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TLDR: The long and short of Malay dance

Introducing Malay dance in Singapore


Published: 3 Nov 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

#1 | Origins of Malay dance

Where does Malay dance come from, what are some of its influences and how did it become popular in Singapore?

How it started

Tarian Melayu, or Malay dance, is practised by the people of the Malay archipelago or the Nusantara. Each nation performs the dances differently as influenced by their ideologies, stories and place. In Singapore, Tarian Melayu has been influenced and inspired by neighbouring cultures such as Indian, Chinese, Thai, Arab, Bugis, Java, Minangkabau, as well as social dances from Europe that were brought into the region during colonisation.

Tarian Melayu is often performed during social and cultural events such as weddings, festivities and communal gatherings. In the 1950s to 60s, Tarian Melayu was also performed in Malay films.

Before that, prior to World War II when entertainment parks such as Gay World, New World and Great World gained traction for their dance halls and taxi dancing girls, the ronggeng (made up of the Malay dance forms asli, inang and joget) became popular and gained its notoriety.

Tari Tualang Tiga

Tari Tualang Tiga, sung by actress-singer Saloma, features a form of Tari Silat (Silat Dance). The 1958 movie Sumpah Orang Minyak is one of the many Malay films from the 50s to 60s that weaved Malay dance into its stories.

#2 | Malay dance forms & music

Tarian Melayu is made up of classical or court dances, folk dances as well as dances by the everyday person which are made up of asli, inang, joget, masri, and zapin. These five common dance forms each have their own unique aesthetic, rhythm and music accompaniment.

Asli: What is it?

The slowest dance in comparison to inang and joget. In a partner dance, it is the moment when they are warming up and getting to know each other. Usually used to depict the lament or yearning of a lover. 


Watch: Tari Melayu Asli: Menanti Diambang Syurga, Nyala Dance Theatre
Dance form: Asli

Inang: What is it?

A moderate tempo dance that demonstrates the start of the courting phase between a couple.


Watch: Tarian Inang, Pemetaan Budaya
Dance form: Inang

Joget: What is it?

Fast paced tempo dance that is usually used in a communal setting to rouse the crowd.


Watch: Joget Hitam ManisSri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts
Dance form: Joget

Masri: What is it?

There is a great divergence between the practice of Tari Masri in Singapore in comparison to Malaysia and Indonesia. The latter countries are influenced by Perso-Arab aesthetics with Arab rhythmic music and dancers using small tambourine-like hand drums as props. While in Singapore, the dance is often performed to the Minangkabau song, Kaparinyo


Watch: Titian Naluri, NUS Ilsa Tari
Dance form: Masri

Zapin: What is it?

A fast and upbeat dance that was brought to the shores of Singapore by Yemeni traders and missionaries as a way to spread Islam.


Watch: Zapin Gemersik Ombak @ Pusaka II, Azpirasi Dance Group
Dance form: Zapin

Intangible Cultural Heritage: In Conversation with Naim Pani

Naim Pani, a veteran practitioner of Malay dance styles in Singapore shares about his craft, how he began his journey and the challenges he overcame to be where he is today.

This video is produced by Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage conversation series which shines a spotlight on the remarkable talents who shape our cultural landscape. Reproduced with permission from MHC.

#3 | Deciphering the building blocks

What makes Malay dance uniquely Malay? From everyday movements to props and costumes, each element plays an important role.

Movements, gestures and meaning

Tarian Melayu is the personification of Malay values which is rooted in Islamic teaching. These values are filial piety, hospitality, humility, communality, politeness and graciousness. Its movement is inspired by nature and everyday movements such as walking, picking of flowers and greetings. Tarian Melayu demands its audience to derive meaning out of this movement. 

There are four important elements in traditional Malay dance: 

This is based on how well the dancer is able to technically execute the movement.

This is based on how well the dancer is able to move to the beat of the music.

This is based on how well the dancer is able to show corresponding emotions based on the intent of the work.

This is based on how well the dancer is able to embody the attitude of the work.

Costumes and accessories

Dancers in Tarian Melayu are often in traditional Malay costumes. The female dancer would wear either a baju kurung or kebaya with hair accessories such as the sanggul (steel wired ornaments) while the male dancers would wear the male baju kurung with samping (cloth worn around the waist) and either a songkok (black oval shaped hard cap) or tanjak (cloth headwear worn by warriors or the aristocrats) as headgear.


Tarian Melayu uses everyday items such as selendang (scarf), sapu tangan (handkerchief), tudung saji ( covering for food), kipas (paper fan), and payung (umbrella) as props to further the narrative of the dance or as a way to frame the body and space. Additionally, cultural artefacts such as kompang (hand drums), kain songket (woven brocade) and tepak sireh (tray for betel leaves and condiments for hosting) are also used to enhance cultural significance of the dance.

I Kid You Not: The art of Malay dance

Young dancers from Sriwana share more on the various elements that make up Malay dance.

#4 | The who's who

Traditional Malay dance in Singapore has been shaped and continues to be influenced by various dance groups and individuals.

The OGs

The two longest surviving traditional Malay dance groups are Sriwana (1955) and Perkumpulan Seni (1956). 

The present

Other than them, some who are still actively leading the scene are:

1. Sri Warisan (1997) led by the Cultural Medallion recipient, Som Said whose contributions to Malay dance in Singapore has been invaluable;
2. Era Dance Theatre (1992) led by the Osman Hamid whose ground breaking dance works earned him a Young Artist Award in 1994;
3. Azpirasi (2000) led by Azmi Juhari whose works continue to surprise his audience;
4. Dian Dancers (2003) led by the Singapore’s first Malay dance scholar Dr Amin Farid
5. Artistari Gentari (2013) led by Bada Hassan; and more!

Intangible Cultural Heritage: In Conversation with Fauziah Hanom Yusof

Fauziah Hanom Yusof, president and artistic director of Sriwana, provides insights into the dance group and the future of Malay dance in Singapore.

This video is produced by Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage conversation series which shines a spotlight on the remarkable talents who shape our cultural landscape. Reproduced with permission from MHC.

#5 | Iconic works

There are many iconic works in Malay dance that continue to be performed by Singapore arts groups and artists. These are some iconic dances you should know about. 

The five basic dances

All Malay dancers are expected to know these five basic dances: 

1. Asli Kuala Deli
2. Mak Inang Pulau Kampai
3. Tari Serampang Dua Belas
4. Zapin Asyik
5. Kaparinyo

From the 1950s to 80s

Apart from these five basic dances, works by Sriwana that emerged from the 50s to 80s have also become iconic pieces that are still practised by other dance groups today. These include: 

1. Tari Baju Kurung
2. Tari Selamat Datang 
3. Tari Remaja Ria 
4. Tari Tanjong Katong

From the 2000s onwards

Malay dance is ever evolving and new works are being created ever so often. These are some of the works created in the 2000s that have become iconic dances in Singapore.

1. Zapin Telok Blangah choreographed by Som Said, Sri Warisan
2. Inang Berputik choreographed by Mazlina Buang, Atrika Dance Company
3. Zapin Gemersik Ombak choreographed by Azmi Juhari, Azpirasi
4. Zapin Gelombang choreographed by Kamal Ridzuan, Perkumpulan Seni

Contributed by:

Fezhah Maznan

Fezhah Maznan is a creative producer and performance dramaturg. Part of her work centres around creating opportunities for new development and presentation of Malay arts and artists in Singapore and abroad.


Dr Amin Farid

Dr Amin Farid for sharing his unpublished work filling up the gaps in Tarian Melayu history.

TLDR: The Long and Short of...
Discover the essence of different traditional art forms in Singapore. Delve into the practices and cultural significance of each unique form, its practitioners, and the stories behind them.

Discover the rich heritage of Malay traditional and contemporary dance

Muara Festival 2023

Presented by Era Dance Theatre in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay as part of Esplanade's Pentas series

3 – 5 Nov 2023
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