MUSE SG – Tracing the steps of Malay dance

MUSE SG is a collaborative effort between the National Heritage Board and NUS History Society. Every semester, students in the History community are given the chance to research on a selected topic and thereafter contribute an article to the publication.

In this series, we interview writers of MUSE SG Volume 13 – The Intangible Cultural Heritage Issue – and find out what it’s like to be part of this project!

Sarah is a History and English Literature undergraduate at NUS. In this volume, she explores the craft of Malay dance and how local practitioners continue to keep its spirit alive. Check out her article here!

What have you written about in this issue of MUSE SG? Could you briefly share some of your findings?

For MUSE SG this year, the focus is on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and to roughly define it, I see ICH as a specific type of history, to do with socio-cultural heritage and ways of life for Singaporeans. There are various types of cultural practices that we can choose from to dive into for MUSE, and I chose to write about Malay Dance in Singapore.

Without talking too much about my article (give it a read!), Malay Dance is very much alive in the contemporary Singaporean society, and our local practitioners have their sights set on not just preserving Malay Dance, but also reinventing it, so Malay Dance pieces are even being showcased overseas besides Southeast Asia!

Why did you choose this topic? What fascinated you most about the topic?

 I’ve always been interested in arts and culture, specifically dance and music, so getting a chance to research on and explore Malay Dance, which I am not so acquainted with, was a unique opportunity to broaden my understanding on an area that I was interested in to begin with. It’s a bit of a niche area, because of how we students and young ones only think of our ethnic dances (Chinese Dance, Malay Dance, Indian Dance) in the context of a school setting and the popularity of dance in mainstream media is largely focused on the “quintessential” ballet and funky things like hip-hop, Korean pop dances.

I admit that this generalisation seems to resonate with me, because a lot of the dance performances I peruse are classical ballet, and not ethnic ones. I took up writing about Malay Dance hence, in order to learn more about ethnic dances and reorientate myself towards greater appreciation of arts and culture in Singapore. As a member of the audience, we are the ones that keep such traditions going, besides the practitioners themselves. So cultivating that appreciation and creating that demand for our ICH is actually an important part of this MUSE edition, I believe. 

As to what is fascinating about Malay dance… there’s really plenty to say! It’s steeped in history, being a dance that draws upon traditions of a Malay way of life, depicting the past where they lived in villages and in some senses less abstract of a dance form. However, the field of Malay Dance is also broad, having multiple styles depending on their origins, which developed in their own distinct ways. It’s a rich and varied form, ever-evolving, and most definitely not a static preservation of tradition as the term “ethnic dance” might evoke.

What have you gained through this writing experience? Could you share about your research journey?

Writing for MUSE is, in a sense, similar to churning out an essay for your modules – don’t forget all the Chicago style citations! – but the style and approach of the article is different, requiring much more flexibility and ingenuity. For example, I have to consider the audience, which is a rather broad spectrum of Singaporeans, the general reader being likely to have little to no knowledge of the history of Malay Dance.

One of the challenges therefore is to deliver my content in a way that is firstly appealing, and secondly accessible rather than a bucketload of academic jargon and technicalities. History as storytelling here is thus, really important! Of course, the article has to be thought-provoking as well, but the questions that you pose has to be developed naturally throughout the article, interweaving with care and precision the new nuggets of information with the myriad perspectives that a reader could take. 

The biggest difference in writing for MUSE as compared to academic writing is the oral history component. In order to gain a better understanding of the ICH, what better way to do so than to approach practitioners and tap on their immense expertise? I had the amazing opportunity to interview Mr. Amin Farid (Soultari), the Joint Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, choreographing Malay Dance pieces which exemplify an impeccable intersection of modern and tradition. He is also one of the few academics in the field of Malay Dance locally, currently pursuing his PhD in it. So getting acquainted with the oral history process is also something new, and a fairly important skill for all aspiring historians as well. 

In all honesty, sitting down and writing the article (as well as going through the editing process) is the easiest part of the writing journey – the most exciting and thought-provoking parts come from the interview and the research. Unfortunately, the season in which I started work on the article did not coincide with any major Malay Dance performances in Singapore, so I could not attend any programs. However, the wonders of the Internet does mitigate it somewhat, with recorded programs online for me to better observe and appreciate the beautiful art form. 

Writing is a craft, and this writing experience has been invaluable for me in helping me to develop the skills I need to be a more effective communicator (better than FAS1101) 

Who would you recommend MUSE SG to?

Anyone can definitely write for MUSE SG, so long as they’ve got the zeal to explore something new and develop themselves along the way! Singapore history has a lot to tap into, so no matter if you’re a freshie or a fourth year, do consider writing for MUSE!

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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