Taman Sri Nibong RA Log

September 16, 2011

(4) Cultural Dances & Traditional Musical Instruments of Malaysia

Filed under: from the editor — mollyosc @ 3:10 am

Dance is a popular cultural form in Malaysia too. Each ethnic group has its own dance forms which characterizes its culture. Malaysian dances can be identified with certain regions or religious practices which are often performed in festive celebrations, wedding parties, cultural shows, religious ceremonies or other public events.  Below are the dances of the 3 major racial groups in our country :


Tarian Melayu or Malay dance portrays the customs or adat resam and culture or budaya of the Malays. It depicts the true nature of the Malay people and their way of life.

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)


The term “Chinese dance”, which tends to be broadly used to refer to dance forms that have traditional Chinese origins, actually encompasses two main forms, Chinese classical dance and Chinese ethnic dance.

Chinese Classical Dance

The origins of Chinese classical dance date back to the Zhou dynasty. During this period, only members of the royal family and nobility had the privilege of being trained in dance. Depending on the student’s age, he/she would be taught different dances for various occasions and purposes. Every dance had its own set of performance standards and training was often rigorous. These dances would often be performed at major ceremonies, diplomatic events and even during religious ceremonies.

Subsequently, the art of dance made considerable progress during the prosperous time of the Tang dynasty. While preserving traditions passed down from the previous dynasty, Tang dynasty dances also incorporated new elements and thus during this time, Chinese classical dance was considered to be at its peak. However, with the rise and fall of the Tang dynasty, the art of dance went the same way – from an art form for the privileged to something more accessible to common folk. In fact, during the Song and Ming dynasties, folk opera, a phenomenon combining dance, acrobatics and theatrical performances arose, replacing pure dance as a flourishing art form. This in turn metamorphosed into what we commonly know today as traditional opera. Despite the apparent transformation, dance was still ultimately the key means of performance, thus giving rise to the saying that “Chinese classical dance evolved from traditional oper”.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, proper dance education and research began with the establishment of the Beijing Dance Academy in 1954, allowing dance training to be standardized. While continually discovering and preserving the particular charm and appeal of Chinese classical dance movements, it was also constantly improving upon its techniques in order to standardize the form. Improvements in the following areas were just a few ways in which to achieve that: foundation techniques of Chinese classical dance (barre work training, centre work training, jumps, turns, somersaults and combined technique training), Chinese classical dance posture and rhythm training, tanzigong training (fighting and acrobatics/martial arts), sword-dance training, long-sleeve dance training, etc. In fact, recently, “Han Tang” classical dance training has also started to gain popularity.

Chinese Ethnic Dance

Chinese ethnic dance is a product of the historical progress of each ethnic community as well as their individual artistic creativity. The dances reflect the various regional specialties, cultural characteristics and religious beliefs of each ethnic group at different stages in history, infusing every dance with unique local flavour, thus making it widely popular with the masses. Many of the terms used in these dances are drawn from everyday life and even the props used are also day-to-day items and instruments. Ethnic dance performances are a staple at celebrations, religious ceremonies and major events, making them an integral part of every community’s identity.

China has 56 major ethnic groups, the largest being the Han people, who make up more than 90% of the population. Primarily occupying the Yellow River, Yangtze River and Pearl River Delta region as well as the Song Liao Plains, the vast expanse of land and the breathtaking natural landscape have contributed to the Han people’s ethnic dances. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the myriad dances of the Han people vary distinctly by regions.

For instance, a popular rural folk dance in northern China known as Yang Ge is a common dance, but styles differ depending on where it originated. Yang Ge performed in northern Shaanxi is different from those performed in Hebei, Shandong or even northeastern China. In addition, the flower lantern dance and flower drum dance, performed predominantly in southern China, are also not homogeneous in style. From a regional perspective, northern China’s Yang Ge and other ethnic dances are relatively strong, simple and unsophisticated, a style reminiscent of that predominant in the states of Yan and Zhao during the Warring States Period. The flower lantern dance and flower drum dance of the south, on the other hand, are notable for being elegant and graceful, a characteristic of the ancient Chu culture. The Huai River region’s geographical location (between the Yellow River and the mighty Yangtze) has also played a part in shaping dance in the region. The flower lantern dance of the area has incorporated the positive elements of dances in both northern and southern China. Hence, the dance tempers toughness with grace – male dancers are dynamic while female dancers are charming.

Even though the remaining 55 ethnic minority groups in China make up only a small percentage of the general population, they inhabit nearly 50%-60% of the country, scattered in regions across China such as northeast China, Inner Mongolia, northwest China, southwest China, central and southeast China. Some of these ethnic minorities live in the grasslands, on plateaus, in mountainous regions or even in border areas; hence, such latitudinal and scenic differences are clearly reflected in their dance.

For instance, the nomadic lifestyles of the Mongols and the Kazakhs in the grasslands of northern China have influenced their dances. The dances of these people often portray their daily nomadic activities, with strong, dynamic movements and upbeat rhythms. Similarly, the Zhuang and Li people, who can be found in southern China, have dances which reflect their agricultural roots. Tea-picking and rice-harvesting dances are common, and such dances are often graceful with slower tempos. The Dai people and ethnic Koreans (whose ancestors migrated from the Korean peninsular), who are also engaged in agricultural activities, share the graceful characteristics of their Zhuang and Li counterparts. However, their dances are unique to their people because of their environment and their personalities. While the dance of the Dai people is vivacious, the dance of ethnic Koreans is considered more graceful and elegant. As for ethnic minorities who live near China’s border, their dances are a veritable melting pot of different cultural influences. For instance, the Uighurs and the Uzbeks, who inhabit the ancient Silk Road region of northwest China, are skilled in using their heads, necks, shoulders, backs and waists in performances. Their facial expressions are also vivid and inimitable, endowing their dance with a flavour reminiscent of the style predominant in the ancient Western regions.

To conclude, even though Chinese dance may possess its own characteristics and history, it is no different from any other dance in the world in that it is essentially a cultural phenomenon. It is ultimately an art form through which artistes express themselves. Its creation is directly influenced by both nature and society; its form can be expressed through the human form or even emotionally. In addition, the artiste’s cultural and artistic upbringing also plays a significant role in determining the tone of the dance.

Contributed by Wei Wei and translated by Koh Chern Ping 


Zhong Guo Min Jian Wu Dao Wen Hua Jiao Chen (Chinese Ethnic Dance Curriculum)

Wu Dao Jiao Yu Xue (Dance Education and Teaching Methodology)

Zhong Guo Wu Jin Xuan Jiao Cai (Selected Chinese Dance Syllabus)


Early History of Classical Indian Dance

The dancing girl from Mohenjodaro, the broken torso suggesting a dance pose from the Harappan civilization, the metaphors and similies based on dance that exist in the Vedas, the reference to dance in the ancient Indian epics. There is an enormous amount of evidence to suggest that Indian classical dance existed and in fact influenced sculptural and literary traditions from about 2nd century BC to 19th century AD. The Natyasastra, the famous treatise of dance and drama, could only have been written in an environment in which these art forms were in existence and thriving. The history of Indian dance begins with this detailed text.

The history can be broadly divided into two periods: the first between 2nd century BC to 9th century AD, and the second from 10th century AD to 18th century AD. During British rule dance want into a coma. In the first period, Sanskrit played an important role, and there was a strong link between dance, music, sculpture, literature and drama. Dance was so enmeshed in other art forms that there was no separate text on dance, until the Abhinaya Darpana was written. From the 13th century onwards there were manuals on dance emerging in various regions of the country. What emerged from these manuals is interesting – they all subscribed to the basic principles of the Natyasastra, but yet, distinctive regional styles emerged with ultimately differing native vocabulary. This period (1300AD-1800AD) marked the beginning of the classical Indian dance styles that we know today, namely Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Kathak. Forms such as Chhau, Koodiyattam and Yakshagana could in due course enter the classical classification.

Impact of British Rule
When the British entered India, classical dance was an important part of temple worship and dancers known as Devadasis were employed in temples to perform ritual dances during important festivals. Gradually this system deteriorated into dance being performed for the pleasure of priests and kings. Devadasis carried the stigma of prostitution. Labeling it as prostitution, the British abolished this system without offering an alternative source of livelihood to the dancers. Hence in British India the practice and development of danced was curbed. The generation that attended schools founded by the British was isolated from the art traditions of the country as the colonial system of education did not recognize art as a subject for the curriculum. By the 20th century, the art of dance had died, and what was left was called “nautch” in North India and “sadir” in the South.

Recovery and Export
In the 1930s, dance was brought back into Indian society through the efforts of individuals such as Muthulakshmi Reddy, E.Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale. A couple of decades later, dance began to travel from India to other parts of the world. Artists such as Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal were instrumental in taking the dance forms out into the world. Gradually, practitioners around the world began to allow influences of their locales into their dance forms, and so today while many practitioners preserve the dance form in the way that it has been handed down to them, making minor modifications, there are others who are allowing radical changes to happen in their forms. A new era has been ushered in with the export of the dance forms, especially Bharatanatyam and Kathak, to various parts of the world.

Classical Indian Dance Styles
In the Indian context, both dance and drama were fused into one at a very early stage of development. By the time the Natyasastra was written, both art forms were consciously conceived as one. And so the techniques governing the technique of Indian dance are the same as those that govern the technique of classical drama in India.

Classical Indian dance is divided into three distinct categories, namely natya (corresponds to drama), nritya (gesticulation when it is performed to words sung in a musical melody) and nritta (pure dancing where the movements do not express any mood or meaning). In Indian dance, the human body has been conceived of as a mass which can be divided equally along a central median. When the weight is equally divided, the completely balanced samabhanga position emerges. In poses where there is only one deflection, the abhanga position emerges. When there are more than two deflections on opposite sides of the central median, the tribhanga position emerges.

While most of the styles are rooted in the basic principles, there are certain characteristic features that distinguish one form from the other.



T.S. Parthasarathy (1991), “Dances of India”, Journal of the Music Academy, Madras

T.S. Parthasarathy (1992), “Dances of India: Bharatanatyam”, Journal of the Music Academy, Madras

Kapila Vatsyayan (1974), “Indian Classical Dance”, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India


View the colourful muliti-ethnic Malaysian cultural dances in the videosbelow :

MALAYSIAN CULTURAL SHOW – Malaysian Tourism Centre

<a href=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/um670j_UywA” target=”_blank”>

Traditional Musical Instruments 

Rebana Ubi

In the days of the ancient Malay kingdoms, the resounding rhythmic beats of the giant rebana ubi drums conveyed various messages from warnings of danger to wedding announcements. Later, they were used as musical instruments in an assortment of social performances.


Arguably the most popular Malay traditional instrument, the kompang is widely used in a variety of social occasions such as the National Day parades, official functions and weddings. Similar to the tambourine but without the jingling metal discs, this hand drum is most commonly played in large ensembles, where various rhythmic composite patterns are produced by overlapping multiple layers of different rhythms.

Brought to Malaysia by Persian and Middle Eastern traders, the gambus or Arabian oud is played in a variety of styles in Malay folk music, primarily as the lead instrument in Ghazal music. Carefully crafted with combinations of different woods, this instrument produces a gentle tone that is similar to that of the harpsichord.


The sape is the traditional flute of the Orang Ulu community or upriver people of Sarawak. A woodcarving masterpiece with colourful motifs, the sape is made by hollowing a length of wood. Once played solely during healing ceremonies within longhouses, it gradually became a social instrument of entertainment. Typically, its thematic music is used to accompany dances such as the Ngajat and Datun Julud.

Here’s a Youtube video on traditional Malaysian musical instruments :

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