The Dance Ecosystem of Malaysia

Photos by Shi Chi P'ng

The pursuit of dance in higher education and the option of dance as a vocation often lead to questions of employment opportunities and trajectories which are relatively unchartered territories. This essay provides a brief overview of the dance ecosystem in Malaysia, the challenges as well as potentials of which one should be aware.

State-funded groups
All 13 states in Malaysia and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan have one or two professional arts groups each. One, under the patronage of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, and the second under the auspices of the state governments. Additionally, there are quasi-state organisations such as the Johor Heritage Foundation, Sarawak Cultural Village and Dayak Foundation. Most of these groups focus primarily on traditional dance and the Malaysia Truly Asia repertoire.

Private companies and entertainment entrepreneurship
Malaysia has a thriving commercial industry where freelance dancers and choreographers are engaged on project basis. Companies cater to corporate events, dinner-theatre entertainment, recording artistes, expositions and independent stage productions. Television stations produce reality programmes that have created a lucrative industry for dancers and choreographers. As such, dance artistes can now also look for employment in musical theatre productions that have become prolific.

Companies such as klpac, Enfiniti Productions, Tall Order Productions, Asia Musical Productions, Dama Orchestra and Pan Productions create a constant stream of productions in the Klang Valley. Dance artistes are recommended to develop entrepreneurship, marketing and management skills for long-term success in this field.

Dance schools as an enterprise
Private dance academies are a potentially lucrative business in Malaysia, ideal for those who have a passion for teaching, sufficient financial resources, management skills and business acumen. The basic infrastructure requirements are dance studio floors, mirrors, ventilation and audio systems.

Factors that contribute to the success of a dance school include public relations and a suitable location. While there are many genres of dance classes that can be offered, it appears that the long-term success stories are that of culture-specific offerings, Latin and ballroom, and ballet schools that prepare students for international RAD and ISTD examinations.

Businesses which supply dance costumes and accessories have also begun to flourish. Knowledge of dance has helped designers, tailors and importers understand the requirements of comfort, durability and high quality.

Dance academia
Artistes who have acquired formal qualifications are being employed in academia, in public and private universities. It is advisable that dancers equip themselves with the necessary qualifications to keep this avenue for advancement open. There are innumerable benefits from working within this structure aside from academic satisfaction and financial security. University employment allows for flexibility with time for sabbaticals, research, performance and choreography beyond classroom teaching hours.

Performing Arts education in schools
The value of incorporating arts education into the school curricula has been well documented. Performing arts is a tool that develops creativity, confidence, communication skills and healthy relationships. In 2003, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency addressed arts education possibilities for all levels up to tertiary education, training, and qualifications of lecturers, especially those without formal accreditation in fields of traditional arts, and other related matters.

In 2007, the first two arts secondary schools were established by the Ministry of Education in Johor Bahru and Kuching, providing regular secondary education with an emphasis on performing and visual arts. It is hopeful that these schools will be the oasis from which the future of the Malaysian arts will sprout.

Grants and sponsorships
Except for the small minority of dancers and choreographers across the globe that obtain professional full-time employment, most artistes who focus on creative projects find it difficult to sustain a career in performance. They often must supplement their income through teaching, but sometimes resort to other options including waiting tables, teaching language and so on.

In countries like South Korea, Australia, or Europe, funding is more readily available to support various projects.

In Malaysia, Yayasan Sime Darby, YTL, Yayasan Hasanah, Berjaya Corporation, CIMB and Cendana now are the go-to organisations for funding for the arts although it is still insufficient.

Infrastructure, performance spaces, and a theatre district
Aside from national companies that have dedicated performance spaces, staging work for the public is impossible without corporate support anywhere in the world.

Performance spaces should be affordable and accessible. It would be great to build a dedicated theatre district in Kuala Lumpur as in New York, London or Seoul. This essay proposes building theatres with modest seating capacities for performances throughout the year and presents traditional theatre of makyong, bangsawan, mek mulung, randai, manora and wayang kulit.

Audience development
The challenges of arts education, funding, and performance spaces reflect the lack of awareness of the arts which in turn has had a direct impact on audience development.

Although the arts industry receives strong support from print and electronic media, radio and TV, incisive writing and reviews are vital to develop critical thinking amongst the audience, as well as choreographers, producers, and performers.

Since 2002, the Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, organised by Kakiseni and supported by Boh Plantations Sdn Bhd, has raised awareness through these annual awards.

Ultimately, artistes wish to create good art which is both entertaining and effective for the artist and audience. The arts need participation and patronage. Opportunities for careers in the arts including arts management would increase if the education of dance is integrated into the school education system. If these factors come into alignment, Malaysian arts can achieve its full potential.

Prof Joseph Gonzales is the Head of Academic Studies (MFA Dance Program Leader) at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong SAR of China. He is also the Founder/Artistic Director at ASK Dance Company Pte. Ltd., Malaysia (
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