Who Does What, in Traditional Dance? A Review of ‘Gubahan Tari Tradisi’

‘Zapin Sengkiling’ by Seth Hamzah.

Gubahan Tari Tradisi

Fakulti Tari ASWARA
Panggung Eksperimen, ASWARA
1-3 March 2019

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Review by Bilqis Hijjas

It’s a delicate dance, updating tradition. Stalwarts will decry the loss of authenticity, as the young bloods thirst for novelty. It’s even more dangerous when sex is involved – or gender. I have written elsewhere about the tightly scripted gender roles ingrained in the performance of traditional Malay dance. So watching this showcase of new ideas for traditional dance – created and performed by teachers, students and alumni of the Faculty of Dance ASWARA – I felt it would be productive to look at how the gender roles might have been tweaked, with the changing times in mind.

I am no expert in traditional dance, but even a newbie can see that in Malay dance men and women are usually strictly separated. In social dances like joget and zapin they dance in mixed pairs, but are forbidden to touch. Women dancers are expected to cast their eyes downwards and take up little space, while the men strut their stuff with protective gestures and expansive delight.

Some might argue that gender relations are the core of these dances; to change the gender relations risks making the dance unrecognisable. Witness, for example, the controversy surrounding a contemporary dance performance choreographed by Hasyimah Harith at the Esplanade in Singapore last year. Its sarong-clad women, moving pensively without a man in sight, and daring to put their hands on their own bodies and each others’, was considered scandalous by Singapore’s Malay cultural gatekeepers, largely because the title of the series was Joget, and such words are sacrosanct. You can change a little, the reigning wisdom goes, but a joget of independent women is simply too much.

‘Gambuh Menari’, by Norsafini Jafar.

No doubt Gubahan Tari Tradisi was a challenge for its artistic director, Norsafini Jafar. An expert in the royal East Coast tradition of joget gamelan, she is the current Dean of the Faculty of Dance (where she is dubbed ‘Puan Dekan’), and thus a key preserver of cultural traditions. But she seems to wear this responsibility lightly. With ‘Gambuh Menari’, her own contribution to the program which also opens the show, she demonstrates how subtle innovations can update traditional forms to more current beliefs about men and women.

I don’t usually find joget gamelan very compelling. The dancers are supposed to be women of the royal household, perhaps even concubines, and they are often demure but disregardable: obedient servants in a pageant of king worship. But Safini injects a dose of humanity into her version, as well as extra helpings of physical virtuosity. The dancers manipulate their fans with the usual elegance, but in extreme back bends, their headdresses almost touching the floor.

‘Gambuh Menari’, by Norsafini Jafar.

These are working women, the dance suggests: they mime domestic tasks, shunting a closed fan back and forth like the shuttle of a loom. One gesture uses the fan to pat down the length of their songket-clad haunches; this subtle flirtation makes them suddenly seem like real red-blooded women! So do the dagger glances they send each other, as they brandish their fans like weapons.

At one point, the dancers became uncharacteristically sombre, miming rocking an ailing child in their arms — woe betide the unlucky concubine whose male heir fails to thrive! Like The Story of Yanxi Palace, the current hit of Chinese streaming tv, the dance paints a portrait of women covertly jostling for position in the most patriarchal of environments. Sure, their options are limited, but within their confines they are exercising whatever agency they can.

‘Asyik Emas’ by Zamzuriah Zahari.

The same cannot be said of Zamzuriah Zahari’s ‘Asyik Emas’. The emphasis on back bends and golden headdresses remains, but this reimagined court dance renders its women as literally little more than ornaments. They symbolise ‘bunga emas’, the elaborate golden trees offered by the sultans of the northern states of Malaya in tribute to the kings of Siam in the 19th century. The historical connection is appropriate: tari asyik comes from Kelantan and traces its origins to 17th century Pattani, both vassal states to Siam. And the dance is certainly attractive: the dancers’ long fake gold fingertips intertwine like spiky blooms, and they pose serenely with one foot upturned behind them in the flying apsara pose familiar from Thai dance.

But the implication of women as the property of men, the idea of giving women as gifts, disturbs me. You would probably cause a riot if you made a dance reenacting Malay rulers prostrating themselves at the foot of a Thai king.

And yet we are so normalized to the idea of women as property, as doll-like decorative objects, that a dance like ‘Asyik Emas’ is, sadly, totally uncontroversial.

‘Siombo Undu-Undu’ by Douglas Philip Labadin.

Across the sea, in East Malaysia, the status of women in traditional dance is not much better. In most of the traditional dance from Sabah and Sarawak, women do small extremely repetitive movements. Large groups of women function as an undifferentiated chorus, juxtaposed against a single male protagonist depicting a warrior or shaman. In this show, Douglas Philip Labadin’s rendition of tarian Mongigol from the Rungus of Sabah retains that pattern, with the added emphasis of having the single male dancer select his chosen consort from the ensemble by bestowing her with a necklace. What woman could resist? I would be wary, if I were her: being chosen by men has poor outcomes for women in dance. See The Rite of Spring, in which the Chosen One is sacrificed to fertilise the soil after winter. See also: female tribute, as above.

‘Pisak Lukan’ by Muhammad Yunnus Zainalabidin.

So I was relieved to see a different, still segregated but more equal, vision of gender relations in Muhammad Yunnus Zainalabidin’s version of the dances of the Melanau Lijou from Mukah, Sarawak. This is a tari bubu, which uses a woven bamboo fishing trap dressed in baju and sash to represent a member of the dead. At the climactic moment, the bubu, suspended by cords in the centre of a circle of men, appears to dance eerily by itself. The women still play a secondary role, not touching the bubu, dancing in circles around the men. But they hold ceramic plates which they tap with chopsticks in counterpoint to the rhythm of the percussion, almost as if they are conducting the spooky proceedings. And if the bubu is empowered to dance, so are the women, in a strikingly similar manner: a series of parallel-footed little hops around in a circle, one of the only times in the evening when I saw women with both feet off the ground.

‘Perahu Kayu’ by Kayrol Marknann.

Indoctrination into gender roles starts early in life, and the most anxious gender policing happens around the bodies of children. Kayrol Marknann’s ‘Perahu Kayuh’ is a case in point: a horde of little kids from SK Taman Megah, probably between the ages of 7 and 10, in a dance about paddling a boat. The girls, given the liberty of wide-legged pants under their little kebaya, get to shriek and charge about, but the boys still look like they’re having more fun, kicking and bopping their way around the stage. The distinction became particularly noticeable at one moment when the kids sit in a line on the ground like dikir barat, to clap and chant and row. The boys get to sit cross-legged, while the girls, even in pants, are required to kneel on their heels. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s really hard to get traction for leaning, rowing and clapping when you’re kneeling. You’re in constant danger of toppling over. Being a little woman doesn’t seem like that much fun.

The work that tries the hardest to achieve parity between men and women is Seth Hamzah’s ‘Zapin Sengkeling’, inspired by the straddle stance of kaki kekuda in silat. Silat is one of the few Malay cultural practices in which women are allowed to take a wide-legged position (the cross-dressing Pak Yong in tarian makyong is another, as are female dancers of the traditionally male tari inai). So here the women dress similarly to the men and are able to do somewhat similar moves. Disappointingly, this hybrid format failed to gel, especially among the male dancers, perhaps because of a breakdown between movement and music, or because of the inexperience of the dancers. I hope it wasn’t because the male dancers felt that their masculinity was threatened!

‘Joget Terbang’ by Muhammad Zakwan Hafizie.

And yet anyone worried that Fakulti Tari ASWARA is boringly heteronormative would have been reassured by the finale, Muhammad Zakwan Hafizie’s totally camp ‘Joget Terbang’. The all-male dancers sport fabulous powder blue and gold ensembles, with lofty sharp-angled tengkolok presumably intended to look like the tailfin of a plane, and royal blue superhero capes. Inspired by flight attendant safety announcements, the dancers gesticulate with flat hands: emergency exits are here, here, and here. Was this a subtle nod to the reputed proclivities of airline stewards? In any case, the sight of 12 grown men earnestly pretending to be aeroplanes brings a welcome sense of humour to the proceedings. Towards the end, the music speeds up and the dancers do likewise. Prepare for lift-off!

As the crowd went wild, I thought that AirAsia really should hire them all, recaparison them in trademark red, and fly them around the world to perform. Pop a few women dancers in there (in pants, please, not mini dresses), and it would make a fine advert for gender inclusivity. Because in this day and age, really, everyone can fly.

All photographs generously contributed by LH Tang.

Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.


  1. First of all, I would like to thank the writer for her efforts in developing dance criticism in Malaysia. While there are many dance scholars in Malaysia that are well versed in both traditional and contemporary Malaysian dance, we have yet to develop dance criticism as our counterparts have done in Indonesia and the Philippines. However, I would like to comment and perhaps add another perspective to this discussion.

    First of all, there is a significant language barrier. Some people publish, criticize, and are publicly recognized largely because of their ability to write in English. (Thank you ‘a thousand times’ to my friend who helped me edit this response). By doing this, we fail to recognize some voices of communities with strong oral tradition cultures, where, the spoken word is as important (if not more at times). It’s interesting that in 21st century Malaysia, we do not ‘listen’ that much to oral cultures, even though much of the dance traditions are practiced within this context.

    The second issue, is the “KL-Centric” positionality of this review. As a Sabahan, where much of our cultures are still practiced within “oral tradition” circles, we often discuss dance matters in groups or with other dance practitioners. While there is criticism and different approaches to choreographies, we also understand that traditional dance and new choreographies struggle to get support, even though this is what maintains our cultural identity. KL is under a significantly different cultural reality, and we must be sensitive and try to understand our differences (and simmilarities) rather than impose our values over others. Furthermore, much of the performances in KL are produced and consumed for its own citizens. For example, I wonder if one day, would an actual dance practitioner from Sabah, who was raised in a specific dance tradition, who has struggled to maintain alive these dances for decades and continues to do this will ever be qualified to be a judge at the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards? Will our performances (and there are many throughout the year) ever make it? Similarly, would an actual Mak Yong practitioner from Kelantan be able to be invited to KL to judge the Mak Yong performance (whether traditional or reworked) by a group or choreographer from KL? This reflects part of what I mean by the KL-centric status and positionality of this review, and of much of the art activities and competitions that take place in KL, both largely produced and consumed by its citizens. When speaking of traditional dances, particularly outside of KL, the review could consider alternative value systems and cultural contexts.

    The third issue is regarding status, which is often determined by our financial means. More often than not, many voices are not heard or undermined because of status. Likewise, some voices are heard or considered relevant because of status as well. For this reason, I prefer to keep this response anonymous. The moment people know “who” said something, they will often automatically judge the person and not the actual statement or content. Despite this I will also say that, as a student, I am still learning and have much to learn.

    The fourth issue is regarding the globalized (largely western influenced) values in the critic of the performances. The notion that Joget gamelan are danced by “women of the royal household, perhaps even concubines, and they are often demure but disregardable: obedient servants in a pageant of king worship” depicts such values. Not only this is obviously the imagined perception of an outsider to this tradition, but it also undermines traditional or some may say ‘alternative’ notions of womanhood and female roles in this largely globalized world and attitude of many KL residents when speaking of how we live outside the city in what is often termed “the kampong”. A similar case is the analysis of “Asyik Emas” and the definition of “women as property”, undermining alternative conceptualizations of gender roles, and sanctioning Zamzuriah Zahari’s choreography as a “reimagined court dance” that “renders its women as little more than ornaments”. It seems that this is the ‘imagination’ of the reviewer of the proposed ‘reimagination’ of the choreographer regarding the ‘imagined’ ideal positionality of women by the reviewer that should apply to all Malaysian states (and their choreographies). This is probably more controversial than what the author suggests the actual dance to be.

    The fifth issue (and related to the fourth above) is the feminist (in the ‘global sense’ of the term) statements of the review. To say that the restrained small and extremely repetitive movements of the Sabah dance (specifically the Mongigol dance from the Rungus, although she claims that this applies to most of the traditional dances from Sabah and Sarawak) are restraining women and placing them in an “undifferentiated chorus” is clearly to look at traditional dances and newer renditions from an outsider and largely western feminist lens. In Sabah we respect our traditions, and develop these ones from our training. Even though I’m not a Rungus myself, my experience in the dance and in other dances of Sabah allow me to conceptualize new performances, and I don’t think that I (nor many of my choreographer friends) are placing women in constrained spaces or undermining their positionality. The movements may seem “contrained” to you, but many of these are largely controlled and not as easy to reproduce as it may seem to an outsider or non-practitioner. Moreover, there may be other alternative ways for a woman to exercise ‘power’, ‘authority’, and ‘leadership’ than those idealized global feminist ways. For example, cooking and being in the kitchen does not make us “less powerful”, on the contrary, if you come and spend some time with us, you may see how many important decisions actually take place there, and man often have to follow our decisions. I am told that in Samoa, the men are the ones that cook and are in charge of preparing the food. Does this make them more of a female and less of a man? If we speak of dance, does the confined movements in Japanese Noh theatre make the men more female? Perhaps, we need to analyze “femininities” and “masculinities” from their cultural contexts and spaces of production. The reviewer’s comparison to “The Rite of Spring” further proves the largely western governed values and positionality of the author.

    The review begins by stating that “women dancers are expected to cast their eyes downwards and take up little space, while the men strut their stuff with protective gestures and expansive delight.” This introduction sets the tone of her article as if women are in a “lower” or “constrained” positionality compared to men in Malay dances. While to an outsider, a non-practitioner, or modern dancer this may seem the case, it is largely a superficial observation of gender dynamics in dance. Does it mean that in the many cultures that men dance with women in pairs and the men ‘lead’ the choreography, that women are in a “lower” or “constrained” positionality? I don’t think so. What happens when it is the woman in the pair that is more familiar with the choreography and is actually leading the dance and making it seem as if it is the man the one that is leading? What happens when the woman is dancing with a man that has different gender identities? What happens when the woman ‘allows’ the man to lead, but does this with certain movements that forces the man to ‘lead’ the way the woman desires? These are but some of the actual experiences that both men and women experience in paired dances. The gender dynamics are much more complex than what it’s stated in the review, and it would be great to hear the opinion of a man, although I fear that the review does not actually provide the space for a male dancer to comment or give an alternative conceptualization. One of the issues with modern and globalized feminist approaches.

    The reason for this reply lies in the description of the reviewer. Usually, I would simply discuss this issue with a friend, and exchange thoughts about the way people from KL seem to have a thorough understanding of every state’s culture and tradition, particularly ours in Sabah and east Malaysia. But the description of the author says that “she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.” Hence, I post this reply here, not to undermine the work of the author, but to state that we have to be cautious of the statements we make, particularly if we are in a position of power and ‘higher status’ in the Malaysian performing arts scene. Let us not assume and impose ‘universal’ values to analyze traditional dances as well as ‘gubahan tari tradisi’. Rather, for example, I would like to listen to the choreographers ideas and their decisions regarding movements and conceptualizations. I would like to listen to the dialogue that the reviewer might have (if she did at all) with the actual choreographers of ‘gubahan tari tradisi’ (And congratulations to Fini for the conceptualization and for putting this program together). And to listen to alternative conceptualizations of dance choreographies in Malaysia by dance choreographers, practitioners, and aficionados. Let us not impose “contemporary” (often modern and largely western) values to analyze traditions and newer renditions. If we were to analyze “contemporary dance” from a strict traditionalist lens, there could be much questioning and criticism regarding what is happening in each ‘choreography’. But this is not the purpose of dance. A shared value (that could actually be ‘universal’ or ‘universalized’) is that dance brings people together, creates shared spaces, allows interactions, and a cultural understanding of ‘us’ and the ‘other’. I hope that this reply slowly helps us move into that direction.

  2. Dear Anak Kampung, thank you for taking the time and energy to
    comment! Really great to hear your voice.

    I’m afraid I don’t have time right now to write the response that your comment deserves. Just a quickie for now to say that it’s true we don’t have much East Malaysian content on our website, and I would love to rectify that. So if you’re interested to write more, please do get in touch. Anonymous reviews are appreciated too.

    Lots of your comments are valid, and I’m glad you made them, especially your insights into East Malaysian traditional dances. As I mentioned, I’m not an expert in traditional dance (or any form of dance, maybe) and, yes, I speak from a privileged KL-centric, Western-feminist-influenced point of view. Should I have declared that beforehand? I can only write from my perspective, as you can only write from yours, and I think this is the potential of criticism, to collect and display different perspectives, and thereby enrich our appreciation of dance. I don’t claim that my opinion is the right one; it just happens to be mine. And I do think it is important to undermine any belief in the critic as an omnipotent authority who speaks The Truth – – so thank you for doing that!

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