Malay dancing queen Som Mohamed Said

Malay dance pioneer Som Mohamed Said embraces multicultural aspects in her work

Weddings have long been a source of inspiration for Malay dance pioneer Som Mohamed Said.

Madam Som, 64, who marks her 50th year in dance this year, says she is drawn to the "rich symbolism" of matrimony.

Pulut kunyit, the yellow glutinous rice that signifies union when seen at weddings, is the title of a dance she choreographed around 1978.

Kompang (hand-held drums), tepak sireh (ornate betel leaf containers) and other Malay ceremonial mainstays have featured as dance props in past works of this 1987 recipient of the prestigious Cultural Medallion for contribution to the arts.

While hewing to tradition, Madam Som is in some ways an accidental innovator.

"What inspires me is what I see around me, in weddings on weekends, in daily life, in Malay etiquette. When I start creating, I just go with the flow. I wanted to express myself and to explore," says Madam Som, who started her career at 14 as a volunteer dancer in the Malay cultural group, Sriwana, in 1965.

"I am a traditional person but my tradition is not static - you can create and still hold on to tradition," says Madam Som, who has worked as a mak andam, the Malay bride's make-up artist and consultant for the big day.

She says this desire to try things out also prompted her to set up Singapore's first Malay bridal boutique in 1983 in Tanjong Katong, Ratu Sari Bridal House and Photo Studio, moving the mak andam craft away from being home-based.

Dr Francis Yeoh, the founder and artistic director of the National Dance Company in the 1970s, first collaborated with Madam Som about 50 years ago. He says some of her innovations relate to the use of dance props.

"In traditional Malay dance, props such as scarves and fans have been employed to enhance the performance but it is their significance as part of ritual and their use as symbols that perhaps are more important," he says in an e-mail interview with Life! from London.

"Som's innovations in this regard reveal her ability to use props to create a greater visual impact."

Dr Yeoh met the teenaged Som when he was choreographing works for Sriwana in the early 1960s. "She instantly caught my eye" with her enthusiasm and the "impressive speed" with which she learnt dance steps.

She became his muse.

The National Dance Company, which introduced dances reflecting Singapore's multiculturalism, was formed in 1970. Madam Som was among the dancers chosen in nationwide auditions.

"As the company's founding artistic director, I began to include Som in many of my works and she invariably became my muse," says Dr Yeoh, who moved to London in 1978, where he now lectures at a dance college, London Studio Centre.

"She inspired me greatly with her interpretation of my choreography. She has such phenomenal muscle memory that she is able to reconstruct my choreography better than I can and she was a great help at rehearsals."

In 1997, with $70,000 saved from her bridal business, Madam Som founded Singapore's first fully professional Malay dance company, Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts.

Sri Warisan's annual income now ranges between $850,000 and $870,000, according to figures provided by the company. It has 15 full-time dancers, out of a 45-strong retinue, and performs at about 200 community and corporate events annually.

Mr Osman Abdul Hamid, artistic director at Era Dance Theatre, a Malay arts company, says: "Sri Warisan was a change for the Malay dance scene. It gave dancers a chance to earn a living. She was able to market a better image for Malay dance."

Mr Osman, who knew Madam Som in 1977 when they were dancing in the Sriwana cultural troupe, says she introduced a degree of freer movement. For example, before her, "not much of Malay dance used floor-level movement, such as rolling on the floor".

Says Dr Yeoh: "She has secured a Singapore identity in her works, while mindful that Malay dance has its roots in cultural dances of Malaysia and Indonesia. The merits of her work are recognised in the awards that have been bestowed on her."

The accolades include the National Youth Service Award in 1979, the Public Service Medal in 1992 and the Anugerah Warisan Kencana (Golden Legacy Award) by the Malay Heritage Centre in 2007.

"Until now, all the awards still surprise me. During the process of creating my works, I don't realise I'm working towards the high standards that people endorse," says Madam Som.

The multicultural aspect of her oeuvre can be seen in her office and dance studio at Sri Warisan in a side street in Little India.

Inside, a rainbow row of costumes, including Malay, Indian and Chinese garments, is racked against the wall. A dressmaker's dummy dons a bronze and gold bangsawan (Malay opera) number.

Chinese lion dance heads rest on a wooden bench. On another visit, there are wayang kulit puppets, used in traditional Indonesian shadow play. (The company says it also has a Superman wayang kulit figure, which is sometimes used in its arts education programme, including workshops and talks, that reaches about 130 schools.)

Sri Warisan's works are about 80 per cent Malay works and 20 per cent integrated, multicultural works, says Madam Som, who took private Indian dance lessons as a young dancer and learnt Chinese dance at the National Dance Company.

She was also a co-choreographer of a now-discontinued multiracial children's dance troupe that was set up in 1988.

Her interest in her heritage extends to art forms she does not specialise in. In a bid to revive interest in Malay opera, for example, she had previously put it in a dance.

She enjoys creating productions based on legend, such as that of the swordfish attack in ancient Singapore.

In this story, the king, or raja, of the island was helpless when faced with shoals of swordfish that made its waters dangerous for residents.

A young boy suggested using banana tree trunks as defence. The swordfish impaled themselves on the barrier of soft tree trunks and were easily killed by the king's soldiers.

However, fearing that the intelligent boy would grow up to be a threat to his power, the raja had him executed at his home atop a hill. The youth's blood stained the hill, giving it its name, Bukit Merah or Red Hill.

"I think our heritage is like our treasure. As Hang Tuah said, 'Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia', which means 'Never shall the Malays vanish from the earth'," says Madam Som, referencing the legendary Malaccan warrior Hang Tuah.

"What is passed on from generation to generation has wisdom; I embrace it."

The sixth of eight children, she started dancing when she was eight years old, imitating, in front of a mirror the dance moves in the P. Ramlee movies that she watched with two elder sisters.

While at Bukit Batok East Primary School, she used to round up schoolmates to put on dance performances on school sports days.

Later, in Anderson Secondary School, she met her "first dancing partner", Ms Sri Rahayu, who introduced her to Sriwana, where she learnt traditional Malay dance and became a pioneer member of the troupe.

Her father, Mr Mohamed Said Basri , was a fire engine driver, a quiet man who enjoyed carving wooden tepak sireh containers for betel leaves.

Madam Som says: "I learnt from him the value of saying fewer words, focusing more on doing things." He died of ill health at 53 in 1972.

She calls her mother a "great inspiration who was very enterprising and determined to earn extra income for the family."

Madam Jaimah Bakri, a housewife "who didn't know how to read and write", got neighbours to bake Hari Raya tidbits together, splitting the proceeds from sales, for instance. Madam Jaimah died of old age at 88 in 2010.

After her O levels, Madam Som became a waitress at a hotel cafe. She later worked in other positions, such as telephone receptionist, at the Orchid Inn, while dancing in her free time.

In 1972, she took part as a dancer in the Adelaide Festival, a global arts event, which she describes as a "turning point" in her dance career.

At the festival, "nobody knew where Singapore was; I realised that being a cultural ambassador was a great responsibility. I also realised what high standards in dance were", she says. She has since travelled the world representing Singapore at cultural events.

The Adelaide Festival so impressed Madam Som that she named her only child, Adel, after it.

Mr Adel Dzulkarnaen, 38, says his mother "doesn't know it but she's a visionary" for wanting to promote arts education in schools in the 1980s, before the performing arts gained wider understanding. There was, however, a price to pay in his mother's frequent travel for dance commitments.

As a child, he had "got used to mother not being around", with his grandmother as his main caregiver.

When he was around four, he felt it keenly, however, when a cousin asked, during Hari Raya celebrations: "Why doesn't Adel have a mother?"

Now, Sri Warisan is a family firm in more ways than one. Mr Adel Dzulkarnaen is its managing director and his wife Marina Yusoff, 38, its creative director.

Madam Som's husband, 71-year-old Ahmad Sawal is also a director, managing the company's finances.

After earning a degree in mass communications in Canada's Simon Fraser University, Mr Adel Dzulkarnaen started working at Sri Warisan upon his return. He was about 20 then.

"I had seen the fluorishing performing arts scene in Canada and Sri Warisan had a similarly high standard. I saw its potential," he says.

He added: "I also had an emotional debt. I wanted to repay the efforts my parents had made in raising me and sending me away to study. I wouldn't have felt good if I hadn't tried to do so."

Although he calls his mother "Madam Som" at work, he says others call her "Cik (Auntie) Som" and refer to one another as "abang" (brother) and "kakak" (sister).

Ms Marina, also an actor and TV presenter, knew Madam Som from around the time she was taking dance lessons at 10. Mr Adel Dzulkarnaen and Ms Marina enjoyed a childhood friendship that blossomed into love about a decade later.

A few other staff members knew Madam Som from when they were teens and as young as four.

It is a familial environment that Madam Som had also felt at Sriwana, where she had risen to the position of artistic director. After more than three decades there, she founded Sri Warisan in 1997, leaving Sriwana for good a year later. Ten dancers eventually left with her.

Saying she suffered a depressive episode at the time, Madam Som tears up at the memory of the split, saying: "They were like my brothers and sisters. They didn't want to let me go.

"My idea was to have one hand holding Sriwana, community-based, all volunteers; the other hand would be holding Sri Warisan, professional-based, a platform for careers."

It was like a family breaking up and reconciliation took place more than a decade later.

Madam Fauziah Hanom Yusof, Sriwana's president and artistic director for the past eight years, was a dancer under the guidance of Madam Som at the time of the split, which she says took place amid concerns of a conflict of interest.

"There was a fear of competition between the two groups," says Mr Adel Dzulkarnaen.

Madam Fauziah Hanom adds: "When Madam Som left, I had to pick up the bits and pieces. It's like we'd lost our parents. She mentored me."

Fittingly, a "big truce", as she describes it, was achieved at a 2010 joint production, involving the two groups, called Anak Wayang, about the lives of performers.

"Madam Som approached us to do a big collaboration, involving us and others, for Anak Wayang. It was at Victoria Theatre, where she used to perform almost every year. It was very emotional because we were there under a different flag. Everybody was crying but we finally set aside our differences," adds Madam Fauziah Hanom.

Despite this bumpy journey, Madam Som says she is content that Sri Warisan has "made a contribution to society" and that her "legacy will carry on with Adel and Marina" at the helm.

After completing a degree in dance anthropology in Jakarta in 2012, Madam Som now looks forward to documenting and writing about Malay dance. She dreams of setting up "an arts village in the natural setting of Pulau Ubin".

"I'm an ordinary person. The talent I have is in me, it's natural. I never feel I'm special. What I do is share my knowledge," she says.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.