PETALING JAYA: Most adherents of the traditional arts have one fear in common: the art’s extinction through loss of interest and support. But the traditional dance of Zapin, usually associated with Johor, suffers a malady of a different kind.
It has become popular and has changed with the times. Now the fear is that the dance is in danger of losing contact with its cultural roots and heritage.
Zapin had its beginnings in the Middle East and was brought to the Malay archipelago by Arab traders. It had an intimate relationship with Islam and the austerity of form brought by its adherents to all forms of the performing arts.
The Malay form of Zapin Johor that took root in Johor villages performed with the accompaniment of Malay songs and Malay-Arab music reflected the rich abundance of the forests and the seas and the ways of farmers and fisherfolk.
Village communities would get together for Zapin, especially for rites of passage ceremonies such as weddings.
The dance has become increasingly popular, especially among the younger generations, but there are concerns with the changes that come along with its fame.
Zapin today exists more as a stage entertainment, far from its semi-religious roots.
While changes to the dance form could be good in retaining relevance, especially for the younger generation, the challenge is to sustain the traditions and cultural heritage.
Throughout the years, the traditional dance went through many changes. In the past, Zapin dancers were predominantly male. Today, however, it is common to see both male and female dancers performing together.
Not many villages have kept the tradition alive, perhaps because the young people who could have done so have instead migrated to the cities.
Zapin expert Professor Mohd Anis Md Nor told FMT: “It is good that Zapin has become more popular, as it could attract more young people to learn it and lead to the creation of more contemporary forms of Zapin variations. However, the younger generation learn the movements without any connection to the body of knowledge around the dance.”
Without acquiring the full knowledge about Zapin, the young would have difficulty in sustaining the tradition to pass on to the next generation.
Anis, a trained performer and managing director of the Nusantara Performing Arts Research Centre, said one way of keeping the full tradition alive is to keep full documentation.
“At the moment, we have sufficient material, but more can be done. I hope that we can produce more Zapin scholars for this purpose. After all, documentation is important to gatekeeping the tradition.”
Zapin teacher and dancer Khairulazhar Mokhtar says the artistic values of the dance would remain intact despite the evolution of the dance.
“Of course, Zapin will change in the future, that is inevitable, but I believe its tradition would still be protected. Aside from documentation, we have the government, state agencies such as Yayasan Warisan Johor and performing arts schools to monitor the development of Zapin,” he said.
Khairul, who is the founder of Nyala dance theatre studio, added that performing arts schools such as Universiti Malaya’s Cultural Centre at the School of Performing Arts had a vital role in preserving the cultural tradition.
“Coming from a school of performing arts myself, I can safely say that students are not only taught how to dance but are also equipped with sufficient knowledge of performing arts.”