Traditional innovator

Traditional innovator
Madam Som Mohamed Said with the costumes in her Little India dance studio.

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.

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