Sumazau is the iconic dance of Sabah. It’s a traditional dance originated from the Kadazan and Dusun (or Kadazandusun) people, the largest indigenous group of Sabah. The dancers imitate the eagle in flight by stretching their arms to both sides and swing them up and down like bird wings. Usually Sumazau is danced in group of male and female partner as pairs, who move with rhythm of beating of gong and drum. Normally Sumazau is performed in cultural events and celebrations.
Sumazau is a generic term for “dance” in Kadazan. It can be called Sumayau, Mongigol and Maragang in other Kadazandusun tribes and it comes with several styles (more on this later). The most classic version is by Kadazan Penampang, one of the sub-ethnic of Kadazandusun living in west coast of Sabah. When Malaysians talk about Sabah, an image of Kadazan Penampang couples dancing Sumazau would appear in their mind.
Why Sabahans dance Sumazau?
Sumazau is mainly performed during wedding, festivals, celebrations, social or tourism events, and welcoming of dignitaries. It’s also a must-try dance for tourists who want to experience the colourful cultures of Sabah. Overall, Sumazau is a happy dance so you won’t see people dance Sumazau with sad faces.
As a matter of fact, Sumazau is also a sacred dance links to rituals and religious ceremonies. The traditional belief of Kadazan divides the living place into supernatural world and physical world. Both worlds have rules in order to maintain a peaceful balance. If any wrongdoing causes the imbalance, troubles such as illness, infertility of livestock and unproductive farmlands would hit human. If this happens, Bobohizan (high priestess of Kadazan) would be called to restore the balance between the worlds by performing rituals with long poetic chants and Sumazau that bridges the worlds.
The following are some ceremonial functions of Sumazau dance:
- To restore the well-being of “Bambaazon” (rice spirit), to ensure a bountiful harvest
- Summon the spirits in the spiritual world to cure illness
- Celebrate a triumphant return from head-hunting
- To appease the house spirit guardian (miontong) so things get back to normal
Traditional Attire of Sumazau
Though Sabahans can dance Sumazau in T-shirt and slippers, an appropriate and authentic attire is important for an elegant presentation of Sumazau. In formal setting, dancers dress in their traditional Kadazandusun costumes. For Kadazan Penampang, it’s the black dress with gold trimmings. Male wears Siga, a headgear folded by handwoven cloth in a distinctive way. Female wears silver belts (Himpogot) and brass belts (Tangkong) over their waist and hip. And they dance with barefoot. Everything looks like the old days (except girl’s armpit is shaved).
As the accessories for Sumazau, female wears Selendang (Husob), the folded plain, batik or sarong cloth made into one or two sashes cross over both shoulders. Husob can be any colour, red and yellow are the popular choices. All female dancers wear the same colour of selendang in a dance, but bride can be different, just to be special.
Men dancers have a bunch of dried and curly fan or sago (Hisad or Silad) palm leaves hanging by their side like pom-pom. It’s called Sandangon (or Sansandangon), which is believed to possess talismanic powers to ward off evil spirit and spells.
Dance Moves and Music of Sumazau
Sumazau consists of two basic dance moves. In the first move, usually starts in the beginning, the dancer steps from side to side, shifting weight from one foot to another, while gently swinging the arms at the sides to the beats of the gongs. In the second moves, the dancer lifts the heels slightly, with both arms raised slowly and stretched out slightly lower than shoulders, with hands swinging gracefully up and down to simulate flapping wings. While moving, dancers bounce and heave their bodies gently by bending the knee and pumping the heels like a spring in a simple one-two (up-down) rhythmic movement. Just watch the video below and you will get the idea.
During the dance, Sumazau dancers do different formations such as circle, double rows, split and regroup and changing partners. They always dance in pairs and there is no limit on group size, in fact the more the merrier. Throughout the dance, you would hear spontaneous outbursts of the pangkis (loud cry) from time to time. It’s a show of energy, and also serves as a signal to change formation. The rhythm of Sumazau movement is from the music and beats from sompogogungan, the musical ensemble comprised of six hanging gongs and a gandang / gendang drum.
Sumazau and Sabah Songs
Sumazau is deeply rooted in Sabah culture, Sumazau to Sabahans is like Samba to Brazilians. You can bet that many famous Sabah songs are of “Sumazau genre”. Just listen to some of them, for example, Anak Kampung, Sayang Kinabalu, Sumandak Sabah, Original Sabahan, Jambatan Tamparuli, and Sumandak Kinabalu, Sabahans will feel the distinctive beats and rhythm that make them want to dance Sumazau.
When you are invited…
Everyone from young to old can dance Sumazau, tourists and outsiders are invited to follow too sometimes. For gentleman, if a girl hangs a Sandangon over your shoulder to invite you to Sumazau, it’s a great honour and please don’t refuse (you don’t need to marry her if you accept the invitation, just for your info). In formal occasions, only VIPs and guests with Sandangon can do the opening dance. The rest will join after the first dance, beginning with the elderly men and women and then the young people.
Don’t worry if you don’t know Sumazau. Just have fun and swing your arms up and down like a flying bird. Nobody will judge you. Having a couple of Tapai or Lihing wine would improve your moves.
Cultural Heritage of Malaysia
Sumazau dance is officially listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Malaysia in 2007, under the federal and state laws (National Heritage Act, 2005, and the Sabah Cultural Heritage (Conservation) Enactment, 1997).
Sumazau Dance Competition
Below are some videos and information about the competition:
- Champion of Online Sumazau Competition 2020
- Online Sumazau Competition 2020
- Sumazau Competition 2020 by KDCA
- Sumazau Competition 2019 on International Museum Day
- Sumazau Competition 2014
- Blog post on Sumazau Competition 2015
- Blog post on Sumazau Competition 2012
Different Sumazau Styles
Sumazau is a universal dance among Sabahans, but it comes with different styles. For example, my favourite variation is Tambunan Sumazau (Maragang) by Dusun Liwan. It’s more fast-paced, the gong beating is more uplifting (7 or 8 gong are used, other than 6), and female dancers have more feminine movement and outfit.
Depends on the performance types, some Sumazau would include some creative elements such as prop (e.g. basket, farming tools) and drama for story-telling. The following is a playlist of 16 different Sumazau styles (it also contains some playful ones) for your enjoyment. (you can click Forward button to skip to next video):
Sabah, without Sumazau, is not Sabah. If you want to see or try Sumazau, the best time to watch is in May, the harvest festival (Kaamatan) month of Sabah, especially the Kaamatan Grand Finale at KDCA Penampang (Hongkod Koisaan) on 30 and 31 May every year.
- “Performing Arts as Healing Ritual Tools: Drum Beating and Sumazau Dance in Monogit Ritual of Penampang Kadazan of Sabah”, by Hanafi Hussin, 2006
- “Fungsi dan ritual yang berkaitan dengan tarian Sumazau kaum Dusun, di Sabah” (Functions and Rituals related to Sumazau Dance and Dusun Race in Sabah) by Miliana, Binti Kagus, 2011
- “The Beliefs and Practices of the Kadazandusun-Murut Natives of Sabah” by John Seet, 2017
Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo