor physical differences, more intelligence, and unrelenting aggression. In some stories, Phayak can even magically communicate with humans.
So, is Wai Kru Muay Thai religious? Not entirely. But you could say it is too. Ancient Thai people loved mixing foreign cultures with existing ones. And it can’t be helped. They lived in one of the most influential trade spots in the region, after all.READ MORE ▸ What Is the Main Religion of Thailand?
The tactical side of Wai Kru Muay Thai
Now, you should understand what Wai Kru Muay Thai is. However, this ritual is not just a spiritual performance. Fighters can gain tactical advantages from dancing and watching the opponent dance too.
First, Wai Kru can act as a warm-up. Since each dance requires some form of cardio, it is a great way to ready your muscles for impact. That’s probably why each school has different dance moves. After all, some schools’ strategies might focus on punches while others kick.
Second, Wai Kru provides mental prep time. You can use the dance as a moment of meditation and review what you have practiced in your mind. Or just to set the right mood for the fight.
You can see this aspect of Wai Kru as what athletes call a “routine.”
For example, some sprint runners might perform specific movements before every race. These moves, for example, are touching thighs, spinning shoulders, and wiping the forehead.
These actions are performed every time they practice. So the brain unconsciously remembers that when the athletes move like this, it’s time to run fast.
Wai Kru basically uses the same concept. Program the brain to get your muscles and mind ready.
Third, Wai Kru allows you to pre-analyze the fight. You can see many things from watching the opponent dance, like strength, balance, technique, and much more.
In addition, you can also familiarize yourself with the ring. It may not be significant now with the factory-produced ring. The ground would be flat, and the space is always the same.
In the past, however, a friendly duel between two fighters could break out anywhere. That’s why many standing dance moves require you to walk around the place. You can get a better lay of the land that way.
Finally, you can intimidate your opponents while you dance. Some moves might require more strength than others. And if you can perform them properly, you might freak your opponent out. Needless to say, that is beneficial in a fight.
Of all four advantages, the meditative one is arguably the most important. Getting your mind ready is crucial in every fight. Victory can slip through your fingers if the crowd or the nerve overwhelms you.
Besides, you can gain other advantages in other ways. Like actual warm-up routines, tactical research, and pre-fight meetings with your opponent.
Nevertheless, Wai Kru combines these edges into one session. So, it is still an effective pre-fight tool in every match.
Wai Kru Muay Thai, Beyond What You Think
Explaining Wai Kru Muay Thai to a foreigner would take a long time. As you can see, it isn’t only a greeting or a dance. It’s a tradition that combines Thai values, religious components, and tactical elements.
Wai Kru Muay Thai’s essence lies in the relationship between a fighter and his teachers. Respect. Gratitude. And appreciation. The beautiful yet intimidating dance is only a tool to convey those emotions.
So, the next time you watch a Muay Thai match, don’t forget to pay attention to this pre-fight ritual. Hopefully, you can appreciate its core values much more than before.
Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might discover something you never knew about this unique country.READ MORE ▸ What Are the Traditions of Thailand?