Jazz had long made its way into Malaysia.
But before one starts to trace the ‘when’ and ‘how’, a little understanding of its history is required.
The origin of jazz is rooted in mostly African and European (following their migration to America) traditions in an American environment. Many types of jazz music and jazz dances have evolved and had taken form since.
In the history books of America, the birthplace of jazz, music and dance were inseparable. The milestones of its evolution were benchmarked against each other since the early 1900s till today.
During the Ragtime-Jazz period in the early 1900s the Charleston dance became established. Then in the Jazz Age of 1920s came other forms such as Black Bottom, the dance said to be the prototype for modern Tap dance, and swing dances from Break-a-way to Lindy Hop.
This was soon followed by the big-band swings that filled the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and The Cotton Club with the accompanying dances such as West Coast Swing, Shag, Suzi-Q and so on. With the coming of Rock and Roll and Latin crossover music, jazz was fused the likes of rumba, jitterbug, and the mambo with rock and roll, and these also opened the doors to Free Jazz.
And as disco music dominated the dance floors in the 70s, couples started doing what was tagged as the Disco Swing, which later came to be known as The Hustle. In the 80s, the MTV generation and rock/funk/hip hop music gave jazz yet another new look with the likes of music videos by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and others.
Such harmonious link and evolution did not take place here in Malaysia. Jazz music and jazz dance evolved quite separately.
Here in Malaysia, jazz music has been given more attention than its equal half – jazz dance.
In general, the term ‘jazz’ is used here to refer to jazz music, while to the smaller dance community, the term ‘jazz’ can mean both jazz music and jazz dance.
In the rest of this article, the term ‘jazz’ and ‘tap’ will be used to refer to the two prevailing jazz dances in Malaysia – jazz and tap are dance forms of jazz music.
Jazz, as you see it today in Malaysia, was and still is directly influenced by foreign elements, especially music, movies and music videos.
Jazz only arrived in Malaysia in the mid-70s during the disco era. A (then) young stud, by the name of John Travolta was responsible for this. Well, sort of. The dance explosion here was mainly influenced by movies (in the 70s and 80s) such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Footloose, and many others.
And jazz, like the pub scene, grew alongside popular music from the West.
Local dancers and teachers went overseas to study jazz and taught what they had learnt when they came back. There were improvisations, but no distinct new jazz styles or forms were developed here.
The introduction of jazz in the 70s first came from the British and the Americans spread the influence through movies.
Farah Sulaiman, principle of the Sayang Academy of Dancing and choreographer of Sayang Dancers, was the pioneer of jazz and tap in Malaysia. In the early 70s, most dance schools in Malaysia only offered ballet and modern dance classes.
“During my teens, I learnt from my sister, who went to the United Kingdom (UK) to take one-month summer courses on freestyle jazz and tap. I also taught myself British tap from a book when I was 17 years old,” said Farah.
“Many commercial dance groups mushroomed during this period and these included Sayang Dancers, which I founded, Sadiah Dancers, Normadiah Dancers and so on. There were plenty of gigs at the time. The one that I particularly remember was the Hennessy Showtime featuring singers such as Mary Yap. The show toured Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Seremban with the Sayang Dancers in tow,” she reminisced.
At its infancy, jazz in Malaysia was mainly freestyle and had no proper syllabus. It was only in 1978 that Lee Lee Lan, founder of the Federal Academy of Ballet (FAB), brought the British Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabus of jazz and tap to Malaysia. Lee too took short courses in the UK, and in Malaysia she took instructions from a lady by the name of Dilys Yap. However, it was not known where Yap learnt jazz.
However, during this period the jazz scene gained momentum primarily due to the influence of movies and not so much as to the availability of a syllabus.
The music video industry was a key contributing factor for the dance explosion in the 80s – who can forget the classic dance videos of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul?
Notably, companies offering the two key vices (by taxation’s definition), cigarettes and alcohol, played a key role in supporting the dance explosion. They were quick to recognize the craze and used dance as a platform to promote their products. Promotions, corporate sponsorships, awards, competitions, and contests soon flooded the Malaysian entertainment scene.
It was also during this period that a flood of commercial dance companies were set up.
Dance students of the 70s led the way in the 80s dance scene. This is the ‘golden era’ for jazz in Malaysia during which the dance reached a professional level. Among the big names then were Peter Choo, Tan Pek Khuan, Joseph Gonzales, Chan Mee Kuen, Tan Bee Khuan, Faustina Hoe, and Frances Teoh.
Peter Choo (born in 1961) was the most prominent male dancer, choreographer and teacher during this period. He first started off with ice skating (figure) in Tokyo, Japan before he took up ballet and jazz at 11 years old at the Asahi School of Art, Tokyo (learning from both American and Japanese teachers).
“My teachers told me that to be good in jazz one has to learn from a few teachers to pick up their different styles. This would also help me develop my own style,” recalled Choo.
Taking their advice, he went off to study dance at Pineapple Studio, London and then studied under several teachers in New York. One of the more memorable ones was the Alvin Alley School of Dancing, an influential black dance school that taught black jazz, punk, rap, and other contemporary dances.
Choo earned his reputation by winning awards such as the Choreography Dance Competition and the Disco Dance Competition in London in 1981.
In 1983, Peter decided to return to Malaysia though he still spent a fair bit of time in Japan. Still, he managed to teach jazz at the Annabelle Kronemberg School of Dancing in Kuala Lumpur where students and dance teachers flock to packed studios to learn from him. In 1986, he came back for good and founded The Dance Company, a commercial dance company, with co-founder Tan Pek Khuan.
Tan started dance training with the late Signe Syme at the age of seven and later under Lee Lee Lan. In 1983, she graduated in ballet and modern dance from Laine Theatre Arts, Surrey.
Tan, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, is no stranger to performances and competitions. She had performed in the Modern Dance Festivals with the Kuala Lumpur Dance Theatre in Tokyo and Seoul (1984 – 1986); and had participated and won many dance competitions locally and abroad including the Flash Dance Competition held at the Sapphire Discotheque at Plaza Yow Chuan (the discotheque was known to hold many dance competitions during the 80s).
As a choreographer, Tan was especially known for her works entitled Bohemian Rhapsody (title taken from Queen’s hit number) and Take Off With Us in 1986.
She was also the choreographer for the Peter Stuyvesant Cheerleaders. And, as Rothman’s resident choreographer, she produced shows such as West Side Story and other Broadway productions.
In 1982, Joseph Gonzales set up his own jazz dance group in University Malaya. The group of six performed for all university events, as well as in nightclubs and launches in the early 80s. They even took part in Farah Sulaiman’s big show at City Hall, which was the 1st Asean Pop Song Festival, featuring Francesca Peters and many other singers.
At the time, Joseph studied ballet and tap at FAB and also took jazz classes at the famed Annabelle Kronemberg School of Dance where Peter Choo taught.
The most memorable experience for Gonzales was being part of the legendary Saint Moritz Gold Band that was formed in 1986.
According to Gonzales, “For the first time in Malaysia, a dance group had a full time make-up artist and designer, and dancers were paid a fixed salary of RM1200 for rehearsals and eight shows per month. An additional RM200 was paid for extra shows.”
Saint Moritzs’ performances were produced by Marina Beaumont while Datin Zabedah Zessey held the role of Artistic Director. There were 10 dancers in the group and they had the opportunity to perform with celebrities such as Sudirman and Joanne Ng.
However, at the end of 1986, the group disbanded and the dancers all went their separate ways.
However, Gonzales affirms that the Saint Moritz experience had left all the dancers inspired to become even better dancers. In fact, almost all of them left Malaysia to pursue dance – three went to London, including Gonzales; two to Singapore; Tan Bee Khuan went to United States and Faustina, to Germany.
Another dancer, Frances Teoh, a keen competitor of Peter Choo, also set up her own dance company, Comscapes (1987) which comprised of three choreographers - Christopher Ng, Michael Voon and Engku Majid. The company specialized in jazz and Martha Graham. However, this group too was soon disbanded.
In the early 1990s, Lee Lee Lan of FAB revived the interest in jazz and tap with classes that took off with Joseph Gonzales and Chan Mee Kuen at its helm.
Chan, due to an illness, had passed away early last year.
“Chan came to me when she was 16 years old to learn dancing. She had no dance background but she badly wanted to dance. I auditioned her and found that she had natural talent and allowed her to take lessons from me and to join the Sayang Dancers,” said Farah.
Between the mid to late 80s, Chan pursued dance in Singapore, and subsequently in the United States of America (America) where she received training at the Boston University Theatre Institute and the New York University. She was one of the privileged few who had studied under the legendary tap dancer Gregory Hines. During her stint in New York, she was mentored by established choreographers such as Barry Weiss, Christian Polos and Jan Mickens.
Sunny Chan Hean Kee, President of The Dance Society of Malaysia who had record of Chan’s credentials said that she was the society’s Secretary for 4 years.
In addition, she was Director of Dance Workshop, her own studio and company, and in that capacity, conducted workshops such as the Dance Society Workshop and the FAB Dance Workshop in 1993. She also took part in the International Summer School organized by the London Studio Centre and the Federal Academy of Ballet.
She had choreographed for the Police Field Force Tattoo, TV3’s Image, Health and Fitness programme, and numerous stage and television personalities (including Sudirman and Ning Baizura).
Chan also choreographed for children in stage musicals such as Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, Show Boat and Carmen for Operafest Productions Sdn Bhd.
Her biggest contribution to the history of jazz and tap in Malaysia was the introduction of Luigi jazz and American tap (Broadway) into the dance scene. Being a first-generation student of Gregory Hines, she also played a key role in spreading his influence.
Her signature choreographies included tap and theatre dances of Broadway musicals such as West Side Story, Chorus Line, Cats, and a few hip hop items.
At a FAB performance at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre in April 1993, a reporter was enchanted by Chan’s Ragtime to Raptime which showcased dances from the 1920s Depression era, and hip hop to rap.
However, in the mid-90s, Chan left Malaysia for New York to pursue a professional dance career.
Celeste Theunissen (40) who hails from South Africa made Malaysia her home in 1990 after she married a Malaysian. She received her training in South Africa from the University of Cape Town Ballet School (Diploma in Ballet) and the Capad Ballet Company. She also received the Solo Seal Award from the Royal Academy of Dancing (Ballet).
“I feel that the standard of jazz dance was higher in the early 90s but it had somewhat declined after 1995,” said Theunissen.
Theunissen founded the Celestar Jazz Dance Technique and Syllabus with hopes of training and producing more good jazz dancers in Malaysia.
“In this program, my students can choose to pursue the dance course with my school’s affiliate, the Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop, Colorado, United States after the course’s Level 5 examination, which is equated with the pre-professional level of advanced ballet,” said Theunissen.
Today, most dance schools do offer jazz and tap. However, the old hands (and legs) still teaching jazz are Joseph Gonzales at the Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (ASK) and Celeste Theunissen at Celeste Studios.
“Jazz was incorporated into the ASK syllabus only in 2000. Over the last two to three years ASK managed to produce a few very good jazz graduates,” said Gonzales.
Two former students of Chan are teaching tap now - Shireena Hamzah, who owns Dancesteps Studio, (she learnt American tap under Chan at the Plaza Dance Academy when she was 16 years old) and Toh Kong Eu, who teaches Rhythm Tap at FAB.
The biggest dance production during this period was the launch of e-village in 2000. Experienced dancers such as Theunissen, Ann Tan, and Gonzales were called on to participate. The production had a full set of costumes enacted from movies themes such as James Bond and Austin Powers.
Earlier this year, Farah Sulaiman produced Dance Hysteria 2 incorporating jazz, tap, and hip hop items.
The more active jazz dance companies today provide more than just the jazz genre such as traditional dance and other dance genres to cater to commercial demands. Those that still specialize and provide mostly jazz are The Dance Company (Peter Choo), Switch (Michael Tan), and Gig Dance Company (Vince Khoo). Others include Red Hot Entertainment (Ann Tan and Trancy Koh), Crossroads (Joseph Gonzales), Kit Kat Club (Tiara Jacquelina), and The Dance Republic (Linda Jasmine, Shireen Woon).
What is the future of jazz dance in Malaysia? Clearly the past outshines the present and another revival is much needed to inspire more interest and passion in this genre of dance so that it would thrive.
(in memory of Ms Chan Mee Kuen, Jazz and Tap dance teacher, who not only taught but inspired)