Sumazau dance of Kadazan Penampang

Sumazau Dance, the Cultural Symbol of Sabah

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 dance on the stage during a cultural show
Sumazau dance on the stage during a cultural show. Crowd would be invited to join after the first dance.

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.

Sumazau by Kadazan Penampang
The “standard Sumazau” by Kadazan Penampang. Sumazau can be called Sumayau, Mongigol and Maragang in other Kadazandusun tribes with variations in music, costumes and movements.

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.

Kadazan girls ready to dance Sumazau
Which girl you would like to dance Sumazau with? Leave your choice in comment section.

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.

Sumazau dance to heal a group of people sitting under blankets who suffer from bad dreams and illnesses
Sumazau can be performed to heal sickness by dancing around a group of people sitting under blankets who suffer from bad dreams and illnesses.

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
Dancing Sumazau in circle formation
Sumazau is a living Kadazandusun heritage and the state of Sabah’s dance.

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).

Tour package to Kinabalu Park
Diagram of traditional outfit and accessories of Sumazau dancers
Traditional outfit and accessories of Sumazau dancers in formal or cultural occasions.

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.

Sumazau dance with bride and groom in wedding
Sumazau is also danced in wedding. In the circle are the bride and groom. This is a mock wedding in a tourism event.

Men dancers have a bunch of dried and curly fan, licuala palm or sago (Hisad or Silad) 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.

Kadazan male and female couple dancing Sumazau
Sumazau is often performed during ritual and social occasions, with the males partnering the females.

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.

Sompogogungan (musical ensemble) of Tambunan for Sumazau
The music band for Sumazau is call Sompogogungan, which uses six hanging gongs and a drum in standard setting. In this photo is Tambunan musical ensemble, which uses eight gongs. Its music is called tinondot and have faster tempo.

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.

Sumazau dance in chorus
Most Sabah songs are “Sumazau ready” so you can dance Sumazau while singing, like this chorus.

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.

Inviting VIP and dignitaries to dance Sumazau
When a Sandangon is passed to you, you must dance Sumazau once the gong beating starts. Only VIP and dignitaries deserve such honour.

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.

Tourists trying Sumazau dance in cultural village
Tourists have fun bobbing around with T-pose

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 as a sacred dance
Sumazau can be a folk dance or sacred dance, depend on the purposes of the performance.

Sumazau Dance Competition

To preserve and promote Sumazau as a cultural heritage, Kadazandusun Cultural Association Sabah (KDCA) and Sabah Cultural Board organise Sumazau Dance Competition periodically.

Dancing Sumazau in group
Sumazau is said to mimic the outstretched wings of silong birds in flight.

Below are some videos and information about the competition:

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.

Maragang (Sumazau) by Dusun Liwan from Tambunan
Dusun Liwan from Tambunan is also a champion of Sumazau dance, with unique gong music and girls have more elegant movement. They call the dance Maragang.

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):

Different styles of Sumazau in Sabah
Different styles of Sumazau from different districts and Kadazandusun sub-ethnic in Sabah. Sumazau is a generic term for Kadazandusun dances (with flying movement).

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.

Tourists dancing Sumazau on stage
Let’s Sumazau and dance as if nobody is watching!


Muscle men do Sumazau dance
A perfect guy in Sabah must dance Sumazau well.

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

9 thoughts on “Sumazau Dance, the Cultural Symbol of Sabah

  1. real sabahans have at least tried the following:
    – play gong to accompany people dancing sumazau
    – drink bahar
    – drink tapai from a suki
    – eat bosou
    – lansaran
    – the murut dance with bamboo (aiyo…forgotten the name already)
    – mamarampanau

    optional, but highly recommended:
    – ate tutod/vutod
    – spent a few nights observing or joining in the merry making with Kadus locals at a remote Tambunan kampung during May

  2. pinolobu, probably you can offer a tour package “1 day experience as a Sabahan” to the tourists. 🙂 there are many things on your list I still haven’t done though

  3. smoke head…i’ve done all pinolobu’s list. But he forgot(not four goat ahhh..hehe)to write down drink tapai from tajau(monsiop/modsisiop something). come to sunsuron village and you’ll find out.

  4. And please, can correct the pics sabah-fest-dsc08696 the one that placed on sabah fest 2007. They are not Orang Sungai but Dusun Tambunan. We represent Tambunan district performing traditional dance/mongigol, Sumayau.

  5. Sunsuron village is in Tambunan of course. It is the largest village in Tambunan i think. It is the first village you’ll see if you go to Tambunan, Tambunan-KK, and the last village you’ll see if you are from Keningau-Tambunan-KK. Sunsuron village is the hometown of Sabah’s own local singer legend John Gaisah.

    1. Hi Dina, I was also trying to research on the history of Sumazau but didn’t find much info. I’ll let you know if I can get a hold of local historians who know its history and origin.

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