Champoen Tashi retired as the lead mask dancer of Trongsa after serving more than three decades

Hanging up the mask

For the hundreds of people who came to receive blessings from the Guru thongdroel and watch the last dances of the Trongsa tshechu yesterday, the sight of a 66-year-old man dancing the ‘Choe Zhey’ (a dance to subdue the demons) was a happy one.

Lead dancer, champoen Tashi is a household name in Trongsa. The Trongsa tshechu had been his show for the last many years. He retired this year following an injury to his hand and leg.

Tashi, however, performed the dance yesterday. Watching him in thick colourful costumes and ornaments and dancing with grace the Choe Zhey gave spectators the joy.

Champoen Tashi from Dangla retired as the lead mask dancer of Trongsa after serving more than three decades. In a career spanning 31 years, Tashi became the champoen within eight years of joining the troupe.

Tashi was chosen from the village after the then Trongsa Thrimpon sent an order in the 1970s to send boys of his age to the dzong to learn mask dance. He was only 15. By the mid 1980s, he was made the champoen. He served as the chamju (attendant of the lead mask dancer) for three years.

The village elders chose him and a friend but the friend returned home. “It was difficult learning the steps of the mask dance then but the salary of Nu 70 a month was good,” he recalls.

Finding mask dancers and female dancers were difficult then, as the salary was not lucrative as it is today. The dancers are paid more than Nu 28,000 today for practising and performing during the tshechu.

Tashi remembers his dance master who he said was a good teacher. “I knew every step of every mask dance even when I was a junior dancer,” he said.

As the lead dancer, he taught the new dancers and also maintained discipline among the dancers. There are more than 30 laymen mask dancers.

After retiring this year, he didn’t have a definite role but shouldered the responsibility of the lead dancer before the tshechu, coming out often in the dance area and ensuring everything goes well.

“My wish is to serve the country, king and people through this role. I pray the tshechu ends without any problem,” he said.

The father of six said he would often come and help around during the tshechu as long as his health could. “I never wanted to retire but it was becoming too difficult to perform because of the injury.”

He said mask dancing during tshechus provided a different experience to the dancers. “It is sad that I cannot perform anymore. I was happy I could perform the Choe Zhey this year.”

Tashi Dema | Trongsa

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