Dances of the Islands: Their Variety and Place in Popular Life



WHEN a company of Balinese dancers was touring the West a few years ago, the question was sometimes put to them: “Indonesia— what part of Bali is that, actually? In the commercial world Indonesian products — tin, rubber, oil, sugar, tea, and quinine are widely known, but in the world of the arts, and especially of the dance, this view of the part being greater, or at least more renowned, than the Indonesian whole is, unfortunately, all too widespread.

Balinese dance is but one portion of the choreographic riches of Indonesia. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than each year on the seventeenth of August — Indonesian Independence Daywhen a great array of dances ranging from northernmost Sumatra 1o the easternmost Spice Islands is performed on the lawn of the Presidential Palace at Jakarta. The many different t radii ions of 1 he dance, the vast variety in styles of accompanying music, and the gay parade of rich, colorful costumes, all combine on such an occasion to form a splendid display of the cultural wealth of the thousands of islands which, spread like an emerald belt across the equator, go to make up the Republic of Indonesia.

From the earliest times dance has been the very core of the cultural tradition all over Indonesia. In the ancient Javanese drama Arjimariraha, or The Marriage of Arjuna, which is based on Hindu legends imported long ago from India, the story is told that the gods once created seven nymphs from precious stones, after which the nymphs out of gratitude paid homage to their creators by performing the first dance. Enchanted by the beauty of that primordial dance, so the legend goes on, the deities were inflamed with love for the nymphs. However it was not seemly for such exalted beings to stare openly at the beauteous and bewitching creatures dancing about them; so the gods arrived at the solution of multiplicity, and from that moment on Brahma has had four faces and Indra any number of eyes.

A rather less poetic version of the origin of the dance, but one no doubt closer to the truth, is provided by another Javanese drama or lakon. This records how the first gamelan orchestra, was created by the great god Mahadeva Iihatara Guru, and later, on the completion of a temple Mahadeva had built, the gods and goddesses celebrated the occasion by performing dances to this accompaniment.

Here, surely, is an indication ol the close relation originally to be found between the dance and religious rites. For in Indonesia, as throughout the world, the dance grew out of the need for religious expression, and it was only over a long period of time that it was gradually transformed (the process is not complete in many parts of the archipelago) to a consciously artistic reflection of the modes and manners of a secular society. Though in its more recent development it has also acquired a certain more recreational element, the Indonesian dance, whether secular or sacred, has remained intrinsically something far more serious — an essential expression of the life and interests of the social group and of society as a whole.

The relation of the Indonesian dance to traditions of the dance in India, which was historically its progenitor, has long been a favorite topic for debate among the scholars. From the point of view of research into origins and “first things this question is not without its importance. But the problem is in point of fact not one of Indian influences alone, because Chinese, Persian, Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch elements can also be clearly traced in some Indonesian dances. Reciprocally, in the interplay of cultures along the age-old Asian trade routes, Indonesian dance forms spread to other countries and have exerted far-reaching influences. More important than these influences themselves is the way in which they have been assimilated and transformed into a variety of traditions which are Indonesian to the core, and which, for sheer bulk and excellence, are perhaps unrivaled in any other country of the world. To define the “Indonesian-ness” of these traditions is no easy task — because t heir range is so great . But perhaps a short survey of the dance scene in the various parts of Indonesia today will serve as well.


IN THE Moluccas— the Spice Islands renowned in the West even during the Middle Ages — even more strongly than elsewhere in the archipelago, there is apparent the characteristic Indonesian trait of assimilating a variety of foreign influences into a harmonious, indigenous whole. Here Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant influences, from Arabia, Portugal, Spain, and the Low Countries, have been poured into the Moluccan melting pot, and the very instruments used to accompany the dances typify the resulting synthesis. The lensa, for instance, the leading dance in the northern Moluccas, is performed by a mixed group to the accompaniment of a Western-type violin, a tambourine borrowed from the Islamic Near East, and a small, autochthonous drum called a tifa.

On Celebes the conflict of cultures has led to other developments. In Minahassa, for example, Western-style dancing was far on the way to superseding the round dances and line dances traditionally performed in the region on such festive occasions as births, marriages, the rice harvest, the completion of a new house, and so forth. Recently, however, thanks to a series of regional dance contests, new interest has been stimulated in Minahassa’s own indigenous dances. At the other end of this island, to the south, where a powerful feudal court once held sway, the chief dances derive from a courtly background and may be performed only by young girls of high rank. Typical of the South Celebes dance tradition are slow, stately dances reflecting the pomp and circumstance of the courts. To the outsider they seem at first quite out of keeping with the bright music of the accompanying orchestra — a trumpet, a small gong, two kettledrums, and a drum whose skin-covered sides are beaten rapidly and hard by hand.

The coastal areas of Borneo, or Kalimantan as we now call it, have long undergone strong cultural influences from outside of the island, which are, of course, reflected in its dances. Thus in South Borneo there is one based on the old Indian epic, The llamayana, which mimes the story of the villainous ten-headed King Havana who carried oil’ Rama’s wife Sit a to Ceylon. In choreographic pattern there is little deviation from the version of the same dance to be found on Java. But in Borneo the dancer who plays Havana wears not an ancient traditional costume, but one like the full-dress uniforms once worn bv high officials in the region — clearly reminiscent of the Dutch Governor General of colonial days, complete with shoulder braid, epaulets, and a high plumed cap.

In the interior of Borneo, in the Dayak territory, long isolated from the outer world, one finds more primitive forms, such as the kenyah, a war dance performed by a man clad in a loincloth, with adornments on his arms and legs and a sword in his hand. The lively pattern of dance steps and the skilled manipulations of ihe sword conjure up the spirit of the once-so-bellicose “wild men of Borneo.” A description of another kind of war dance among t he Dayaks is found in this issue in Beb Vuyk’s “Dance to the Dead.”

The island of Sumatra, parts of which have long been centers of international trade in Asia, has a wide variety of cultural patterns and dance traditions. In Ache, on the northern end of the island, the best-known dance is the seudati, commonly performed by nine young men. Their dance, a lively, vigorous one, is accompanied in song by one of the young men while the others go through an intricate figuration of leaps forwards, sidewards, and backwards, accentuating the rhythm of the song by snapping their thumbs and middle fingers and by beating their chests with the palms of their hands.

In East Sumatra a papular dance is the serarnpang-dua helas or ronggeng, a gay dance performed by matched teams of men and women. Its music gradually speeds up as it progresses, building to a furious climax of sound and movement.

Several dances from the Central Sumatran region of Minangkabau employ quasi-symbolie objects to extend the meaning of the dancer’s gestures. There is a parasol dance and a handkerchief dance and, most renowned of all, the tari piring, the candle and saucer dance, in which the dancer holds in each hand a saucer containing a lighted candle, while executing a series of gracious and intricate steps and movements of the arms and hands. According to local belief this dance repeats the tale of a young girl who had received a ring from her admirer and then lost it, and so with the coming of evening had taken a candle to search for it. Less sophisticated and less obvious, but perhaps more likely, is a second interpretation of the dance as a ritual celebration of the rice harvest.

Further to the south is Palembang, one of Indonesia’s oldest cities. Around the time that Charlemagne was establishing his might in Europe, Palembang was the capital of the great kingdom of Sri Vijaya, which once dominated the Southeast Asian seas. The great kingdom has long disappeared but its name survives in l he stately Sri Vijaya dance, performed by girls of noble descent. The dancers, clad in priceless costumes and adorned with the exquisite jewelry they have inherited from ancestors long gone, often carry traditional family heirlooms, such as betel boxes, during the dance. Long nails of gold are attached to their fingers — perhaps a relic of Palembang’s contacts with China during the days of its glory.


COMING to Java, the most heavily populated of our islands, we find the topeng, a masked dance which is mentioned in classical writings of the fourteenth century and certainly dates back much further still to an origin as a magic dance charged with exorcising power. Vet it is si ill the most popular dance in the province. The West Javanese topeng dances can be subdivided into six types, each with its own color of mask and its own style of music, and its own character as well, ranging from the sedate refinement of the princely white-masked dances through the rough violence of the militant, red-masked dances, to the ridiculous caperings of the clownish dances, which often demand the finest technique and skill of all. Despite the name, the mask itself is in actuality often not so important in the topeng as is the gambuh or tekes. These are the headdresses of human hair or horsehair and long chains of interwoven flowers which swing and sway left and right during the dance. They indicate to the orchestra when the music must change in rhythm or theme.

Central Java, with its three royal courts of the Susuhunan and the Mangkunegara at Surakarta and the Sultan at Jogjakarta, has long been renowned as a leading center of the dance. Here the art is carefully nourished. Court dancing masters play an important role in the princely households, while members of the royal and noble families are expected as a matter of course to devote long and intensive study to the art. And in recent times new interest in Javanese dance traditions has been developing outside the court circles. In Jogjakarta, where part of the Sultan’s palace now houses Gajah Mada University, one of Indonesia’s leading centers of higher education, several student groups are developing into skilled dance troupes.

There is also another vital dance tradition in Central Java, the wayang orang. Wayang orang—the term might be translated as “a puppet play with people playing the part of the puppets” — is a form of dance-drama interpreting traditional Hindu and Javanese tales, and nowadays also some more modern themes dating from the colonial period and the Revolution. Surakarta is today the chief center for wayang orang, and Rusman, Darsi, Darmi, and Surono, the stars of the troupe acting and dancing at the “Sri Yedari” theater there, are renowned throughout Indonesia. The puppet play itself, the wayang kulit, is, of course, one of the most popular theater forms we have. On festive nights in villages throughout Indonesia one may find the country people seated before a small impromptu stage where the shadows of the leather puppets act out our old mythological legends on a white sheet illuminated by a light behind it which picks out the lacelike forms of the little figures. Their handlers manipulate them from the side with sticks attached to the limbs (a wayang figure is illustrated in the art section of this collection) and chant the verses of the story which is being enacted.

The Javanese dance has, in essence, a courtly tradition. In Rah, on the other hand, the dance is an integral, indispensable part of the life of everyman, from the highest to the lowest; not a ceremony, not a holiday, passes by without dancing. Training in the dance is a part of the upbringing of every true Ralinese.

As I have said, Balinese dances are the best known abroad of all Indonesian dances, and perhaps the most renowned of them is the legong, in which the principal roles are performed by two small girls. (A third, playing the part of a servant, usually gives a sort of introduction.) In the old days, dancing the legong was something of a feat of physical endurance—it lasted a good two hours. Nowadays, however, as with many other Indonesian dances, it is often abbreviated in an attempt to adapt it to modern tastes. A second Balinese dance of great renown, the kebyar, is a solo, performed in the open space within a triangle the sides of which are formed by the gamelan orchestra. The instruments are rather like small xylophones and the players sit on the ground before them.

Of a quite different nature from the legong and the kebyar, with their subtle movements of fingers, hands, and eyes, of head, neck, and shoulders, is the kecha, or monkey dance. The kecha, which depicts the episode from the Ramayana where Rama attacks the kingdom of Havana with an army of monkeys, is a group dance in which everyone participates. As it reaches its peak of frenzy, many of the chanting dancers fall into an ecstatic trance. Balinese dance is no mere secular recreation, but an expression of the religiosity which permeates the whole fabric of the island’s society. For the Balinese, dance is inseparable from religion, and religion from till of life.

Everywhere in Indonesia there is dance; each is beautiful and each fills a need in the life of the people, expressing the artistic soul of our country. Our dancing is a feast, not only for the eye and ear but for the soul of the onlooker, who is transported from the world of everyday to a more spacious, more exalted world of eternal values.

Translated by W. A. Braasem.