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Ballet in Sarawak

Ballet in Sarawak

by Brendan Goh, Chan Layna

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Combining the arts of photography and dance, Ballet in Sarawak explores the history of ballet in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

Through photographs by Brendan Goh and narratives by Chan LayNa, this visual history tells the story of how ballet first emerged on the Sarawakian scene and how it took root in the small town of Kuching. LayNa shares


Combining the arts of photography and dance, Ballet in Sarawak explores the history of ballet in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

Through photographs by Brendan Goh and narratives by Chan LayNa, this visual history tells the story of how ballet first emerged on the Sarawakian scene and how it took root in the small town of Kuching. LayNa shares the story of how she started her own dance academy in Kuching. The subsequent chapters offer a concise reference book and teaching guide for students and teachers alike on the history of ballet, technical details of dance movement and expression, what goes on backstage before curtain call, and the art of the performance.

Ballet in Sarawak also details the difficulties of pursing dance, the challenges of insufficient funding and infrastructure, and lack of support from parents or institutions. Yet despite these difficulties, those associated with ballet continue to have hope conductive to the growth of this enduring dance form. It is a story of the strength of a people and culture told through photographs and words.

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Trafford Publishing
Publication date:
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8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.41(d)

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A tribute to all ballerinas in Sarawak

By Brendan Goh, Chan LayNa, Margaret Apau

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Brendan Goh and Chan LayNa
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-3470-2



"To understand the culture, study the dance.

To understand the dance, study the people."

~ Chuck Davis ~

(Dancer, choreographer, dance director, 1937-present)

History of Cultural Dance in Sarawak

Over a hundred year history under three generations of Brooke Rule, a brief period of Japanese Occupation, Communist insurgency and the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, Sarawak's enduring cultural foundation has enabled the art of Ballet to take root in this previously isolated region.

A region that stretches across the northwest coast of Borneo, Sarawak is not only rich in natural resources, but also a diversity of ethnic groups, each with their own traditions, rituals, and of course, Dances.

The Races of Sarawak and their Dances

Sarawak's ethnic groups are made up of a large proportion of tribal peoples, namely the Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Orang Ulu, to name a few. What makes Sarawak more remarkable is that it has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups, each with its own dialect, culture and lifestyle.

The Ibans are said to have originated from Kumpang, an area covering the northern tributaries of the Kapuas and the Kapuas Lakes in Kalimantan. Today they number over 30% of the state's population. While they are found throughout the state, they live predominantly along several river systems such as Batang Lupar, Batang Sadong, Batang Saribas, Batang Rajang and Batang Kemena.

Ibans are known to be avid dancers, often dancing during festivals, and today, their dance is often used to welcome visitors.

Traditionally, the Iban would dance to welcome home the head hunters.

"... As soon as the war boats are sighted dancing begins, and on their nearer approach, when the trophy heads held high by those in the boat become visible, the excitement, especially among the women, becomes intense ...". In Borneo Jungles. William O. Krohn, The Bobbs-Merrilli Company, 1927, p282.

The ngajat is a unique dance which incorporates a lot of precise and intricate body-turning movements. Iban men and women have different styles of ngajat: For men, their movements are more aggressive, depicting a man off to war, or a bird flying (in respect to the god of war, Singalang Burong). The women's version consists of soft, graceful movements.

The Lesong (mortar) used for rice pounding is also used as part of various rituals and dances. The Iban warrior may dance with the lesong, which can weigh up to 20kg. The climax of the dance is when the Iban warrior grips the lesong by his teeth while still continuing to dance gracefully.

The Melanau are mainly found in the coastal areas of Sibu and Bintulu, from the mouth of the Rajang to the mouth of the Baram Rivers. They are said to have descended from Brunei Pengiran and Orang Ulu and possibly some groups from the Phillippines. Most Melanau have abandoned their original religion called Liko which meant "People of the river".

Today, one third of the Melanau are Muslim while the rest are Christians or pagans. Melanau dancing depicts aspects of traditional livelihood with the production of sago and padi, as well as fishing.

Tarian Menyak is a traditional dance about sago-making. The male dancers stamp the bamboo poles to imitate the grinding of sago.

Tarian Alu Alu was traditionally performed during funerals and sees one dancer being balanced on top of an upright bamboo pole by his stomach, while being spun in a circular motion by the other dancers. Somersaults are incorporated into this very physical and acrobatic dance.

While many have converted to Islam and Christianity, their last remaining pagan festival which is still observed in Mukah each year in March is the Kaul Festival. This festival was traditionally celebrated to hope for a more bountiful harvest of fish in the coming year. Communal dances are performed to the accompaniment of gongs and drums and the participants dress up in fancy dress with masks.

The following dance was described by Krohn in 1927 and has been adapted today, with the use of bamboo poles rather than long handled pestles.

"... At each end of a pair of parallel bars squats a woman who grasps one end of the pestle in each hand. These two women, to the accompaniment of music, rhythmically slide the two pestles together with a resounding click of wood against wood, then back again to their original position ... The dancer's function is to keep step to the music ... The music becomes faster and faster, thereby gradually accelerating the rhythm of the dance until at last the pestles are glided back and forth so quickly that it is only with the greatest nimbleness and alertness on her part that the dancer is able to execute her steps between them ..." Krohn p 210

The Orang Ulu or 'Up river' people comprise about 5% of Sarawak's total population, consisted of 20 sub-groups, the main ones being Bukitan, Bisaya, Lun Bawang, Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah, Kajang, Punan, and the nomadic Penan.

They are concentrated along two major river systems Belaga (in Kapit Division) and Baram (in the Miri Division), and generally farmers planting hill padi, rubber and rearing pigs, buffaloes and poultry. Their villages usually contain several longhouses and they live in a demarcated class system. Most have converted to Christianity however, some still follow the many old customs and adat.

The Punan and Penan are traditionally nomadic, gathering jungle products and living in upper reaches of the Rajang River.

The Kayan and Kenyah are well known for their music especially the sape and also for their graceful dancing performed by both men and women.

Sape is a traditional string instrument, very much like a guitar, carved from a single bole of wood. Initially the sape was a fairly limited instrument with two strings and three frets, originally used only to perform ritualistic music to induce trance.

In the last century, the sape gradually became a social instrument to accompany dances or as a form of entertainment. Technically, one string carries the melody and the other strings are played in accompaniment as rhythmic drones. Sape music is usually inspired by dreams.

Lesong Dance imitates stamping of the rice pounding by Kayan women. They play interlocking rhythms by stamping the wooden poles against specific areas of the lesong.

The Hudok Apa is music created by the stamping of wooden sticks. Datun Julud (Hornbill dance) was created by a Kenyah prince, called Nyik Selong, to symbolize happiness and gratitude. It was performed during communal celebrations to greet warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual rice harvest festival. The dance is performed by a solo woman, with circular fans made of hornbill feathers, which represent the wings of the bird.

Kanjet Ngeleput is a dance which shows the stealth of an Orang Ulu hunter as he moves through the rainforest. This dance includes the use of a blowpipe to demonstrate his hunting skill.

The Bidayuh (meaning people of the land), make up 8.4% of Sarawak's population. The people are traditionally dry padi farmers. The Bidayuh have four main dialect groups and are predominantly Christian though some still practice the pagan religion.

Rajang be'uh is a typical Bidayuh dance usually performed after the padi harvest to entertain guests who enter the longhouse. The Bidayuh warrior imitates the movement of eagles or hawks as they flap their wings in flight. The hawk is one of their omen birds.

The Malays make up the second largest indigenous group located along the coast near Kuching, Bintulu and Miri Divisions. They are believed to have descended from the Minangkabau people of Sumatra and are a mixture of races.

The Malay have a number of traditional dances, mostly derived from other neighbouring countries such as West Malaysia and Indonesia.

The most popular Malays dance is the Joget which is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. This dance was originally part of their elaborate wedding ceremony and was only danced by men. A Hadra tambourine group greets the bridegroom and in the evening the women play the gendang drums while the men dance the joget among themselves.

Nowadays, the dance is performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humour. The Joget has its origins in Portuguese folk dance that was introduced in Melaka during the era of the spice trade

The Chinese migrated to Sarawak during the 18th and 19th century, brought in by the Brooke government. Like every other place in the world, they brought their culture, tradition and religion with them, including dancing, operatic singing, and Chinese painting. Lion Dance and Dragon Dance performances are the most significant dances of the Chinese festive season, meant to bring luck and prosperity.

During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Chinese dancing was only popular among Chinese school students, particularly the Chung Hua Schools. In the mid-50s there were several groups of dance lovers who learned dancing from books imported from Taiwan. On rare occasions, they would manage to find recorded music; otherwise they would make their own by recording their own singing to use for stage dance shows.

In the early 70s, a Taiwanese male teacher, Tu Xiao Yi of Chung Hua Middle School No. 1 was teaching Chinese dance to the students. After he left, there was nobody to take over his place. However, students continued passing on what they learned to the younger generation each year. One of the well-known Chinese dances at the time was "Cai-Cha-Pu-Die".

Cultural Dancing Today

From the 1970s onwards, cultural dancing was gradually acknowledged by the government which contributed to its growth. Occasionally, Indonesian teachers were invited to give courses to the local young dancers. There were, however, no government organisations or schools that offered cultural dance training except for a few private groups such as Sri Tarina, Muhibbah, MBHT among others. Zamudin Mat, Nurdjajadi Jasan and Syaugi Bustami were some of the earlier dance teachers.

Today, most of the traditional native dances are still preserved, but many show various influences of oriental and western dances. The development of cultural dances of the various ethnic groups grew alongside the development of their music and art. The choreography leans towards entertainment as most performances are targeting tourists. Some dance groups, however derive their contemporary choreography, from the original ethnic dances.



"Culture is the distinguishing trademark of a people, a spice that enriches the variety in ethnicity."

~ Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam ~

(1936-present, Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak in 1996-2011)

My Ballerina Dream

By Fang Yin Chieh, A former dance student of Kuching Ballet Academy

The wait was finally over. Climbing the stairs leading up to the studio in Carpenter Street, Kuching, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was ready for my first ballet lesson. The year was 1978, I was 11 years old and I imagined that I would be a ballerina twirling in a white tutu on tippy toes in no time at all.

I was greeted by Mrs Loke, affectionately known to her students as "Teacher". She handed me something she called a 'leotard' and a pair of tights, and told me to change into them. When I returned, she handed me a pair of soft, pink ballet shoes and showed me how to tie the ribbons.

When I was ready, she led me into the studio where I could see myself in the mirror. I was wearing what looked like a swimming costume. It was not the tutu that I had imagined but at least what I had on my feet bore some resemblance to what ballerinas wore.

Teacher asked me to show her what dancing experience I had. I immediately stood on the tip of my toes in my new ballet shoes and spun around the room. I finished by just narrowly avoiding crashing into the mirror and hitting my head on the metal barre. I felt dizzy but exhilarated at the same time.

From the expression on her face, it was clearly not what Teacher was expecting. To a naïve 11 year old, she seemed suitably impressed. With the benefit of 34 years' hindsight and many of life's experiences later (including 20 years of practicing law), it is now apparent that whatever Teacher might have thought that day, impressed she was not.

Over the next seven years, I learned that to "pull up" did not mean pulling up one's socks or pants, a "turn-out" was not a request to turn out the lights, an arabesque was not a person of Arabic origin and a battu was not a rock or a stone.

I learned that ballet involved hard work, commitment and discipline. Many hours were spent perfecting what might appear to be the simplest of moves. It would be many years and a lot of sweat before I was able to do chaînés and pirouettes without ending up on my derrière.

I learned that pointe work was not all that it was cut out to be - it was painful because my feet would blister and bleed.

I learned to respect Teacher for what she had to say about my technique. I learned to accept that the corrections she made were to help me improve and not to put me down. I learned to be resilient when I received yet another deadly stare or a shake of the head for forgetting a step in a choreography or for being two steps ahead of the music and everyone else.

I learned the value of friendship. As the inaugural members of the Kuching Ballet Academy, the group of us and Teacher shared a unique bond as we rehearsed, travelled and performed together in the late 1970s and the early 1980s as we introduced ballet and dance to the people of Sarawak through our performances on stage and on television.

That friendship has endured the tyranny of distance and the years as we went our separate ways as some of us pursued overseas studies, and eventually settled permanently, in Australia and New Zealand.

I believe that I speak for all the inaugural members when I say that our time at the Kuching Ballet Academy has enriched all our lives and has, in one way or another, shaped us into who we are today.

Madam Tan Wan Lee Pioneer and Founder of Sarawak Ballet

As a young girl, Madam Tan Wan Lee adored the art of ballet. A native Singaporean, she attended the Singapore Ballet Academy at 10 years old and later pursued her studies at the Royal Ballet School where she took up courses on Character and Western Folk Dancing during her free time. During the early years of ballet, she participated in various stage performances, competitions and art festivals in Singapore. While in London, she performed on many different occasions. After her graduation, she joined the International Ballet Caravan as a soloist and performed in Europe. She was highly commended on various occasions. She is also a member of Imperial Society of teachers of dancing, London.

Wan Lee married the late Mr Loke Yik Ping, a lawyer by profession and a Sarawakian. They settled down in Kuching at the end of 1972. She started her first ballet school at a shop next to Jalan Bishops gate, off Carpenter Street in Kuching.

In 1974, she established Kuching Ballet Academy. As a pioneer and founder of ballet in Sarawak, she introduced the appreciation of the art of ballet to the local audience. She also taught the techniques and foundation of classical ballet to her students.

During her 20 years or more living in Kuching, she has also sent a number of students to Singapore for the Royal Academy of Dancing Ballet Examination where all passed with flying colours. Her training created awareness of the value of teamwork; punctuality; integrity and the skill in coaching younger students. She also encouraged creativity and imagination by involving her students in the creation of costumes, headdresses and props.

For over three decades, Kuching Ballet Academy became the first ballet school in Sarawak to serve as an inspiration to dance culture thanks to her guidance and influence.

As a Principal with vast stage experience, Wan Lee has choreographed more than a hundred pieces of dance work. These have been created for performances such as the Kuching Ballet Academy's annual concerts, fund-raising concerts for charity as well as for the local television network, Radio Telekom Malaysia (RTM). Some of the dance abstracts that she has choreographed include Peter and the Wolf; Life in the Jungle; Tom Sawyer and Puteri Santubong.

Apart from classical ballet, she also helped to promote Chinese Classical and Folk Dance in Sarawak. Throughout the 1980s, she led her students on dance tours and held concert across Malaysia, visiting cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Melaka, and various towns across Sarawak.

In 1997, Wan Lee moved back to her beloved hometown of Singapore.

During her years as a dance principal, Wan Lee has influenced many young dancers. Some of her students have taken up dance careers, both as dancers and dance teachers internationally.

Most of all, she has touched the heart of one of her most gifted students, Chan LayNa, who was inspired to follow in her footsteps and pursue a diploma in dance teaching at the Royal Academy of Dance, London. Today, she continues with her passion in the Arts by teaching ballet and piano in Singapore.

Excerpted from BALLET IN SARAWAK by Brendan Goh, Chan LayNa, Margaret Apau. Copyright © 2013 Brendan Goh and Chan LayNa. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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