Like many other traditions, Malay dance faces the threat of extinction in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven society. Mdm Som Binte Mohamed Said, 66, better known as Mdm Som Said, has spent more than half her life championing this art form. Through her efforts, she has continued keeping the tradition alive for more than 40 years.
Malay dance is an important form of culture among the Malays in Singapore. Steeped in history, traditional Malay dance can be broken up into two categories: original and adopted. The so-called “original” Malay dances are indigenous Malay folk dances known as Asli and Inang. The “adopted” Malay dances, Joget and Zapin, are influenced by foreign cultures. These four genres form the traditional foundation of Malay dance.
Mdm Som striking an elegant pose in her studio. Photo by Lynette Lee
Mdm Som Said has had a remarkable and illustrious career as a dancer and choreographer. She had been a dancer with the Singapore National Dance Company since 1970 and a choreographer of Malay dance for television, festivals and parades since 1974. As a cultural ambassador, she also represented Singapore overseas many times. From performer to choreographer, she has spread the Singapore Malay culture to the world.
The 1987 Cultural Medallion recipient is also the founder of Sri Warisan, a performing-arts company formed in 1997. Besides performing Malay dance, Sri Warisan also conducts workshops for organisations and schools to grow the understanding of Malay dance. The company’s style is unique, blending traditional Malay dance with contemporary movements.
So how did Mdm Som Said’s love for Malay dance begin?
Unexpectedly, it was her strict upbringing that introduced her to the world of Malay dance. In her family, a teenage girl was not allowed to go out by herself. When she wanted to go out, she would have to bring a younger girl with her as a chaperone. That was how Mdm Som became her sister’s chaperone at the tender age of six.
“My sister’s favourite thing to do was [to watch] Malay movies. So I would follow her. I would go not because I wanted to know what movies were on, [but because] I enjoyed the dances in those classical movies,” she recounted.
Her love and passion for dance grew from that point. She enjoyed the music and dancing so much that she would memorise the steps and practise them at home.
“When I was in Primary 1, I was already participating at school concerts during Sports Day. But it was not Malay dance, it was folk dance. When I was in Primary 2 I called friends and neighbours to do a performance together with me. At the time there was no teacher-in-charge. It was just a matter of picking someone – and it was me. [So I] gathered a few of my friends, and we performed at every Sports Day,” she said.
Interestingly, her family found her love of dance a curiosity as none of them was interested in music or dance.
In fact, her mother had initially objected to her participation in dance because she did not have a younger sister. If she went out, it was without a chaperone.
“As a teenager, I always went out during the weekend and practised until night. I think it was natural that she objected to my dance activities at that time,” shared Mdm Som Said.
Despite her mother’s initial objections, Mdm Som Said continued to dance. When asked about how she planned her dance career, she only shrugged, and said that she never thought about what was coming up next. She just went where dance took her.
“I just went with the flow. I didn’t have the slightest idea where dance would take me.”
Her journey next took her to the Malay performing arts group, Sriwana, at age 14. She was invited by a friend to join the organisation. Mdm Som was instantly drawn by the family-oriented atmosphere of Sriwana.
There were no regular dance teachers at Sriwana. “The person who stood in front is your teacher. Very soon I [saw myself] standing in front, teaching. Everyone there was a volunteer. We learned from one another,” she said.
With the departure of more senior members, Mdm Som Said took it upon herself to organise the group of volunteers and trained them to dance.
“I automatically initiated for them to come. We practised together, and I was the one recording the steps. Year after year, I had to keep pushing them., The leader made me the instructor of the Malay dance group.”
The next step Mdm Som Said took was to take part in a nationwide audition that was held to select dancers to form the National Dance Company (NDC) in 1970.
“There was where I met Dr Francis Yeoh, the artistic director. The call for auditions was open and I was selected. [It was where] I learned Chinese dance, and Indian dance. It was multi-ethnic,” she recounted.
The NDC was founded by Dr Francis Yeoh in preparation for the Adelaide Dance Festival that was in 1972. “The preparation was so tedious, but I enjoyed every moment [of it].”
Before the NDC, Mdm Som Said had only considered herself a dancer. But it was through NDC that she became a choreographer. “When I was there, I was Dr Francis Yeoh’s pet dancer. He asked me to remember everything. My memory at the time was good.”
She took pride in going the extra mile when it came to performing, and it propelled her to success. “If he (Dr Francis Yeoh) asked for 1-2-3-4, I’d give 1-2-3-4 with a lot of sass. I gave extra. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed it, and he noticed that. So when Francis left, I became the choreographer of the dance company,” she said,
All this while, Mdm Som Said had never had a formal dance education. She learned about new dance styles by attending festivals. Her travels took her to many countries like Australia, Russia and Japan. “Whether it’s Asian festivals, or ASEAN festivals or regional festivals, I would love to learn and study.” “I went to the festivals with open eyes, an open mind, and an open heart, accepting and embracing all the things I saw. When I brought what I saw back home, it became turning points [in my practice],” said Mdm Som Said.
Having chalked up almost 20 years of experience in dance and choreography, her formal training only began in 1983, when she was invited to study dance at Padepokan Seni Bagong Kussudiardja, an art education institution in Jakarta, Indonesia. “It was there that I learned what was contemporary dance and what was avant garde. I came back and used my new knowledge to create new works.”
“In the ’90s, the demand for school performances, workshops and instructors was overwhelming,” Mdm Som explained. She wanted to reach out to children, to teach them about Malay dance and the performing arts, so she made the decision to form Sri Warisan in 1997.
“At the time, the children were too academically inclined, [they were] like robots. Even when I said, ‘Come, let’s watch a performance,’ to my niece and nephew, they would say ‘Yucks!’ It was something alien to them,” she shared.
It was a gamble that Mdm Som took, not knowing how it would turn out and whether Sri Warisan could sustain itself. “There were so many artistically talented people around me, but there was no platform for them, and no opportunity for professionalism.”
Her gamble paid off, with Sri Warisan now in its 20th year. However, their journey was not an easy one. The initial challenge was in changing the traditional mindset of the Malay community. Mdm Som Said shared that some questions that concerned the Malay community were: “Can the performing arts be a career? Are you selling your art? Are you degrading its value?” But she brushed them aside, and focused on what she wanted to do.
Sri Warisan provides arts education to schools. “We have about 17 programmes [categorised under] experience, excursion and exposure,” said Mdm Som.
Their main programme is their exposure programme where students attend their performances for a better understanding of Malay dance and culture. For experience, students learn how to perform the dance and also get to interact with the dance group. Lastly, for excursions, students get a glimpse at behind-the-scenes activities at the studio.
Besides the educational aspect, they also perform at weddings and community events to promote authentic Malay dance, with its traditional costumes and music.
Beyond just Singapore, Mdm Som even brought her dance group overseas to countries such as Canada, South Korea and Russia to raise awareness of Malay dance in the world. “International festivals are very important to us because when we [perform a dance], 30 to50 minutes overseas, we are showing Singapore to the world.”
Representing Singapore overseas through Malay dance instils a sense of pride in the culture. Photo by Lynette Lee
“When they announce, ‘From Singapore!’, there’s that feeling of pride. We feel that sense of pride and belonging,” Mdm Som Said shared.
What motivates her to continue with the performing arts all these years was the need to educate Singaporeans and expose them to Malay dance as well as provide a platform for the younger generation to pursue and participate in Malay dance.
“I provided opportunities that I didn’t have [when I first started]. But at the time, I didn’t know I didn’t have opportunities. I just went on and on and on. It always was just a hobby. I believe nowadays it’s become a question – how much of it is passion? [You can talk] about passion, but people need to live. So you have to balance passion and survival,” she shared.
To Mdm Som Said, this is where the issue of financing poses another challenge.
“We are a non-profit company. We get our funding from schools, the Ministry of Education and the National Arts Council. This is where we get the money from, and we distribute it to everybody in the company.”
It is a challenge to think about where the next funding will come from. According to Mdm Som Said, they have to rely on grants to be able to put up productions. But that has never deterred her from continuing her passion.
Mdm Som Said’s passion doesn’t begin and end with dance. She is also the creator of Ratu Sari Bridal House in 1983, the first Malay wedding boutique in Singapore. This began with her love for makeup art, hair styling and her vast collection of traditional costumes collected through her many travels. “I didn’t know that my collection of costumes was what Malay brides liked to wear.” It started as an informal pursuit when I was helping out at friends’ weddings. I helped dancers and relatives to do their makeup, and to them, it was beautiful.”
The vast selection of colourful costumes Sri Warisan collects for performances. Image source: Lynette Lee
The costumes were popular at the time. This was in the late ’70s, when Malay brides would wear six or seven costumes from different parts of the world in one night.
“During the time I was a Mak Andam [a woman who advises on weddings]. Although it was only on weekends, I prospered. It’s a lucrative business,” she shared.
Even then, her endeavours led back to dance. Mdm Som Said used her savings from her Mak Andam job to set up Sri Warisan. “What money I got from being a Mak Andam, I contributed to dance. I contributed the costumes as well.”
So what inspires Mdm Som Said’s choreography? It’s simple.
“The people around me give me inspiration. The Malay lifestyle, the do’s and don’ts, and home etiquette,” she said. She finds meaning through her interactions with others and puts the story into dance.
However, the change that Mdm Som Said has witnessed from her last 40 years of dance and choreography is the foundation of Malay dance. “Some of the younger generation don’t have a solid foundation, [which means] you won’t be able to see the contemporary as Malay contemporary dance,” she said.
In a bid to educate the public on the foundations of Malay dance, she published a book on the guidelines of Malay dance to set a standard for everyone to follow.
Mdm Som Said’s book, Seni Tari Melayu Di Singapura, which means ‘the art of Malay dance in Singapore’. Photo courtesy of Mdm Som Said
It’s not just Malay dance that she advocates. Bangsawan is traditional Malay opera and a dying art that she has tried to keep alive through depictions of it in her dance choreography. When asked if she would exclude bangsawan from one of the performances, she said: “If you take out bangsawan, our younger generation will not see it anymore. They will only ever be able to see it here.”
Mdm Som Said now considered herself as the founder-director of the company, having taken a step back to let the younger generation manage the running of Sri Warisan and take over the reins of its artistic direction. As for how she felt about all her achievements, she feels “blessed and happy”.
Her mission is to nurture wisdom through the performing arts by encouraging performers to respect, share and care. Most importantly, she believes in loving each other regardless of race.
Her parting advice to those who want to pursue dance is this: “If you don’t have knowledge, you can learn, but if you don’t have passion for what you do, it’s very difficult. You cannot learn passion. The love, the passion overcomes everything. It’s sincerity in whatever you do.”
Written by: Catherine Nicholas
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign