Zapin Dance: Enjoying the Riveting Malay Dance in the Riau Islands


Zapin Dance is a Malay dance which is imbued with religious and educational messages. The dance has its roots in the Malay culture and traditions of Riau that hold diverse values in their lives. This traditional dance is highlighted by its beautiful diverse movements originally born out of the skillful movements of the feet as originally performed by Arabic and Persian males. The Zapin Dance in Indonesia spread together with the spread of Islam that was brought by Arabic traders from the Hadramaut. In Arabic, Zapin is known as al raqh wal zafn.

The oldest Zapin dance recorded in Indonesia was in Flores, in East Nusa Tenggara, the island of Ternate and on Ambon, as also in Pontianak, West Kalimantan where it is known as Japin. In the western part of Indonesia, the Zapin Dance was first known in Jambi and then developed on mainland Riau and its surrounding islands. In Riau, the Zapin Dance was originally performed by male dancers only in order to raise their social status in the community. The male Zapin dancers would therefore be the target of parents for an arranged marriage to their daughters.

Zapin is a splendid show of fast-movements and rhythmic feet of the dancers following the beat of a small traditional drum called marwas. The melody from a stringed instrument called gambus also enhances the harmonious rhythm of marwas and its feet movements. Since this dance is originally influenced by Arabic religious values, religious messages are chanted in the song’s lyrics. The lyrics, however, also talk about the daily life of the Malays. Of particular note is the opening movement of Zapin, which represents the symbol of the first letter in the Arabic alphabet: alif , representing the greatness of God.

As mentioned, the Zapin Dance was originally danced by men only, but today women dancers may also be involved. Sometimes, the dance consists of a mix of men and women dancers. Previously, the Zapin Dance was performed on a mat, which should not sway or move at all during the entire dance.

Zapin Dance has evolved for centuries in many areas in the Indonesian archipelago where in the Riau Islands it has become very popular. Other areas where it is known are in North Sumatra, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Sumatra (Minangkabau), Lampung, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, the Nusa Tenggara islands, Bengkulu, and Jakarta. But in different places the dance is known under different names. In Nusa Tenggara, for example, the Zapin is called dana-dani; in Kalimantan, people call it jepin; while people in Sulawesi call it jippeg.  On Java, it is better known as zafin; while in Jambi, South Sumatra and Bengkulu, the dance is called dana; in the Moluccas, it is called jepen; while zapin is its popular name in Sumatra and Riau.

You can enjoy Zapin Dance in the Riau Islands – otherwise known as  Kepulauan Riau, among others on Penyengat Island. Here, this riveting dance has evolved since 1813. Penyengat Island—an island covering an area of approximately 2,500×750 meters—is about 6 km from Tanjung Pinang, and can be reached by  wooden boat known by locals as bot pompong.


Photo Courtesy by Hasrinaldi Eri