If there is one adjective that describes the state of dance in Singapore, it would be “multicultural”. An Indian doctor, Chotta Singh, gave Indian music and dance classes here before the Second World War. Udaya Shankar, a dancer from India, performed in Singapore in 1935 with his troupe. A Caucasian lady named Angela De Martinez taught ballet in Capital flats in the 1930s. There were the halls where the Malays did the Joget. Chinese dance was performed in Chinese operas, and the lion and dragon dances of the Chinese community. These examples from the early days attested to the diversity that marked Singapore’s state of dance nearly a century ago.
This multiculturalism has characterized multiracial Singapore since it became independent in 1965 and has been part of various national policies. Thus, when national dance companies – People’s Association Dance Company and National Dance Company – were established, dancers performed typical Chinese, Malay and Indian dances, as well as Western mainstream dances such as ballet, modern and jazz to showcase Singapore’s culture. This led to the development of various ethnic dance groups such as the Malay Sriwana, Singapore Kemuning Society, Sri Warisan-Som Said Performing Arts, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, Apsaras Arts, Chin Kang Huay Kuan, Dance Ensemble Singapore and Chinese Dance Artistes Association.
Cultural Roots and Traditions
For a young nation with a diverse immigrant population, the issue of “traditions” has always been a thorny one. By traditional dances of Singapore, one usually refers to the generic and popular forms of Chinese, Malay and Indian dances from China, the Malay archipelago and India, where our forefathers hailed from. Since independence in 1965, these dance forms have been institutionalized as Singapore’s official “traditional” or “ethnic” dances.
Chinese dance was introduced as a formal genre in the late 1920s and 1930s by visiting troupes from China. In the 1940s it was offered as an extra-curricular activity in Chinese schools in Singapore. In the 1960s, the arrival of Chinese dance doyenne Lee Shu Fen from Taiwan boosted the interest in, and standard of, Chinese dance here. The past decades have seen the formation of several Chinese dance groups. Chinese dance, as it is known in Singapore today, is a generic term that accommodates a wide variety of folk dances from the various ethnic Chinese minorities like the Han, Hui, Yi and Miao. However, in a typical Chinese dance performance here, one will notice the infusion of elements from ballet, modern dance and Chinese martial arts.
Malay dance in Singapore has roots from Indonesia and Malaysia, where many early Malay settlers hailed from. The dominant traditional Malay dances practised by the Malays in Singapore are Joget, Asli, Zapin, Masri and Inang. The earliest forms of Malay dance that was introduced in Singapore – such as Joget- are said to come from Sumatra, and were taught by Bangsawan performers during the late 1950s. Despite its Malaysian and Indonesia origins, Joget shows the influence of Portugese folk dance while Zapin has Arab roots. People also learnt the dances from Malay films. While Malay dances are typically performed in theatres, one may also catch Dikir Barat, a dance-music tradition from Malaysia, presented at public events. The Malay martial arts Silat and Randai may also be regarded as dance, if one stretches the definition, as some of their movements have found their way into Malay dance.
Among the communities of Singapore, the Indians have guarded their dance traditions most faithfully and reverently. A possible reason for this is that Indian dance has always been closely bound to the Indian gods, and dominant forms like the 3,000-year-old Bharatanatyam originated in temples as a dedication to the gods. Indian dance came to Singapore through visiting artists from India, some of whom eventually remained to make Singapore their home. Indian dance schools in Singapore have come a long way since they started in the 1950s. Today, not only do many associations offer systematic training, they also engage professional teachers and examiners from abroad to conduct classes and hold examinations. Apart from revered traditional dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Khatak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri and Kathakali, there is a popular Indian dance scene where Bollywood and Bhangra rule. Bhangra, originally a song-music-dance tradition from Punjabi, is today a fusion of hip-hop, reggae and Hindi film music. A worldwide craze which first began in UK, its popularity has recently permeated Singapore clubs, reaching not just Indians, but also the Chinese and expatriates who readily take to this funky, modern dance-music “tradition”.
Since the British founded Singapore, this island could not escape Western influences. After independence, in its march towards economic development, international trade and advances in science and technology, Singapore continued to be subject to Westernization. The Western dance forms of ballet, jazz and tap have been popular for a long time. Ballet is a prime example of a Western art that is significant in Singapore’s cultural and artistic life. Since 1988, Singapore has boasted of a national ballet company – Singapore Dance Theatre – that prides itself in performing classics like The Nutcracker to renowned contemporary selections by Goh Choo San and George Balanchine.
Seen in the last decade were the births of a number of contemporary/modern dance groups, such as Ecnad, formerly known as Dance Dimension Project (1996), The Arts Fission Company (1999), Tammy L Wong Dance Company (1998), Odyssey Dance Theatre (2000) and Jux3 (2000). Most of the practitioners are trained in Western modern dance techniques and engage in experimentation and innovation to push the boundaries of their art. Though modern dance began in the West almost a century ago, its development in Singapore only become more definite starting in the 1980s. Milestones such as Goh Lay Kuan’s Nu Wa (1986), Lim Fei Shen’s Homecoming (1994), The Arts Fission Company’s Mahabharata: A Grain of Rice (1994), Ecnad’s The Talking Dance Series (1999) and Tammy Wong’s Child (1998) punctuate the contemporary dance scene and represent the artistic tendencies towards interdisciplinary experiments, the use of alternative performance spaces and the incorporation of unusual resources in dance like the use of voice and audience participation. They signify attempts to evoke fresh concepts, methods and meanings in their works. Themes expressed by these groups are also becoming more provocative and angst-ridden, as they comment on issues such as urban alienation, social conformity and oppression.
In this age of globalization, ballroom dancing, Texan line dancing, Afro-American lindy hop, Latin American salsa and tango, Spanish flamenco and even Middle Eastern belly-dancing are becoming increasingly common in dance studios all over the island alongside ballet, jazz, and tap. There is also the nightly motley crowd of clubbers who dance and sway to anything from funk to soul and rave.
Such a colourful scene has grown out of events like the now defunct Festival of Dance of the 1980s and the ongoing annual Singapore Arts Festival. The Arts Education Programme of the National Arts Council has raised awareness of dance among the young through dance workshops and performances at schools. In addition, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts now offer full-time courses in contemporary dance leading to a diploma.
Singaporean, Asian or Hybrid?
What in these dances can be called distinctly Singaporean? The popular conception of Singapore’s multicultural dance heritage as comprising Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other (CIMO) dances is problematic since these dances were only introduced as formal genres in Singapore and did not evolve in Singapore per se. Yet, it is inconceivable, as anthropologists may argue, for any enduring social group not to form its own particular dance culture. In this case, the classic fusion of the CIMO culture into a single entity, however synthetic, is perhaps one of the clearest and most resilient expressions of Singapore culture. Since the early days of the People’s Association, there have been many “melting pot” or “salad bowl” attempts presented in Singapore and abroad as Singapore culture.
Following official expression of Singapore being an “Asian” city-state in the mid-1980s, more artists have also been consciously articulating their Asian identity as another basis of Singapore culture. In the ongoing East-meets-West and East-versus-West debates, some practitioners reject Western forms like ballet in their choreography while others seek a harmonious blend of both Western and Asian dance elements. In any case, Singapore dancers have never stopped collaborating with western artist to expand their horizons. In recent years, many contemporary dance artists have tried to find a Singapore identity and a Singaporean voice in their works. Instead of duplicating what they have learnt from the West, they have been trying to reappropriate dance treatises in a Singaporean context. This has resulted in many hybrid forms that we see in contemporary Singapore’s dance production where Western techniques are often fused with traditional Eastern elements. Hence, one might detect a taiji weight shift in modern dance, as in Lim Fei Shen’s Homecoming (1994), or the traditional Chinese hand gestures blended with the pointe work of ballet and contemporary dance techniques in Odyssey Dance Theatre’s Origins (2000).
In our survey of all the dances and dance aesthetics, we have come to realize that Singaporeans are essentially all cultural hybrids, having an Asian heritage and continuously exposed to foreign/Western influences. The clash between traditional Asian culture and modern Western influences is precisely what makes up the familiar fabric of Singapore society. Instead of trying to pin down that elusive Singaporean dance, let us be content and open to the different interpretations and formulations expressed by various artists. In that way, we can discover what dancers in the melting pot or salad bowl of Singapore society can achieve.
Adapted from “Dancing Bodies: Culture and Modernity” by Gan Hui Cheng. Full article first appeared in Selves – The State of the Arts in Singapore, a book published by the National Arts Council in 2002.
For full article, SporeDance-Gan. (PDF file : 160KB)
The Singapore government instituted the Cultural Medallion award in 1979 to recognise individuals who have attained artistic excellence in their respective artistic fields. It is conferred by the President, Republic of Singapore. The Young Artist award was introduced in 1992 to encourage the development of young artistic talents in Singapore. It is accorded to young artists who have shown promise of excellence in their respective artistic fields.
Recipients of Cultural Medallion (Dance)
Please click on their names to read more about them.
- 1979 Madhavi Krishnan
- 1981 Goh Soo Khim
- 1986 Goh Choo San
- 1987 Som Said
- 1988 Lim Fei Shen
- 1989 Neila Sathyalingam
- 1990 Santha Bhaskar
- 1992 Ying E Ding
- 1995 Goh Lay Kuan
- 2009 Angela Liong
Recipients of Young Artist Award (Dance)
- 1992 Jamaludin Jalil
- 1993 Osman Bin Abdul Hamid
- 1994 Mohamed Noor Bin Sarman, Nirmala Seshadri
- 1996 Meenakshy Bhaskar
- 1997 Ker Ban Hing
- 1998 Thamizhvanan Narayanasamy Veshnu, Paul C Ocampo
- 2000 Lim Chin Huat, Jeffrey Tan Joo Kuan
- 2002 Tammy L Wong
- 2004 Danny Tan Koon Meng