What makes Borneo special? The island is famed for its lush landscapes and exotic wildlife, but there is another, equally great factor: its people. With over 20 ethnic groups in Sabah alone, their mesmerisingly beautiful and diverse traditions can be seen in every facet of daily life – including dancing! Read on to learn more about some of the unique and wonderfully-crafted dances of Borneo:


1) Sumazau

One of the most iconic dances of Borneo, particularly in Sabah! The Sumazau is a traditional dance of the Kadazan people, who often perform it during celebrations and religious ceremonies as a way of honouring the spirits. As you might imagine, it is a staple of Kaamatan (Harvest Festival), during which the Kadazan display their gratitude for the bountiful harvest of paddy.

The dance is often played to the accompaniment of gongs and a drum, though the rhythm varies by region. It features slow and gentle movements, including the rhythmic swaying of arms, as if artfully imitating birds in flight. According to legend, the dance was inspired by eagles’ flying patterns, witnessed by farmers who were resting in their fields.


2) Ngajat

The famous Warrior Dance of Sarawak’s Iban tribes! Hearkening back to the age of the legendary Bornean headhunters, this dance was traditionally performed to celebrate the victors of war during Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival). Nowadays, it is mostly performed to welcome important guests, as well as during Gawai, an important thanksgiving festival celebrated in Sarawak.

Ngajat dancers stand and move in a circle, swinging left and right while occasionally jumping to the rhythm of the music. Instruments used during the dance include gongs, drums and stringed instruments. Aside from wearing their characteristically elaborate headdresses, the dancers also sometimes hold ornate shields and swords!


Photo by NSTP / Effendy Rashid

3) Datun Julud

Performed only by women of the Kenyah tribe of Sarawak, it was used in the past to greet warriors returning from a raid, as well as to thank the spirits for a bountiful harvest.  Known as the ‘hornbill dance’, it features female dancers moving gracefully in imitation of the sacred bird, all while keeping their heads motionless in order to avoid swaying around their heavy brass earrings too much. It’s usually accompanied by the sounds of a sape, a traditional Bornean stringed instrument.


4) Magunatip

Another dance to symbolise the bravado of Borneo’s warriors, the Magunatip or Bamboo Dance is a tradition of the Murut people, and is probably one of the more physically challenging dances in this list!

Dancers leap over or around several bamboo poles clapping against each other, held up from the ground at around ankle-height. The tempo and clapping speed ramps up dramatically over time, so you need both reflexes and good timing to avoid getting your feet trapped! Instruments such as gongs are sometimes used in accompaniment, though the sound of clapping bamboo poles already make for some pretty catchy music in their own right.

5) Mongigol Sumundai

The Mongigol Sumundai is a traditional Rungus dance that actually consists of two separate dances. It involves a male dancer leading with the ‘Mongigol’ dance, followed by several female dancers doing the ‘Sumundai’ simultaneously. It is typically performed to welcome guests and celebrate occasions such as Kaamatan.

The dance is also accompanied by the beating of gongs, which have long been an important part of Rungus culture. Occasionally, while the dance is being performed, the Rungus will fan out and invite their guests to partake in the consumption of some locally-brewed alcohol, such as the kinomol (rice wine) and tinonggilan (corn wine). Be sure to drink moderately, or you might end up blacking out before the dance even ends!

These are just some of the beautifully diverse dances that Borneo has to offer – plenty more are often performed by the various ethnic groups that inhabit this island. Explore Borneo and immerse yourself in festivals and social events, and you might just pick up the steps yourself!

If you wish to see some of these dances in action, especially the exciting and physically impressive Magunatip, and experience the local culture of Sabah’s many unique tribes, you can also visit Mari-Mari Cultural Village – just a few kilometres away from Kota Kinabalu city!

If you’d like to learn more about Bornean culture, then be sure to read up on issue 78 of our e-magazine, Wild Borneo!