Magunatip, which is also known as “Bamboo Dance”, is one of the most popular traditional dances of Sabah. This energetic dance is performed by Murut people, who mainly reside in the interior districts of Sabah, and they are the headhunters of Borneo in the past. During the dance, the dancers put their feet in and out between clapping bamboo poles without being trapped.
A Dance of Bravery
The name “Magunatip” is derived from the word apit, which means “to press between two surfaces.” This dance is hundreds of years old and always the highlight of many cultural shows in Sabah.
Under the loud music by gong, tagunggak (bamboo idiophones) and a tambor (drum), Magunatip starts with graceful dance by group of dancers in beautiful traditional costumes. The most eye-catching part are the Murut warriors who wear bark vest, loincloth and showy feather headgears. They would wield their weapon and act in an intimidating manner to give off wild men vibes like the scary headhunters.
Three pairs of long bamboo poles will be laid horizontally on the ground, each pair held by two bamboo strikers at opposite ends to form three rows of clapping bamboo poles. The bamboo poles are slightly separated and lifted, and slam downward to the base with thumps, then beat against each other to close the gap. These actions will create a loud rhythmical tun-tun-pak! smacking sounds (almost similar to the hypnotizing pounding sounds in the song We Will Rock You).
Then the dancers line up at one side of the poles to cross lines of clapping bamboo poles, by jumping between the smacking poles without getting their feet or ankles clipped. To tease the audiences, the dancers also playfully dip their feet into the gaps and get out in precise timing. The males would make triumphant cries (pangkis) while in action. Despite the challenges, every moves are done orderly and elegantly, with a big smile and relaxing upper body.
The dance starts with slow and steady rhythmic claps at first. Toward the end, like a fast forward button being pressed, the music tempo will speed up, the bamboo striking gets intense and enters turbo mode. The audiences hold their breathe and their eyes are totally drawn to the dancers who skillfully skip in and out at frenzy agility and speed. The splendid dresses, strong music, and remarkable stunt just blow everyone away and never fail to give me goosebumps.
After the performance, the dancers would invite the crowd to try the bamboo dance, at a slower pace of course. First-timers would move like a hopping chicken, and have their feet being caught in the bamboo and the performance ends perfectly in laughter.
What I mention is the standard setting of Magunatip. There are nearly 20 sub-ethnic groups of Murut living in Tenom, Keningau and Nabawan, so you could expect they have different styles and choreography. Sometimes the bamboo poles are in a cross layout (like #). A full set of traditional orchestra for Magunatip involves six large gongs, 25 tagunggak and a tambor. To create more dramatic impact in big performance, a group of warriors would do war dance in the opening.
Origin of Magunatip: It’s a Prank
According to the oral history passed down to the elders of Murut, Magunatip was started as a prank. After the pounding the paddy, the Murut farmers would place the poles on the floor and rest. Then somebody used the poles to clip the foot of whoever passed by. To avoid being trapped, the victims would quickly lift up his or her foot. This mischievous act turned out to be a fun game for participants to step in and out of the clapping poles in rhythm. Then this activity evolved into Magunatip and accompanied by music.
Nowadays, Magunatip is mainly performed during celebrations and social occasions such as bride wealth exchange ceremonies (tinauh), weddings, and harvest festivals. However, Magunatip was performed in rituals (e.g. healing, appeasing spirits) to ward off evil spirits in the olden days. The dance was also performed during the Mansayau ritual that celebrates the return of headhunters from raids and battles. Though it’s also a type of entertainment that time, it was a taboo to perform Magunatip on ordinary days.
Besides human and animals, Murut believes that spirits also dwell in other things in this world, for example, mountains, caves, jungles and underground. Every misfortune, disaster and illness are associated with evil spirits. Murut people think the loud sounds from the rhythmic beating of the alu (wooden pole made from belian (ironwood), used to pound paddy) in Magunatip can chase them away. Therefore, the rituals were carried in conjunction with Magunatip to assist the ritual specialists to ward off bad spirits.
Other Sabah indigenous ethnic tribes such as Kadazandusun of Tambunan and Dusun Kwijau of Keningau also perform Magunatip. And NO, Magunatip is not originated from Tinikling dance of the Philippines.
Actually Anggalang and Magunatip are two different dances that combined into one performance. Anggalang Magunatip begins with Anggalang dance by a group of ladies adorned in elaborately beaded and embroidered Murut costumes known as limpur.
In some cases, these women flank or back one or more Murut warriors, who perform the mahihialang (move around the stage and wield a blowpipe or a machete known as gayang). The graceful and feminine Anggalang dance contrasts but complements well with the masculine and rugged warriors, forming an enchanting presentation.
In 2016, a lion dance group named Persatuan Muda Mudi Penampang did a Sumazau and Magunatip performance with lion dance. The video of this creative lion dance went viral and reported in national news.
Due to modernisation and influences from other religions, Magunatip is no longer related to any ritualistic practices. Magunatip becomes a tourism or cultural show more than a community function. Nevertheless, I hope the originality of this traditional dance can be preserved as a cultural heritage. It’s encouraging to see many Sabahans take pride in this fascinating dance and even promote it in international media.
To learn more about the history of Magunatip, you can read the article “The Healing Ritual Context of the Magunatip. Dance of the Murut in Sabah, Malaysia” written by Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo