Dolls from Around the World, part one: Dancing Figures

Ethnic dolls have much to do with memory and the interpretation of the past. They codify values, dress, gender roles, and appropriate occupations for the culture they represent– or at least someone’s ideas about those things. You can learn a great deal about a culture by studying its dolls. Here are some of the most photogenic figures from my own collection.

This first installment is all about dolls that move or look like they are in motion. It’s been so much fun for me to research my collection that I’ve decided to extend the doll theme to bring you more pictures and more detail.


This is a gorgeous puppet doll from Thailand made from wood and and string covered with a sumptuous costume and painted features. The character is called Zawgyi, the Shaman or the Alchemist. He’s a superhero who can fly and bore into the earth without the aid of tools. Deep in the Himalayan forest he dwells alone, having obtained the mythical Philosopher’s Stone that can turn base elements into gold. Appealing to the imagination and encouraging perseverance when faced with an impossible task, he also has an occult side which allows him to conjure females from the trees when he’s lonely. Designed to imitate the movements of Burmese dance, this puppet is operated with five strings. One string connects the hands, one the feet, one the knees and two the head. The extreme mobility of the head adds to the expressivity of the face, which is already fantastic.


Next is El Borracho, the drunk. This whimsical Mexican puppet is cut from a completely different cloth, very simple and crude. The visible body is plastic painted to look like papier mâché and is attached to a lightweight wooden block covered with cloth. He’s operated  by the use of three strings, one for the left side, one for the right and one for the head. The awkwardness this produces mimics intoxication. There’s a touch of schadenfreude here, but the humor is infectious.

El Borracho


The puppet below is from the wayang golek tradition of Java, Indonesia, which lies at the intersection of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. Many Sundanese people are Muslim, but their culture blended with earlier traditions to make space for puppets like the wayang golek, which are representations of the human form and thus banned in conservative Islamic societies. The shapely and exotic upper torso and head pieces are supported on a central rod  or stake which can be inserted into a base to keep it still. This stake is covered by a long skirt of fabric. Jointed arms are attached by string to the body as well as to thin poles which are used to move them, creating expressive gestures. The head is able to swivel quickly by rotating the center rod and the chest can lift and fall, making the wayang golek an ideal puppet for portraying temper tantrums and extreme emotions.

Wayang golek Prince
Wayang golek Prince

Princes, such as the character we see here, are identified by the shape of their headdress and by their white skin, which symbolizes moral integrity. If they didn’t possess integrity, they and their descendants had enough power and money to assume the semblance of it. Red faces are reserved for evil and angry characters. In the West we like to talk about seeing things in black and white, but Indonesians see things in white and red.

The Aomori Nebuta Festival in Japan celebrates a legendary battle, although there is no agreement over which battle. In fact, this battle may never have happened or may have happened far away from Aomori City. It’s still a good excuse for a party and a morale boost, even if everyone has forgotten the event that sparked it. At the festival, which draws an average of 3 million people each year, Haneto dancers like this one jump and dance in front of immense decorated and lighted floats shouting Rassera, a word of uncertain origin. These dolls are handmade for the Aomori Festival, made from igusa reeds and cloth. They all look as if they are about to skip and leap away.

Nebuta Haneto dancer
Nebuta Haneto dancer

Speaking of dancers, here is a pair of Polish youth from the Krakow region. Note the exquisite detailing of their clothing, which represents a way of dress that dates back centuries and is still worn on ceremonial occasions. Every element is dictated by this tradition and the ensemble is easily recognized by people who have roots in the area. This couple is not married, as the girl wears a flower wreath with ribbons instead of the white kerchief of a married woman. The girl’s bodice, designed to imitate beading and embroidery, is painted, as are the tiny roses on her skirt, barely visible under her lacy apron. The tiny tassels and gold trim on his classic blue waistcoat, as well as his striped trousers, are equally delightful and correct. I love that each dancer has only one foot attached to the base, while the other floats in midair.

Dancing couple from Krakow, Poland

Buchaechum is a Korean dance in which young women use brightly colored fans to imitate natural phenomenon such as flocks of birds, fields of flowers, flights of butterflies and waves. It synthesizes traditions that are centuries old by combining shamanic dance, which established mystical links with nature, and court performance, which celebrated beauty and refinement. The result is enchantment. Dancers wear the traditional hanbok, consisting of jeogori, a blouse or jacket, and chima, a wrap-around skirt. The ensemble is characterized by high waist and vibrant color. This particular set of dolls, made from plastic, fur and fabric with a styrofoam underbody, was made by the Korean Arts company, founded in 1999, and espouses a stylized face and body that was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. 

Korean fan dancers

The Navajo reservation is in the Four Corners area of the United States, where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. Stepping onto the reservation is stepping into another culture, another nation with its own rules, values and sense of community. The kachina below is a Navajo corn yei, a spirit that helps humans by making the corn to grow and ripen. He’s a member of the Diyin Diné’e, the Holy People, who personify the forces of nature. Arms outstretched and knees bent to stomp the ground, this yei is doing a traditional dance that costumed men, who believe they are transformed into kachina themselves while they dance, perform to ask for a good harvest. He’s made of light wood which has been painted and decorated with animal fur and a felt skirt with yarn belt. It is amazing to me that static figurines are used so often and so effectively to illustrate movement– almost as amazing as how well they establish and promote a communal sense of identity.

Navajo corn yei

 All images by Katherine McDaniel

2 thoughts on “Dolls from Around the World, part one: Dancing Figures

  1. gin Reply

    Awsome! im looking for dolls extremely detailed pair female and male dancers.

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Fabulous! Collecting dolls is a lot of fun. Almost all of my dolls came from Ebay, with a few from CostPlus World Market in the early 2000s. CostPlus doesn’t have the variety of things that they had back then. Ebay is a great place, but you have to look very closely at the pictures and description, especially the size. The Polish dancers are much smaller than I expected them to be, although I love them anyway.

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