It is believed that Muslim missionaries of the Middle East namely Persia and Arabia introduced the dance to Malaya during the fifteenth century. The dance was originally performed by males only however it is also performed by female dancers these days. The simple version of the Zapin is performed to the rhythm &1234 and the foot is extended out to the side on the last count. It can be done on the spot, traveling forwards and backwards or diagonally in the basic form. The carriage of the dancers is quite erect and dignified.
The music for Zapin comes from an ensemble of traditional instruments which include the lute (gambus), gypsy-type bongos (marwas) and the violin. There are no hard and fast rules as to the number of dancers that perform. However because of the very interactive nature of this dance, it is usually performed in pairs. The dancers can then play with each other, teasing, challenging and enjoying each others company. It is most popular in Johor.
There are numerous forms of Zapin dances and it varies from state to state. One of the most popular forms and certainly more evolved and intricate is the Zapin Tenglu from the town of Mersing. Said to be inspired by the ebb and flow of the tide and the lives of fishermen, the dance has many unexpected movements like a rotation of the body from the waist followed by a sudden accented, sharp and held movement of the arms and shoulders. It is said that these movements are derived from the feeling of being tossed around in a fishing boat and having to catch yourself before you are thrown overboard.