Generally, Malay dances are divided into two main categories which are the “original” Malay dances and “adopted” Malay dances. The “original” Malay dances are indigenous to the Malay region, encompassing Sumatra, the Malay Peninsular, Singapore, the Riau Archipelago and Borneo, and its origins can be traced back to the early Malay civilizations. The “adopted” Malay dances are influenced by foreign cultures due to political and historical events. The various forms or styles of Malay dance are further categorized by its beats (rentak) and rhythm (irama).
The four basic genres of Malay dance are Asli, Inang, Joget and Zapin. Asli and Inang dances are categorised as the “original” Malay dances whereas Joget and Zapin are categorized as “adopted” Malay dances. The diagram below further illustrates:
The term Asli, meaning “original”, is the forerunner of the four basic genres of Malay dance. The dance movements and its songs can be traced back to the early Malay Kingdoms in the 14th century. Its beat and rhythm is slow-paced yet intricate and well defined. Its dance style is graceful and elegant as it depicts the charming nature of Malay ladies. There are numerous hand movements and poses, each with a different significance. Every movement of the Asli dance starts and ends with the gong beat in the count of eights.
Asli songs are still popular across the regions of Malay culture in Sumatra, the Malay Peninsular, Singapore, the Riau Archipelago and Borneo. In Sumatra, they are known as senandung and are derived from local soulful poetic verses projecting deep emotions such as love or sorrow. Examples of Asli songs include Sembawa Balik, Pasir Roboh, Timang Banjar and Sri Siantan.
Before the introduction of Western musical instruments, indigenous musical instruments such as the rebab (a string instrument), gong, rebana or gendang bebano (a framed hand drum) are used. Foreign influence, particularly from the West, in the mid-16th century led to the introduction of Western musical instruments such as the violin and accordion. With further changes over time and the advancement of technology, various traditional musical instruments have been replaced by electronic and modern ones. Modes of performing Asli songs have also developed tremendously.
Another form of the “original” Malay dance is the Inang. Historical accounts state that the word Inang is derived from the word “Mak Inang”, a nanny or chief lady-in-waiting who is responsible in looking after the royal children. The Inang song and dance is said to have been composed during the era of the Malaccan Sultanate, particularly during the rule of Sultan Mahmud Shah (1488-1511). At the time, the Inang dance was performed in various palace celebrations such as weddings.
The Inang beats and dance movements are faster paced compared to the Asli dance. It portrays the grace and swaying movement of royal maids and has all the qualities of a palace performance. In olden times, the Inang dance was performed only by ladies, with very modest movements adhering to the strict palace customs and protocols. Eventually, the Inang dance evolved from strictly a court dance into a folk dance enjoyed and performed by all individuals. Nevertheless, its graceful and modest movements have always remained. Nowadays, it is performed at all social functions and usually by couples of men and women. Examples of songs with the Inang beat are Seri Langkat, Lenggang Mak Limah and Mak Inang Pulau Kampai.
The Joget dance (also called the Ronggeng) was introduced to the Malays in Malacca during the early 16th century. Its origins may be traced back to two popular Portuguese folk dances, the Branjo and Farapeirra. Throughout Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo and the Riau Archipelago, the Joget has been known as a fast-paced popular dance and is performed at cultural festivals, wedding celebrations and many other social functions. Its catchy beat and cheerful combination of fast hand and leg movements appeal to both young and old alike.
In some regions of the Malay Archipelago, the Joget is also known as the Rentak Lagu Dua which describes the interaction between couples in portraying a song with liveliness and cheerfulness. In Indonesia, particularly in the Northern Sumatra region such as Medan, Deli and Serdang, the Joget has been elevated in rank to be one of Indonesia’s national dances when in 1934, a well-known choreographer by the name of Sayuti choreographed a unique form of the Joget dance called Serampang 12. It has 12 stages of dance steps depicting the love story of a couple from courtship till their wedding.
Joget music and dance has an obviously hybrid character. The accordion, violin and tambur (a double-headed drum and Portuguese in origin; its name is derived from the Portuguese tambour) are European whereas the framed drums may be Middle Eastern or indigenous to the region and the harmonium is Indian. Other elements such as the gong, the use of pantun (this refers to Malay poetry or can mean quatrain) and the basic performance context are all indigenous. Examples of Joget music include Joget Asam Kana, Joget Istana Lukut and Joget Songkok Mereng.
Usually at the end of a Joget performance, the drumming speeds up to a rapid dance section, in which two dancers face each other and, standing on their right legs, extend their left legs forward until their feet touch; then they switch legs. Two names are given for this dance move: Perancis bol and seken kaki. However, neither of these phrases makes much sense in Malay, but they could be adapted from foreign words. The first seems to combine Perancis, the Malay word for “France” or “French”, with the English “ball” or French bal; the second joins the Malay word kaki for “foot” with what could be English for “shaking”.
The influence of the Zapin dance on Malay culture and arts started alongside the spread of the Islamic religion, beginning in the early 15th Century. The Zapin dance and music were brought and introduced by the Arab traders and missionaries from Southern Yemen particularly from the Hadramaut region. From its original form of Arabic Zapin (Zapin Arab), the dance assimilated itself into the Malay culture and thus gave birth to a localised version known as Zapin Melayu. Originally, Zapin performances were popular among the royalty. It is believed that every palace had its own Zapin troupe which performed at various palace functions and every rehearsal was done under the watchful eye of the Sultan.
The music for Zapin comes from an ensemble of traditional instruments, which includes the lute gambus), gypsy type bongos (marwas), small single-frame hand drums (rafa’i), accordion and violin. A typical Zapin performance and song can be categorised into three parts. The first part is called the taqsim or introduction. This is where the gambus is played in a solo manner as an opening of the performance. Simultaneously, the dancers enter the stage and perform the sembah or act of respect to the audience. As the performance progress, the dancers perform various steps and legwork movements. The second part is at the end of every quatrain or pantun, where the music and beating of the drums is played in a rapid beat manner known as tingkah or kopak while the dancers move in a jumping manner called the minta tahto. The third part is the end of the performance, which is known as the tahtim, whereby the dancers will perform the wainab movements to close the performance.
There are numerous types of Zapin and they are categorised by regions. Some examples are Zapin Tenglu, Zapin Pekajang, Zapin Parit Mastar from Johor, Zapin Sindang from Sarawak, Zapin Ghalit from Kedah, Jipin Tar and Jipin Laila Sembah from Brunei and Zapin Kampung Manggis from Jambi.
Contributed by Mohd Hisham Salim, Executive Officer, Majlis Pusat
(Top right picture courtesy of NAC Community Arts Series July 2006. Other pictures courtesy of Majlis Pusat)