Dances of Sabah and Sarawak is an ethnographical study of the structural analysis of the major traditional dances of Sabah and Sarawak which gives a brief cultural/tribal history of the two sates of Sabah and Sarawak within the context of Borneo-Indo-Philippines cultural region as well as an account of the aesthetics of East Malaysian dances. The main part of the book delineates the dances and their ritualistic and secular functions followed by a structural analysis of the respective dances, that includes vocabulary and movement characteristics, choreography, costumes and accessories and the musical accompaniment. Unlike Peninsula Malaysia, there was no court system and thus no development of court dances, only tribal and celebratory dances performed as part of a ritual worship of animistic spirits and for social and secular occasions.
In the animistic communities of Sabah and Sarawak, where tribal groups live in long houses, ritualistic dances of worship are an integral part of their lives. These dances serve the pristine function of placating and invoking the spirits, which they believe govern every facet of their lives. They are performed for the following purposes: (i) Blessing ceremonies associated with agricultural activities such as land clearing, planting and harvesting; (ii) Therapeutic healing ceremonies such as exorcism ceremonies to cleanse the village and to treat individual person afflicted with psychosomatic maladies; (iii) Thanks giving ceremonies for a bountiful harvest of crops of for a season’s good catch of fish; (iv) Ceremonies of rite de passage (rite of passage) such as births, puberty, weddings and deaths; and (v) Special ceremonies to honor ancestor spirits, the recently departed and the moving of skulls to new locations.
There are also dances performed without any ritualistic intent, but only for celebratory efficacies. They include secularized propitiatory and offertory dances serving mainly as entertainment during wedding festivities, cultural fairs, and welcoming ceremonies and also to celebrate national holidays. Some of these dances have been commercialized and packaged for tourist consumption. For such purpose, the dances have been capsulated to represent a panorama of traditional dances and performed at cultural villages such as in Sarawak and Sabah and also at five-star hotels frequented by tourists. In so doing the original choreography has been altered to accommodate modern tastes and sensibilities. As a result, these commercialized dances have lost their original purity that expresses the soul and spiritual dimensions of the community.