History Of Malay Dance

Malay Dance or Tarian Melayu is a portrayal of customs (adat resam) and culture (budaya) of the Malays to depict the true nature of Malay people and their way of life. As with most folk traditions, the practice of Malay Dance is associated with joyous occasions and related to communal activities.

Origins of Malay Dance

In the early 1900s, Malay Dance was founded by the early settlers of those who lived in the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. There are various dance traditions from many different ethnic origins which consists of the Malay region encompassing Sumatra, the Malay Peninsular, Singapore, the Riau Archipelago, and Borneo. As a result, there are the “original” Malay Dances and “adopted” Malay dances which are influenced by foreign cultures due to political and historical events.

Source: StraitsTime

Malay Dances were also incorporated in Malay films of the 1950s to 60s as part of the historical imaginations of Malay stories. These films now serve as references for staged performances. Whereas in the 1960s to 70s, social dances were practiced and provided inspiration for staged courtship dances.

Characteristics of Malay Dance

The various forms or styles of Malay Dance are categorized by their beats (rentak) and rhythm (irama). The gestures take inspiration from nature such as the blossoming of flowers, the falling of leaves, or the whispering of winds. Similarly, the movements also instill cultural values namely respecting elders, communality, humility, and graciousness. Some distinctions in Malay dance can be seen in the use of props and costumes.


In order to depict the cultural activities of Malay people, props include winnowing baskets, scarves, hand drums, saucers, handkerchiefs, bunga manggar (colorful, shiny paper or plastic strips wound around thin bamboo sticks), and conical hats.


Similarly, the costumes for Malay Dance are stylized and elaborate versions of the traditional wear worn on Hari Raya and on other occasions.

  • A female Malay Dance costume consists of either a kebaya (blouse) or baju kurung with elaborate traditional floral embroidered motifs. An additional hair bun is secured to the back of the head. The hair accessories are commonly metallic ornaments in the form of golden leaves or artificial flowers that are fastened to the back of the head to add a touch of demureness to the whole attitude. In particular, for Zapin dance, an additional cloth with gold thread motifs known as the songket (traditional Malaysian handwoven fabric) is worn on the outside of the primary costume - known as the “dagang luar”.
  • A male Malay Dance costume is made of a tunic top and pants. The samping is also a songket that is worn on the outside and fastened with a belt. As for the headgear, it could either be a songkok (oval-shaped black felt cap) or a tanjak (headwear made of cloth mostly worn by aristocratic and warrior classes).

5 Basic Rhythms of Malay Dance

Each genre consists of its own distinct range of movement vocabulary. It comprises 5 basic rhythms and dances: Asli, Inang, Masri, Zapin, and Ronggeng (better known as Joget).


The dance movements of Asli (original) dance movements and their rhythms can be traced back to the early Malay kingdoms in the 14th century. It is the slowest amongst the music and dance genres of Ronggeng Repertoire despite the slow-paced beat and rhythm, its dance is intricate and well-defined. The dance style is graceful and elegant to depict the charming nature of Malay ladies.

Prior to the introduction of Western musical instruments, indigenous musical instruments such as the rebab (string instrument), gong (percussion), rebana (Malaysian tambourine), or gendang bebano (framed hand drum) were used. The mid-16th century, due to foreign influence, led to the introduction of musical instruments such as the violin and the accordion. Modes of performing songs have also developed tremendously because of technological advancements.


Another “original” Malay Dance form, Inang, is of moderate tempo to portray the grace and swaying movements of royal maids and the qualities of a palace performance. The term Inang is said to have been derived from the word Mak Inang, a nanny or chief lady responsible for looking after royal children. In the past, Inang was performed only by ladies to adhere to the palace customs and protocols. It eventually evolved from a strict court dance to a folk dance enjoyed by all. The dances remain graceful and modest but are now highly gendered at social functions.


A form of modern Malay dance influenced by Middle Eastern or Perso-Arabic movements, costumes, and music. The Masri practiced in Singapore remains a mystery because of the distinctions between dance practitioners from Malaysia and Indonesia. Masri is occasionally performed with a triangle and this form is called Masri Kerincing. There is another prop called Hadroh, which is a sort of combination between a kompang (a traditional Islamic musical instrument like a tambourine) and a tambourine.


Beginning in the early 15th century, the influence of Zapin dance on Malay culture started to spread alongside the Islamic religion. Introduced by the Arab traders and missionaries from Southern Yemen, particularly Hadramaut region, they brought the Zapin dance and music of Arabic Zapin. The dance then assimilated itself into the Malay culture from its original form and thus created a localized version of Zapin Melayu. Zapin used to only be performed by male dancers but with the age of gender equality, women can now be seen performing this dance.


The music comes from an ensemble of traditional instruments which include qanbus (short-necked lute), marwas (small double-sided, high-pitched hand drum), accordion, and violin. There are numerous types of Zapin and they are categorized by region. 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.

Ronggeng / Joget

Joget (to dance) was introduced to the Malays in Malacca during the early 16th century and the origins may be traced back to two popular Portuguese folk dances, the Branjo and Farapeirra. Known as the fast-paced popular dance, its catchy and lively beat is used to encourage listeners to step forward and dance. In the Northern Sumatra region of Indonesia such as Medan, Deli, and Serdang, Joget is ranked to be one of Indonesia’s national dances in 1934.

The music of Joget is a hybrid character. Instruments of European, Middle Eastern, or Indian origins can be heard in the music. The music is led by the accordion and violin, and accompanied by the rebana and gong was popular in the 50s, its golden era, with its dancehalls and cabarets. The use of pantun (Malay poetry) and basic performance are indigenous. Joget music includes Joget Asam Kana, Joget Istana Lukut, and Joget Songkok Mereng.

Modern Malay Dance

Today’s staged dance practices are derived from social and entertainment practices of the past. One of the main sources is Bangsawan, a Malay language cosmopolitan theater of the early 1900s. In such theater forms, Malay Dance is featured in the storyline or stand-alone. Malay Dance remains to be part of the Malay culture in many social and community settings.

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Author: Nur Qa'riah
Searching for new things each day. Qa'riah is a lifestyle writer with an affinity for all things related to music and dance.
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