Traditional Dances In Malaysia

Thanks to being a mixing bowl of different cultures, traditional Malaysian dances are just as plenty as the variety of traditional Malaysian food and festivals.

In fact, because each race has different ethnic groups, you can imagine that there are at least over 50 when it comes to dances!

However, not many are practiced today which leaves at least over a dozen popular ones that are still common in Malaysia. So we have listed 15 traditional dances in Malaysia that you can learn more about.

1. Silat

Silat is a Malaysian traditional dance from the Malay culture. Its history dates back to the 1700’s and is based on martial arts and the skill of evading an attack. The dancers are usually seen dressed in sarong while wielding weapons such as the sickle, spears or more commonly the kris.

Silat Is Traditionally Performed By Men
Silat Is Traditionally Performed By Men – Photo 163515382 © Ravindran John Smith

Special martial arts drums called Gendang Silat accompany the dance. The music is usually energetic and dramatic which gives the performers and the audience a combative atmosphere!

Currently there are over 500 Silat associations in Malaysia which actively practices this dance. You can easily search one up if you would like to watch performances.

2. Zapin

Zapin originates from Hadramaut, Yaman and was introduced to the Malay community in Malaysia. It is predominantly practiced in Johor but it is not uncommon to see it performed around Malaysia.

Zapin - One Of The Many Traditional Dances In Malaysia
Zapin – One Of The Many Traditional Dances In Malaysia – Photo 10512037 © Mohdhaka

However, zapin is not only practiced in Malaysia but in numerous other countries and there are many variations of the dance!

In the past, only male dancers used to perform the zapin but today, it is common to see female dancers practicing the Zapin dance as well.

Moreover, it used to be only during religious occasions but is now performed for entertainment as well.

Musical instruments that accompany this traditional dance in Malaysia include the accordion, violin, gambus, gendang, marwas/marawis, and rebana.

3. Magunatip

Magunatip dance has a fun story behind it:

Magunatip Uses Bamboo Poles
Magunatip Uses Bamboo Poles – Photo credits to kyung_jin_kim_ (Instagram)

According to elders, it was started as a prank by a farmer who would try to trip his friends. He would modify two bamboo shoots and clap them together when they tried to cross. This soon turned into a fun game and developed into a dance for the Murut people in Sabah.

Interestingly, it is also performed for pagan rituals as well as coming home celebrations for head-hunters.

The music is simple as it combines both the sounds on the bamboo sticks clapping on the ground and each other as well as a gong. It starts with a slow tempo at first and then speeds up which ultimately creates a lively atmosphere!

4. Kuda Kepang

Originating from neighbouring Indonesia, the kuda kepang or kuda lumping dance is is meant to be a re-enactment of the war against the Dutch colonial wars. There are Javanese people in Johor who still practice it!

Kuda Kepang Dance
Kuda Kepang Dance – Photo 78607284 © Wan Rosli Wan Othman

The name of the dance translates to flat horse which is the prop they use during their performance. It can be made from many materials but tradition calls for rattan. The horses are then decorated with colourful beads, cloth and sequins.

The dance is accompanied by instruments such as the gong, gendang and kenong. It’s quite common for the performers to fall into a trance during the dance as well.

5. Bharatanatyam

Presumably the oldest dance in Indian heritage, the Bharatanatyam is a dance that focuses on the storytelling of religious practices and Indian folklore.

Bharatanatyam - A Traditional Dance In Malaysia
Bharatanatyam – A Traditional Dance In Malaysia – Photo credits to swar_sangam_sanskritik_manch (Instagram)

The name breaks down to a few meanings:

 Originating from Sanskrit, Natyam means dance whereas the word Bharata has 3 words in it; Bha, Ra and Ta. Bha is for Bhava which means emotions. Ra is Raga which means melody and Ta is for Tala which means rhythm.

This traditional dance in Malaysia consists of both body movements but more importantly, the emotions of the dancer’s face which will set the tone for the characters in the story as it progresses through the performance.

The music consists of instruments as well as a singer. The instruments used cymbals, flute, nagaswaram, mridangam and veena which is played according to the type of performance.

6. Tarian Topeng

Mah Meri is an ethnic aboriginal group found in peninsular Malaysia. The tribe is found along the coast of south Selangor as well as the Klang River. They are commonly found on Pulau Carey and are known internationally for their excellent skills in wood carving.

Tarian Topeng by Mah Meri Of Malaysia
Tarian Topeng by Mah Meri Of Malaysia – Photo 96432214 © Woravit Vijitpanya

They have 3 dances but the most popular one is the tarian topeng which translates to Mask Dance. It is also called mayin jo-oh.

This Malaysian traditional dance is about calling out to ancestral spirits to join in the festivities. The performers wear masks that depict the nature around them such as the spirits of birds and creatures of the sea and swamp.

The music incorporates hollowed bamboo shoots called a tuntog, the viola, a brass gong and a double headed drum.

7. Sumazau

A popular Malaysian dance that originates from the Kadazan Dusun tribe in Sabah, Sumazau dances can be found throughout Malaysia. You will find that is often performed during the harvest festival in East Malaysia which takes places in the month of May.

Sumazau Dance By Kadazan Dusun Tribe In Sabah
Sumazau Dance By Kadazan Dusun Tribe In Sabah – Photo 28069855 © Ravindran John Smith

The dance was inspired by soaring eagles over the fields and this is interpreted by the dancers when they have their arms outstretched.

This elegant traditional Malaysian dance requires skill and coordination as the dancers will need to avoid each other’s outstretched arms as they dance around one another.

And while there isn’t a limit on how many dancers can be in one performance, they often dance in pairs.

The musical instruments that often accompanies the Sumazau dance are gongs and drums which are played by 6 people.

8. Bhangra

A traditional folk-dance originating from Punjab, Bhangra is a fast paced, upbeat dance that is accompanied by equally energetic music.

Bhangra Dance During A Punjabi Wedding Dinner
Bhangra Dance During A Punjabi Wedding Dinner – Photo 107651079 © Rashpal2101

Originally, it was performed during the harvest festival during Vaisakhi. It would be performed while the farmers farmed their crops.

Though, in modern times, the dance is often associated with weddings, parties and some have even incorporated the music into modern music!

The dance itself is performed by dancers who pump out spirited kicks and leaps and lots of shoulder movements. The music that accompanies the dance is made by a drum that is strapped to the body of the musician and is struck with a heavy beater on one end.

This is one of the most lively traditional dances you can see in Malaysia!

9. Mak Yong

Considered a unique dance to the Malay culture, the mak yong dance doesn’t have outside influences and originates completely from Kelatan-Patani mythology. It involves a combination of vocals, acting and music.

Mak Yong Dances
Mak Yong Dances – Photo 28069952 © Ravindran John Smith

While it is entertaining to watch, mak yong is often performed for healing rituals. Although it is performed in the royal theatre too and the dancers are mostly women.

The performance always starts with an offering to the spirits and the rest of the performance is accompanied by a small orchestra where the main instruments are a pair of gongs, drums, flutes, small cymbals, keduk drums, and stringed spiked lute.

10. Ngajat

The history of the ngajat dance is not very clear but it has been around since the 16th century. It was performed to celebrate victory in battles and was performed by the warriors themselves.

Ngajat Performance
Ngajat Performance – Photo credits to drjoefferysylvester (Instagram)

This traditional dance in Malayisa has developed over decades and is now performed during the Gawai Dayak festival which is the harvest festival celebrated annually in Sarawak by the Iban community.

It’s a graceful dance, and both female and male dancers are involved in the ngajat dance with their respective outfits.

The music that goes along with this dance includes a variety of gongs of different sizes as well as drums.

11. Dikir Barat

Dikir barat is not just a dance but is somewhat similar to choral speaking but with singing. However, the performers, who are typically in groups of up to 15 members or more, sit crossed legged on the floor during the entire performance.

Dikir Barat
Dikir Barat – Photo 165515300 © Ravindran John Smith

The dancing itself is done while seated so the movements are solely on the arm and upper body manoeuvres.

The songs that are sung usually contain social or political issues or even daily human life. The tone that is set is often humorous and witty. There is the leader of the group called the tok juara who leads the performance whereas the other performers who perform the chorus is called the awak-awak.

Musical instruments are often not used in dikir barat. But some performances do use some percussion instruments such as gongs and maracas.

12. Joget

A combination of two Portugese folk dances, Joget is a widely performed traditional dance in Malaysia. Its origins date back to the 16th century. It was introduced in Malacca during the spice trade and is known there as chakunchak.

The Traditional Joget Dance Involves Female And Male Dancers
The Traditional Joget Dance Involves Female And Male Dancers – Photo 144637949 © Ravindran John Smith

Often performed by couple who are teasing one another, the two dancers do not touch but instead manoeuvre around one another while making intricate hand and feet moves.

It is a relatively happy dance, and the tempo and rhythm of the dance is often upbeat with plenty of musical instruments used such as the violin, flute, rebana and a gong.

Hence, it is usually performed at weddings and festivals.

13. Terinai

Terinai dance or inai dance is considerably rare and is mainly reserved for weddings, circumcision ceremonies or royal coronations.

Terinai Is Performed Sitting Down
Terinai Is Performed Sitting Down – Photo credits to mohdzulkarnain93 (Instagram)

And while it’s not very widespread throughout Malaysia, the dance is still practiced in Perak – typically performed by a woman while picking henna leaves to be used during the malam berinai (Henna Night) that is held for the bride before the wedding.

The dance contains intricate hand movements and often starts with the dancers seated.

Female dancers may hold a small tray that contains a lighted tea candle and without dropping it, they will manoeuvrer it up, down and even upside down!

Musical instruments that accompany this Malaysian traditional dance are a gong, flutes and drums.

14. Lion Dance

While it isn’t clear when the lion dance exactly originated, it can be traced back all the way to the Qin Dynasty in China (around 221 BC). Though back then, dancers would wear masks resembling mythical creatures or animals.

Lion Dance
Lion Dance – Photo 39694378 © Chinchoi

In Malaysia today, it takes a group of trained dancers to don the lion costume and be in sync with one another to give the lion its trademark cunning personality as well as the dexterity to hop on high poles!

It usually takes 2 people to dance as one lion – one at the head, and the other at the tail.

You’ll hear this dance (and spot the crowd) before you see it as it is very loud with drums, cymbals and gongs.

Lion dance troops are predominantly hired out for Chinese New Year, but their services may also be requested for new homes or businesses to usher in good luck.

15. Tarian Dabus

A dance of the warriors, tarian dabus originates from Perak and it requires the dancers to show cheerfulness, skill, valour, and intellect during the performance.

Tarian Dabus Dance In Malaysia
Tarian Dabus Dance In Malaysia – Photo from Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-kanak Bagan Datoh

Its origins are debatable – some say it is from Aceh while others believe it was introduced by a Persian back in 1785.

The dance is performed by 8 to 12 dancers who dance to the beat of a rebana. At the end of the dance, the performers will then prick themselves with an anak dabus (a sharp tool) to show their bravery.

Unfortunately, this traditional dance in Malaysia is slowly dying out despite having survived for over 300 years. 

Conclusion

While we only mentioned 15 Malaysian traditional dances, there is a whole lot more! Each with their own history, traditional Malaysian clothing, and meaning to their respective race/ people.

Either come during the harvest festival (East Malaysia) or other main Malaysian festivals, or keep an eye out for cultural shows in theatres or performing art centres. Or if you have a good friend, you might get lucky and be invited to a wedding.

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