“Even for us Malays, our dance roots are from Indonesia,” says Mdm Som Said, founder and artistic director of Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts Limited. “Around 1957, two instructors from Indonesia came to teach us the five basic components of Malay folk dance — Asli, Inang, Masri, Zapin and Ronggeng (Joget).”
But seeing how Singaporean Malay dancers kept falling back on Indonesian traditions, Mdm Som felt the need to develop a Singapore Malay dance.
Inspired by weddings and the symbolism of its props, she researched and choreographed dances incorporating elements of everyday life of Singaporean Malays. “When I look back, I realise it was about our culture; but then, I didn’t think like this. I just felt it was more meaningful to have something that was truly ours.”
This exploration extended beyond individual cultures to cross-cultural collaborations. In 1971, when the-then Ministry of Culture formed the National Dance Company, the various ethnic groups experimented together, from performing separate ethnic dances to integrating them into one (one costume, one song, one dance), to unity in diversity.
In this same spirit of collaboration, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2015 will bring Mdm Goh, Mrs Bhaskar and Mdm Som together to mentor the next generation of multicultural choreographers — Meenakshy Bhaskar, Jenny Neo, Sudirman bin Mohamed, Osman Abdul Hamid, Low Ee Chiang — as they take up the challenge to create a Singapore dance from ground up.