While the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Cham Yig is generally considered to be the most important piece of literature regarding Tibetan monastic dance, it is important to note that the major vehicle of transmission of the tradition is through physical teaching (Fromaget 322). Monk dance masters are the ones in charge of not only conveying the physical motions of the dance, but the technique of execution and religious explanation as well. Tibetan monastic dance, like most dance forms around the world, but unlike most music forms, does not have a uniform codification that allows it to be unambiguously written down and transmitted through text. As such, while the Cham Yig does write down a description of the various movements, given its inherent ambiguity, it is meant to jog a dance master’s memory rather than be used as a source of teaching. Another reason for this is that the Cham Yig does not explain the religious significance of specific steps nor does it explain the importance of various sections of the dances, and therefore it is up to the dance master to convey this information to his pupils based off of his experience (“Tibetan Dance”).
This doesn’t mean the Cham Yig is useless however. The Cham Yig is important because it describes how the movement maps to specific beats in the music. Similar to many other dance forms of the world, the way this is conveyed is via counting. The Cham Yig specifies the counting structure (analogous to western time signatures) of various Tibetan dance forms, and maps the various movements (which might be ambiguously described) to specific beats in the music (Hoetzlein 318). Given that these monastic dancers travel to various festivals and perform with live musicians, part of the reason that Cham Yig does this might be to ensure standardization between musicians and dancers.
American tap dancers run into a similar problem fairly consistently, and they too solve this problem via counting. As a professional tap dancer, it is fairly common that one might be asked to perform in a show with a band the dancer doesn’t know, and due to travel and monetary restrictions, the rehearsal time with the band is usually very limited. In this scenario, counting provides the common language that allow both the musicians and the dancers to map themselves unambiguously to the same portion of the music, without much rehearsal. Because American tap dance and jazz music grew up together, this allows a tap dancer to walk on stage with a band (s)he doesn’t know and say something like: “Let’s play ‘Take 5’, and after the second chorus, we will trade 4 bar solos for 16 bars, with stop time on 2, and then return back to the chorus to end.” Any trained musician will be able understand and execute this without much trouble, allowing for consistency in what would otherwise be a disastrous scenario.
While Tibetan Monastic dance does not appear to be as heavily based in improvisation as American tap dance and jazz music are, the scenario that dancers might have to perform with musicians from another area appears to have happened decently often. As such, this might explain why counting was such an integral part of Tibetan monastic dance instruction, and why it is so precisely outlined in the Cham Yig.
In contrast, to this rigid structure, it is interesting to note that, similar to typecasting in the commercial dance world, monks are not chosen to study specific dance roles solely based on artistic ability and execution. Body type, chanting ability, and sometimes even lottery play roles in choosing who studies what style, who passes the examinations, and who becomes cast for a given role in a given performance (Hoetzlein 317).
This is an extremely common practice in American dance auditions as well, and as a dancer in the U.S, you are told to assume that an audition is type casting unless otherwise stated. In many auditions, the first cut will be done based off of lining the dancers up, and cutting the dancers who don’t fit the type that the producers are seeking. While it doesn’t seem that Tibetan ritual dance roles are determined in this drastic a manner, it is nevertheless interesting that such a practice exists in monasteries that are otherwise known for having fairly strict hierarchies and examinations.
I couldn’t find a video on counting in Tibetan dance, but here is an example of tap guru Jason Samuels Smith attempting to keep his intermediate students to keep constant time while practicing their improvisation. Notice his out loud counting. Click for Video