River Turtle Dance of Pekan

An ancient ritual inspired by the surroundings

DANCE VARIANT: The Pekan variant pictured here has more than two performers. The dance is performed to the accompaniment of the rebana and gongs.

THE state of Pahang or Pahang Darul Makmur has one of the largest river networks in the country.

So not surprisingly, rivers are a lifeline for most of the communities there – and more.

The Pahang River, for instance, has inspired the traditional folklore, culture, history and literature of this southeastern peninsular state.

One dance which has it roots in the Malay communities from the Endau and Pekan Districts is the River Turtle Dance (Tarian Labi-labi, depicting the river turtle found in most of the Asian continent.

Pekan is in Pahang while Endau is in neighbouring Johor.

Turtle symbolism

Locally known as labi-labi, river turtles — or more specifically Malayan river turtles — are fresh water soft-shell reptiles which inhabit most of the rivers throughout Southeast Asia.

To most Malay communities, especially on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, the river turtle symbolises their culture.

During a Tarian Labi-labi, all eyes will be on four young men imitating the movement of the river turtle — crawling and shifting along slowly on stage.

The dancers wear traditional Malay costumes with a replica shell on their backs. The dance routine requires the dancers to crawl around the stage and bend their bodies while moving their arms like a swimming turtle.

The participants are usually men but women can also perform the dance whose ritual is meant to be comical in nature.


The dance has a few variations, the most distinctive of which are the ones from Endau and Pekan. Other variations are found in Terengganu and also Kedah.

For the Pekan variant, more than two dancers are involved and the musical instruments used are bamboo drum, rebana, gong, gong kelapa (keketok) and serunai (Malay flute).

For the Endau variant, there is only one dancer performing to the tempo of violin music and gongs.

Whatever the dance variations, the music is played softly as if symbolising the peaceful and calm nature of the water as well as the slow movements of the turtle.

Reactions and opinions

Some first-timers said the Tarian Labi-labi routine was one of the weirdest they ever saw. And to my surprise, even some Pahang residents have never heard about it before.

“It’s a strange dance like most traditional cultural dances in Southeast Asia,” noted Christopher Jeffery Hill from Kuching.

“However, from the performance I witnessed, I did see the similarities between the traditional cultures of Sarawak and Pahang,” he commented after watching the video footage I recorded.

For Abi Suffian of Kuala Lipis, Pahang, the dance is a homage to the river turtle, regarded by his ancestors as a sign of good luck and prosperity — much like the traditional belief of the mainstream Chinese community.

“My people have massive respect for their surroundings. This is typical of Southeast Asian traditional performing arts and cultures where elements of the surroundings are incorporated into their lives,” he added.

Like most traditional performing arts, there is a need to preserve them.

In the case of the River Turtle Dance, there are on-going efforts by the federal and the Pahang state governments to popularise it. One way is to encourage more youngsters to learn the dance.

Community visit

On Jan 5, a delegation from Sarawak and Sabah, including myself, paid a community visit to Pekan, Pahang, at the invitation of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. There, the delegates had the opportunity to watch the dance performed by a group of youngsters from Pekan.

Earlier, the delegates witnessed the launch of the 1Malaysia Integration Programme (with Air Asia) in Sepang by the Prime Minister.

After that, the delegates were introduced to the community of Pulau Serai in Pekan — and their cultures as well. It was at this event that the River Turtle Dance was highlighted.

Apart from government efforts, the Internet is also playing a vital role in preserving the dance.

Information and video footages are uploaded on various webistes for those interested in knowing more about Tarian Labi-labi.

Popular websites such as YouTube, Metacafe and Wikipedia serve as good sources of information for this unique performing art.

No matter what the measures taken, all that really matters is that the River Turtle Dance is kept alive for posterity.