Enchanting Ensemble of Malaysian Heritage
In the first article in our National Day series leading up to Malaysia Day, we highlight the multicultural dance forms cherished as our Malaysian identity.
When we think about arts and culture in Malaysia, we think about its intrinsic value and how it has defined our nation. Being a part of the international spice route many hundreds of years ago, Malaysia is a land of rich and diverse heritage.
The dance moves of the indigenous Malay, Orang Asli and different ethnic people of Sabah and Sarawak are truly exotic and enchanting. As the Chinese, Indians and Portuguese settled in Malaysia, the traditional dance forms of their respective homeland became a part of Malaysia’s culture and heritage.
Malaysia’s most popular traditional dance is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. Performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humour, Joget has its origins in Portuguese folk dance, which was introduced in Melaka during the era of the spice trade.
Also known as Candle Dance, it is performed by women who do a delicate dance while balancing candles in small dishes.
While not in the strict sense, a dance, Silat, is one of the oldest Malay traditions and a deadly martial art. The aesthetic aspect of forms and body movements performed in a graceful manner and dance-like quality, turns a Silat performance into a spellbinding and intriguing dance form.
Malay Mak Yong
Originating from Patani in Southern Thailand, Mak Yong was conceived to entertain female royalty, queens and princesses, when their men were away at war. Combining romantic drama, dance and operatic singing, tales of the golden age of the Malay kingdoms are dramatised in enchanting performances.
Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance brought to the state of Johor by Javanese immigrants. Dramatising the tales of victorious Islamic holy wars, dancers sit astride mock horses moving to the hypnotic beats of a percussion ensemble usually consisting of drums, gongs and angklungs.
Islamic influence on Malaysian traditional dance is perhaps most evident in Zapin, a popular dance in the state of Johor. Introduced by Muslim missionaries from the Middle East, the original dance was performed to Islamic devotional chanting to spread knowledge about the history of the Islamic civilisation.
Chinese Lion Dance
Usually performed during the Chinese New Year festival, the Lion Dance is energetic and entertaining. According to the legend, in ancient times, the lion was the only animal that could ward off a mythological creature known as Nian that terrorised China and devoured people on New Year’s eve. Usually requiring perfect co-ordination, elegance and nerves of steel, the dance is performed to the beat of the tagu, the Chinese drum, and the clanging of cymbals
This classical Indian dance is poetry in motion. Based on ancient Indian epics, this highly intense and dramatic dance form uses over 100 dance steps and gestures. As mastery requires many years of practice, some children begin learning the dance form at the age of five.
Bhangra is a lively folk dance of the Sikh community. Originally a dance form performed during the time of harvest, it is now part of many social celebrations such as weddings and New Year festivities in Malaysia. Typically centred around romantic themes with singing and dancing driven by heavy beats of the dhol, a double-barreled drum, the bhangra is engagingly entertaining.
Sabah & Sarawak Ngajat
The Warrior Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak’s Iban people. This dance is usually performed during Gawai Kenyalang or ‘Hornbill Festival’. Reputedly the most fearsome of Sarawak’s headhunters, the tribe’s victorious warriors were traditionally celebrated in this elaborate festival. Wearing an elaborate headdress and holding an ornate long shield, the male warrior dancer performs dramatic jumps throughout this spellbinding dance.
The Hornbill Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak’s Kenyah women. Created by a Kenyah prince called Nyik Selong to symbolise happiness and gratitude, it was once performed during communal celebrations that greeted warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual celebrations that marked the end of each rice harvest season. Performed by a solo woman dancer to the sounds of the sape, beautiful fans made out of hornbill feathers are used to represent the wings of the sacred bird.
Sumazau is a traditional dance of Sabah’s Kadazan people. Usually performed at religious ceremonies and social events, it is traditionally used to honour spirits for bountiful paddy harvests, ward off evil spirits and to cure illness. Male and female dancers perform this steady hypnotic dance with soft and slow movements imitating birds in flight.
Another highly popular and entertaining traditional dance is Bamboo Dance. Two long bamboo poles are held horizontally above the ground at ankle-height. They are clapped together to a high-tempo drumbeat. Requiring great agility, dancers are required to jump over or between the poles without getting their feet caught.
The traditional dances of the Peninsular Malaysia’s Orang Asli are strongly rooted in their spiritual beliefs. Dances are commonly used by witch-doctors as rituals to communicate with the spirit world. Such dances include Genggulang of the Mahmeri tribe, Berjerom of the Jah–Hut tribe and the Sewang of the Semai and Temiar tribes.
The Farapeira is a fast, cheerful dance usually accompanied by guitars and tambourines, performed by couples dressed in traditional Portuguese costumes.
*Featured image sourced from Free Malaysia Today