Line-dancing: A new form of dance sport


The ‘Swinging 70s Party 2011’, with invited Australian line-dance choreographer Simon Ward leading a well-attended workshop in Kuching.

IN Kuching, if you love dancing you would be spoilt for choice in selecting your favourite recreational form of dance – be it ballroom, traditional, line-dancing (also known as ‘square dance’ in the USA), Zumba and jazz.

During the colonial days going back to pre-Japanese War (1941-45), the wives of the British civil service personnel had formed their small groups, with their own parties and occasions and members of the Sarawak Constabulary Band having provided live music to the dance sessions.

Photographs of such functions exist to this day.

As a young lad, I recall seeing my older cousins Bobby, Ramsay, Doris and Nancy and others at home parties, rocking and twisting away to Elvis Presley in the late 1950s, and Chubby Checker in the 1960s.

The locals who loved dancing were introduced to professionally-run ballroom dancing schools around the mid-1980s when a handful of trained dance teachers opened up schools usually sited on the first floors of shophouses, and managed to interest amateur dancers in their hundreds.

There was a mini-boom for around 10 years with many parties involving dance exhibitions and even live bands in attendance.

Even family clubs like the oldest-established Sarawak Club had started a weekly dance lesson group, which had initially been popular with some members, but interest had dwindled greatly in recent years.

I heard many women complaining about their husbands/partners not being interested in ballroom dancing at all; thus, the women had outnumbered men on the dance floor by 10 to one.

Outlets like restaurants, bistros and clubs had tried their best too to promote ballroom dancing as a regular event, but had found out that they could not turn a profit, simply because the folks who attended were not usually big spenders and seldom spend much money on food and drinks either – they were mostly on the dance floor virtually all the time!

Over time, the dance craze had slowly dissipated, with only a couple of ‘known names’ being prominently featured between 1990 and present. Julie Yang and her partner did try to rejuvenate ballroom dancing, but gave up and she returned to Singapore.

Currently, only Russell and Randell Dance Company seem to have successfully sustained the interest among the younger generation.

There is a debate as to the origins of line-dancing. Some believe that country line-dancing can be traced back to the round and square dances of Europe; others say it originated from 10th century social settlement movement folk dancing.

Today, it simply involves people dancing in lines to music – the dances are choreographed with a repeating series of steps that are performed in unison, the dancers all face the same direction in multiple lines, and there is almost no physical contact.

Many find it very appealing because it does not require a partner, making it ideal for singles, couples or those who feel they are not the best of dancers.

The brief history of line-dancing began in Kuching in 2000, when four friends had decided to open up their homes (and some friends’ as well) for those interested and were willing to lead and teach a small circle of friends and acquaintances on how to line-dance as a form of exercise – initially mainly to appeal for the more mature women in our community.

It took a just retired teacher of St Thomas’ Secondary School, Alice Lai-Wright; an accomplished music tutor Yeo Yu Puay; Alice Gan, a business manager for an FMCG; and Patricia Au Yong, an executive in a statutory body, to come together to start Kuching’s very first line-dancing community, called the ‘Karar Line Dancers’.

The Karar Line Dancers performing the ‘Greased Lightning’ medley at Kuching Festival 2014.

The first session was held at a good friend’s Datin Dayang Mariani’s car-porch in Kuching in 2000, and a token fee of RM3 per head was charged, which was donated to the Old Marians Association where Dayang Mariani was the president.

The first responders numbered around a dozen, which grew, and the venue then changed to community halls, and package fees of RM50 for 10 sessions were collected.

The initial enthusiasts who took part were mainly the women from St Mary’s and St Teresa’s schools, plus a few brave husbands – this had quickly grown to include friends and family members, and it had taken a life of its own.

Within a few short months, a few more groups sprouted up all over Kuching and the number kept rising over the years – at last count, there were at least a dozen popular ones attracting on average 25-30 members on a regular basis.

Alice Wright, the most senior founder member, told me: “Today many of our student dancers have gone on to open up line-dancing classes themselves – we realised that we were having so much fun that we had to share our dances with others in order to keep it going!

“We also hold jamming sessions and performances in shopping malls, for corporations and for events like weddings and birthdays. We had several fundraisers too where we had invited international choreographers from Singapore, Australia, Canada and Japan to raise funds for charities. Many dancers from Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Peninsular Malaysia had also taken part here in Kuching at these events.”

Another group of avid line-dancers from the St Joseph’s Parish Ladies Guild Kuching were even more adventurous. From July 28 to 30 this year, they had travelled all the way to Blackpool, England to take part in the World Dance Masters (WDM) where an international line-up of renowned choreographers and line dancers took part in an annual event at the Winter Gardens venue there.

The group had included famous recording artiste Rose Iwanaga, Lee Siew Hoon, Edwina Tan, Margaret Chai, Lucy Kiew, Tan Siew Hiang, Janet Chung Brodie and Juliya Uloi.

For them, it was the experience of a lifetime, as they managed to dance with and watch their favourites whom they had hitherto only viewed on the many YouTube videos, watched over and over again to gain insights on the steps, movements and rhythm of the dance.

Rose Iwanaga and her ‘Group of 8’ from Kuching attending the July’s ‘World Dance Masters’ in Blackpool, England.

To complete the range of dance sports available here, mentions must also be made as to the popularity of Zumba among the more sportier and younger women in the local community.

I can see and feel their hive of activity on social media, especially Facebook, where some of the organisers would announce and advertise their sessions or special events on a regular basis.

Zumba is a form of aerobic dance exercise that had originated from Colombia in South America in the late 1990s, so as such, it is the newest of all the four popular forms of dance.

The term comes from the Colombian word that means ‘to buzz like a bee’.

Zumba choreography is composed using all or some of the 16 core steps – for basic rhythms of salsa, reggaeton, merengue and cumbia.

The fourth and final dance style is jazz dance, which is a form of dance that combines both African and European dance styles. This high-energy dance has a liveliness that sets it apart from all the traditional dance forms, featuring improvisation.

It is entertaining to watch, fun and active to participate in and involves a combination of unique moves, intricate footwork with leaps and quick turns. It is the least popular and a much lesser known form of dance here.

Personally, I am very sympathetic to those who really have a love for the simple pleasure of dancing, either just down to earth ballroom involving waltz, quickstep, cha-cha-cha or no-steps-needed disco, as there are very few places in Kuching for them to go to have a good time and to socialise.

The founders of Kuching’s first line-dance company, Karar: (clockwise, from top) Alice Lai-Wright, Patricia Au Yong, Alice Gan, and Yeo Yu Puay.

Where indeed are our dance-halls, disco palaces and ballroom venues?

Even the most popular social and family clubs could not interest their members to sustain regular weekly events.

Entrepreneurs are not keen as they cannot turn a profit.

Enthusiasts are now left with just attending one-off functions, events and private celebrations to practise their beloved waltz, or cha-cha.

At least there are still line-dancing classes, ballroom classes, Zumba sessions and jazz dance to turn to and within their small intimate circles, they can dance their free time away at their leisure and pleasure.

Shall we dance?