Held on 18–19 February 2023

“What does Malay Dance Mean To Me?” – Questions and Concerns of Malay Dance Practitioners Today

By Nur Zakirah Binte Rosman (2023)

The creation of dance is a representation of self. How do Malay individuals grapple with questions on identity and culture, within their dance practice.

The GERAK Pre-Symposium is curated to provide a safe space for participants (invited Malay dance practitioners1 and NUS Ilsa Tari members) to discuss issues and concerns regarding Malay dance in Singapore today. We are grateful to have the invited practitioners on board and to share their experiences and involvement in the Malay dance scene.

One of the notable topics of discussion is the expectations and representations in Malay dance. When viewing Malay dance, we often witness or rather, expect to see an ideal representation of Malay men and women where male dancers exude an aura of masculinity while women focus on showcasing their femininity through their movements. However, what if dance practitioners choose to utilise Malay dance as a platform to challenge such norms or to surface “taboo” topics through their works?

“What does Malay dance mean to me?”

To start off, some of the participants were given the opportunity to conduct a three-minute presentation and I found it interesting how each of them vary in terms of their approaches, perspectives and concerns when addressing Malay dance.

Among the participants who had presented, one of them highlighted the issue of gender in Malay dance and had shared his own personal experience as an effeminate cis-male with female tendencies in the Malay dance scene. He had surfaced how the roles played in Malay dance are very traditional, with the female often portrayed as demure or shy while the males executes movements which are seen as bold or pertains to the idea of leadership. 

“Are all females always shy? Are all males strong?”

As such, he had to always ensure that he met such standards of showcasing the notion of the “ideal” male on stage regardless of his identity. To him, Malay dance is viewed as an artform that practises traditional norms. I realised that although dance and the arts are supposedly creative spaces, dancers have to conform to such conventional gender ideals rather than having the freedom to “express” themselves. Could Malay dance then be said to please or rather, to solely be a form of entertainment for the wider Malay community who place high emphasis on the idea of gender binary?

In another presentation, a participant had also brought forth how Malay dance had taught her to be independent. From having to manage her own costume, make-up and hair prior to going out on stage to perform, she had learnt ways of managing herself. This greatly aided her in staying strong alongside her family when facing hard times. 

“Tari mengajarku untuk berdikari” (Dance taught me to be independent)

Growing up, her single mother constantly sent her and her sister for Malay dance lessons. She now understands that Malay dance has enabled her mother to enjoy some “free time” amidst the challenges to fend for their family. Dance had become a form of escape for her. Till today, she came to develop love and embrace Malay dance as it provides her with a channel for her emotions. For her, she danced for emancipation and hopes that she will be able to save others through dance.

Afterwards, all of the participants were divided into smaller groups and held discussions using the fishbowl approach, in which each group’s members were divided into an inner and outer circle. In the inner circle (fishbowl), individuals engage in a discussion while those in the outer circle observe and take notes.

Though there were many interesting and eye-opening questions that were discussed, I will surface the two “big” recurring themes common in most of the questions that were posed.

The dancing minds – several questions raised during the fishbowl discussions. (Photos by Suraya Suhairi, Assistant to Producer – GERAK)

Malay Dance and its Identit(ies)
“What is the Singapore Malay dance identity?” ● “Do we need a Singaporean Malay dance?”

One of the participants shared that while performing Malay dance within and beyond Singapore, he is often asked “What is the Singaporean Malay dance?”. In Singapore, we practise the five basic forms of Malay dance (Asli, Inang, Masri, Joget, Zapin). These dance forms are not unique to Singapore, and constitute elements of culture and movements from the various folk dances in the Malay archipelago. In grappling with the question, the participant showcased a 3-minute performance that demonstrated various sub-ethnic Malay identities, prior to the fishbowl discussion. The performance made me ponder on whether it is important for us to have a Singaporean Malay dance.

In addressing the question, another participant surfaced how Malay dance may have been one of the tools in providing the Singaporean Malays with a sense of identity in the past. This is especially during the period of nation-building where identity was of utmost importance to provide individuals with a sense of belonging. Hence, would having a Singaporean Malay dance be relevant or necessary today?

The Malay culture, traditions and practices are shared extensively across the Malay archipelago. Hence, I feel that in establishing (or upholding) the Singaporean Malay dance, it is not to disregard such lineage. Moreover, the practice of Malay dance can also be limiting, in having to exist within the territorial borders.

“In every empowerment , there will be a disempowerment”

In relation to this, another participant added her sentiments towards the notion of the Singaporean Malay dance, stating that she could feel even more burdened should she continue being part of the Malay dance community. This is because in addition to having to present herself as the “ideal” Malay Muslim lady in her works, she would also be required to represent a Singaporean identity. As such, she claimed that such additional confinement towards her body movements, ideas and acts may cause her to feel even more trapped or suffocated and hence, may cause her to leave the dance scene.

Negotiating Norms Within and Through Malay Dance
“How do you handle the reactions?” ● “How to negotiate boundaries?” ● “How do you handle concerns?”

In relation to the concerns from the above-mentioned participant, I noticed that in creating dance, practitioners are aware of their multiple identities. In her case, as a mother, daughter, dancer, and in being Singaporean, among others. In shouldering these identities, many felt the pressures or obligations to conform to the (gendered) expectations of each identity, in their dance practice. Among these expectations, is the portrayal of the ideal Malay Muslim persona. The pervasiveness of such ideals and gendered expectations in the community, may have resulted in the Malay dance scene being less tolerant towards works that challenge these norms.
I find this topic on challenging societal norms through dance to be the ‘hottest’ topic during the discussion. Growing up in a Malay environment, there is a tendency to keep personal opinions to oneself. As the saying goes:

“Jangan jaga tepi kain orang” (to disregard concerns about others)

This practice may inculcate a norm of self-censorship. As a (plausible) result, themes that are intrusive within the society, such as family abuse or gender diversity, may be deemed as “taboo” topics. Therefore, they are rarely discussed in Malay dance.

Even for the other participants, they claimed that it is a struggle for them to utilise Malay dance as a tool to surface such taboo topics through their works due to the consequences, such as disappointing their gurus. One of the participants claimed that in the Malay dance scene, the respect given to one’s own parents should equate to the respect towards your guru. These gurus are often the pioneers in the scene. As such, challenging normative movements and ideals within Malay dance may be deemed as being “disloyal” and “bringing shame” to one’s guru(s). Hence, many of the participants are hesitant in bringing about change regardless of their desire to do so. Moreover, given their already small pool of audience, they are worried that producing non-normative works may lead to the disapproval of a large portion of their audience and ultimately cause a reduction in their audience count. In other words, these participants do desire to explore various kinds of non-normative themes in their work to challenge the gendered norms or raise societal awareness yet, their ability to do so can be said to be constrained.

In addition, there is also a small concern among the participants that the Malay dance scene is becoming more exclusive. This is because the Malay dance groups in Singapore require its members to be committed to their frequent training sessions as they participate in various Malay dance events. This means that individuals who may not be able to commit to the training sessions yet, are interested in building their skills or merely interested in Malay dance may not be able to do so due to the limited platforms available. 

What Has Been Done?
“What changes have I made?” ● “How do we move from here?” ● “What more can be done?”

That being said, these practitioners recognise such issues and are taking small steps in addressing it. For instance, a participant claims that he is trying to organise more workshops for such individuals and also points out the efforts of other practitioners in the Malay dance scene who have held various kinds of open classes. In fact, some of these practitioners have also attempted to break the norms within the practice of Malay dance, through their works. Despite receiving criticisms from some of their peers and pioneers of the Malay dance scene, they still mention such works with much pride and optimism – which can be attributed to their desire of truly initiating change.

Through all of those conversations with the practitioners and listening to their concerns, thoughts, and feelings; the GERAK Pre-Symposium opened my eyes to the various issues present in the Malay dance scene which have never once crossed my mind. As a student who has been involved in Malay dance since I was 13, it made me realise how I have taken the practice of Malay dance for granted. Prior to this, I had overlooked the gender conformity in Malay dance and the tendency for the dance pieces to focus mostly on happiness, love or family. However, the issue of gender in Malay dance should be problematised as everyone has an identity of their own and should not feel the need to succumb to displaying characteristics deemed as defining a “male” or a “female”. I strongly believe in utilising Malay dance as a platform for us to be able to raise social awareness towards issues which are rarely talked about within the Malay community. This way, we may be able to lead the Malay community in viewing certain social issues through a different lens and encourage them to make a difference in their lives.

Ultimately, despite my love for Malay dance, I recognise that I might not be able to be as involved in the Malay dance scene as I am right now, due to my inability to commit to the rigorous training of the various Malay dance groups. However, I am grateful and happy to know that some of the practitioners today are starting to acknowledge such concerns encountered by many others as well, and are putting in the effort to provide more platforms for us. Their courage to also touch on non-normative themes in their works with the aim to raise awareness, is also a step that should be admired. Although these practitioners’ efforts in attempting to make a difference may be small, I believe that it has the capacity to evoke the realisation among many others within the Malay dance scene towards the issues which exist and perhaps, it could inspire others to make a difference as well!

  1. Several Malay dance practitioners between 20 to 40 years old were invited for the GERAK Pre-Symposium, of whom 12 had attended. As the Pre-Symposium aims to be a safe space for discussions and to raise concerns, the practitioners are kept anonymous in this article.