Image credit Harian Metro.

Disclaimer: The writer of this opinion piece has no formal training in the discipline of dance and sports, but those who write, write, and those who don’t, well. Of course the writer could assure you that he is no stranger (and also no expert) to both named disciplines and to the term ‘discipline’ itself. But he sure knows how to write faithfully. Please read with an open mind. The word dance in this article refers to Traditional Malay Dance – specifically Tarian Inang.  This piece was first published on Azam Arifin’s Facebook page. 

The case of pisang goreng.

When referring to Malaysia’s popular delicacy, the banana fritters, the practitioners of the Malay language have often debated whether to use pisang goreng or goreng pisang. In English, pisang means banana and goreng means ‘to fry’.

The supporters of pisang goreng claim to follow the grammatical rules in the Malay language: Hukum D-M (diterangkan-menerangkan). This rules states that the description comes after the object. Failure to abide by this rule renders the sentence incorrect.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the language belongs to the people and not just to an institution — in Malaysia’s case,  Institute of Language and Literature aka the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). This group feels that language is often shaped by the people who use it. In fact, it is now common to find many using the term goreng pisang instead of pisang goreng. I myself sometimes use goreng pisang because I at times worry if people would find me weird for using pisang goreng.

Due to the higher frequency of many using goreng pisang, this is now considered as the dominant term. This group does not consider that pisang goreng is incorrect. But because goreng pisang is often spoken the most, this d shouldn’t render its usage as incorrect.

However, one could argue that the correct usage of the term is set by an institution or a higher power which everyone must abide to. On the other hand, there are those who treat the language as belonging to the user alone so correctness shouldn’t be strictly defined by an institution or a higher power.

DBP will rubbish this by saying, “Biasakan yang betul, betulkan yang biasa” (Normalize what is correct and correct what is normal). The other side would rebut by saying, “Apa yang biasa dipakai betul, dan yang betul itu mengikut apa yang biasa.” (What is normal is used correctly and what is correct follows that which has been normalized).

But wait, what has this got to with dance, you ask?

This opinion of mine focuses on the correctness of dance. Must we follow one higher power in deciding the correctness in dance or should dancers themselves wield the power to decide for themselves?

Most importantly, what is correctness?

Correctness in dance. 

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Tarian Inang. Credit: YouTube.

I had first encountered this term when I was studying the English language. It is used to refer righting a wrong in either a sentence, grammar, word usage, and others. By subscribing to the concept of correctness, we allow ourselves to accept that there is an opposite to this: Incorrectness.

This is certainly not binary as many think it is because there is a certain degree of correctness (and incorrectness). How close or how far are we from the ideal correct form an art should be?

This concept applies to other fields as well besides linguistics. It is applicable in science, religion, and you’ve guessed — dance.

Now, traditional dance is highly coded. It has numerous rules and outlines which must be followed in order for the particular choreography to be considered a traditional dance.

What happens if you don’t follow these rules? Then that particular piece can’t be claimed as a traditional dance.

Your next question should be: So, who decides all of these? How is this decision made? How is the dancer judged? What sort of references are used? And most importantly: Who decides?

Similar to the analogy of the pisang goreng, there are two approaches in deciding the correctness: Prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescriptive vs Descriptive. 

The prescriptive approach is top-down. There’ll be a group consisting of institutions who have the power to dictate whether the dance form is right or wrong. Often, the decision they make is then taken as gospel. This decision then influences teaching of the particular dance form. It is also used as a reminder or a tool to correct people. The decision is also sometimes published in textbooks as is the case with DBP and the Malay language.

The descriptive approach on the other hand is bottom-up. The idea of correctness is formed from what appears to be the common, preferred and dominant usage. Instead of one particular group of people – the institution in this case – that is solely responsible in deciding the correctness of a craft, there is a shared responsibility when it comes to updating the definition – the correct and incorrectness – of an art form. This is updated from time to time depending on what is dominant among the users of the craft.

It is worth understanding that rigidity is not the characteristic of both approaches. Some might feel that the prescriptive approach is very conventional and old school. However, it all depends on how one approaches it.

For example, supposing DBP decreed that both usages of pisang goreng and goreng pisang as correct, the results in deciding correctness will be similar when you use the descriptive approach. However, there is a stark difference. The prescriptive approach still requires one to follow what is considered correct by those who have the authority to decide.

Similarly with dance, the prescriptive approach is used when there exists an institution or a committee or a group that decides what the rest of dance practitioners should follow correctly. While you’re free to dispute their decision, in the end, the final say comes from them.

The descriptive approach is decided collectively by the practitioners themselves, especially those who choreograph and dance. There exists corpus based on all existing dance performances. The practitioners will refer to the dominant corpus and recurring set of movements to determine which move is correct.

Those which have existed will carry more weight whereas the dance moves that are new won’t be considered as correct. It all depends on the frequency of its usage.

Subscribing to the descriptive approach would not render the institution or committee which regulates the dance obsolete. Instead, they will serve as the main point of reference in producing the standard rules and regulations for dance. In fact, they’ll act as the record keeper, archiving and managing the corpus of dance forms in existence.

This way, the development of dance will be less rigid. There’ll be more room for every practitioner out there to contribute. In a way, this will decide how the dance should be performed because discussions on the art form will not be restricted to a small group of people.

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Personally, the dominant mode I see currently is prescriptive.

If we are to take dance as a product, then the choreographer will be the producer. In a producer-product relationship, there are two ways the production can be done. The producer could decide on the final product based on pre-existing knowledge, rules, and regulations and conduct standardized by a regulatory body or a textbook that outlines how the product should be. Or the producer can survey the pre-existing products already in the market and from there decide how the final product should be based on the characteristics he already sampled from his findings.

For example, supposing a producer wants to create a ball. If the producer utilizes the prescriptive approach he would understand that the ball is defined as a spherical, circular, bouncy object made out of rubber. So when the producer wishes to create a ball, he will follow the definition which has already been laid out.

In the descriptive approach, however, the producer goes out and studies all the balls made by other companies and observes the common trait practised in the creation of the ball. From this survey, the producer begins creating the ball.

It is the same when it comes to choreographing a dance. The choreographer can choose to follow a set of rules already outlined or study the recurring and dominant forms of dance that are existing and have been performed previously.

Let’s see how this pans out when it comes to this case study involving a particular traditional dance.

Case A: Tarian Inang dia perempuan tunduk ke bawah sangat. Dalam tarian tradisional, kalau tunduk pun tak patut sampai bawah macam tu. (The female Tarian Inang performer bowed her head too much. In a traditional dance, you shouldn’t bow like that).

Case B: Ingat tak team tahun lepas tu buat macam ni ok je. Menang pun menang. Ni aku buat salah pulak. (Remember last year there was a team which did exactly like this and they won? When I do it, it’s considered wrong).

In Case A, the observer judges the piece based on the prescribed knowledge picked from certain reference. It could be a teacher, school or institution the observer had learned the dance form from.

For this case, there are a set of rules and criteria for dance forms. There is a correct form as stipulated and standardized by some tokoh or pewaris or a regulating institution. So when one tries to choreograph the dance form, one is obliged to follow these standards. Otherwise, it’ll be wrong.

Whereas in Case B, the observation is made based on the speaker’s previous experience in watching performances of the said dance form.

In this case, one should not restrict oneself to a prescribed rules set by small portion of dance practitioners. Instead, we should sample every dance form of that particular genre and extract the “correct form” from all these existing dances samples. If it exists, that is. If it doesn’t, let’s try to introduce the variation and see how the rest of practitioners feel about it. This will be a good yardstick to determine if the dance form is worth to be included in the corpus.

Pros and cons of both approaches. 

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There are pros and cons of using one approach over the other. Prescriptive approach will maintain uniformity and standardization of a certain dance form, giving it greater ability to retain its “traditional” form over generations. Just look at how strict the rules and criteria imposed in Pertandingan Zapin Johor are. They may sound too much, but that’s the way they see fit to really keep the “traditional” form of zapin johor dances alive.

However, this will (or may) make our perception of the dance form as pretty rigid. It is fine if we have only one source in doing this. But so far in my experience, there are multiple references and sources upheld by different groups of practitioners due to the various learning methodologies of the dance form.

The variations are not major from one source to another but it is enough to spark a debate. Debates such as: “Yayasan cakap lain, pezapin buat lain, tokoh hari tu datang bengkel buat lain” (The committee says one thing, the dancers do something else and the expert did something else during the workshop). Since dance is part of a culture, it should never be rigid but the problem arises when certain rules and regulations are prescribed. Whose should we follow?

Descriptive approach will make dance creation and perception less rigid. There’ll be no strict definition of what is correct and what is not. It will simply be a matter of preferences depending on the dominant style and variations used. This will allow more creative exploration of a certain dance form, lowering the risk of it stagnating because future generations will be able to adapt through a guided pace.

Similar to how the dancers’ costume has changed gradually over time, what is accepted now was not accepted when the particular form had emerged. As long as there’s consensus among the holders of the dance corpus i.e. the dance practitioners, it will be welcomed as defining the dance form. This method however will have less power in keeping and maintaining the “traditional” form because change is not something despised. Some may see this as a loss while others would view the “traditional” dance form to progress and evolve alongside society.

You must be wondering, why can’t both approaches be used? It is possible however the reality is it seldom happens. Most discussion on dance I’ve encountered are so far dominated by the prescriptive school of thought. There are few who always try to find the middle point where prescriptive and descriptive approach could make peace with one another, but the discussion will often be less conclusive.

By being less conclusive, the discussion often ends this way: “Sebenarnya kalau ikut apa yang A ajar dulu, gayanya kena macam ni, and masa tu pergi bengkel tarian ni di ***, tokoh tu tunjuk lain dari yang A ajar. So far 2 ni je yang macam banyak orang pakai, but ada je team-team yang buat macam ini macam itu. (Actually if we are to follow what A taught us, his style is like this but when I attended A’s worshop, he taught me this. So far these are the two many have been using. But there are teams that have done other stuff).

After 20 minutes of sisha later: “Tapi kan, kalau betullah patut macam tu, kenapa masa tu si C ni buat macam ni, juri terima …” (But, come to think of it, why when C did this move the jury accepted it?)

Instead of getting something like: “Yang ni salah, yang macam ni sebenarnya betul.” (This is wrong and this is how you do it). They end up sampling both worlds. They strive to synthesize in pursuit of finding a common trait that could be used as a concluding feature in defining the “correct form”. I find this kind of argument interesting because they’ll try their best to see from all sides and be fair to all existing rules and samples that they’ve encountered.

They won’t quickly give in to judgement. This in away makes me more comfortable in listening to their thought process.

I am personally fine with any approach, because the nature of doing this (discussions, judging, characterization, etc.) will require you to subscribe to at least one approach at a time. Though I have to admit I lean on more to the descriptive approach.

Well, there’s no textbook to tell you how to think. Or is there?

Enjoyed this opinion piece? There’s more. 

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This is the personal opinion of the writer. Have a rebuttal? Drop a comment below or submit your own opinion piece to us.

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