Celebrating Indonesia through dance
Indonesian dance styles are as diverse and spectacular as the country itself. In celebration of Indonesian Independence Day on 17 August, Lexigo interviewed Ms Safira Aulia, Brisbane-based teacher and performer of traditional Indonesian dances through her company Inabella Dance Group.
Lexigo: What are the main styles of Indonesian dance?
Ms Safira: Every island has its own dances with unique characters based on the cultural influences and history of where the dance originates. For example in Java, the cities Jogjakarta (Jogja) and Solo, even though they’re close, have different kinds of dances. Sometimes they have the same name, but the way they move, the music and the costumes are different.
Costumes vary, people wear batik and each island and city has its own batik pattern. The movements, the way they move, also varies. Jogja can be slower than Solo. In Jogja, you cannot bend over, you must keep your upper body straight. In Solo, they do lean forward. Hand movements also vary, in Jogja, the dancers’ wrists face backwards, whereas in Solo they’re sideways. In Solo, the konde hairdos are smaller, they’re bigger and flatter in Jogja.
In Bali, dance is similar to West Java. It’s very fast and lively, with lots of synchronised movements. Dancers use their whole body; the head, eyes, hands and feet must move together. The costumes are more colourful. As Bali is a Hindu island, it’s influenced by India.
Lombok has its own traditional fabrics, while Kalimantan (Borneo) dance feature movements that imitate animals, such as birds. Their costumes are made from traditional beaded fabrics. Most Sumatran dances, performed in Aceh and nearby, are used to teach people about Islam. Dancers dress according to Muslim standards, with their arms and legs covered. Their costumes are made of songket fabrics. Papua is very different again. They don’t wear fabric, they would wear leaves.
Lexigo: What are the main features of different Indonesian dance styles?
Ms Safira: Every dance tells a story. In Java, especially the classic dances, were mostly created by the sultans (the king of Java kingdom in Jogja) and the dances were performed for special occasions at the keraton (the palace). Dance was quite sacred and only for the royal household, the keraton. Dancers would always dress conservatively, with their shoulders and chest covered.
Now it’s more for the general public. The most popular dance, gambyong, was originally invented by a cabaret dancer, but it’s more widely accepted now. They would not be so covered, with a more sexy outfit that does not cover the décolletage.
In Bali, dances were traditionally created for the royal family, but now can be choreographed by anyone.
Lexigo: What occasions is dance performed for?
Ms Safira: Javanese dances are performed for big ceremonies such as weddings, the king’s birthday, royal celebrations such as Sekaten, the commemorations in Jogja and Solo of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and special occasions to greet guests at the keraton.
There is a belief in Java that you need to be a virgin to become a dancer. Dancers are chosen especially for the Jogja keraton. They rehearse every Sunday morning and must be clean and holy when they perform, female dancers are not mean to perform if they’re menstruating. This also links to pre-Islamic kejawen beliefs.
Lexigo: Who learns Indonesian dance?
Ms Safira: Indonesian people seem more interested in TikTok and contemporary dance than traditional dance. They want the freedom to create their own choreography. The traditional dances have set patterns, like batik, that need to be followed.
Some professional dancers learn traditional dances, then create their own choreography. Contemporary is more popular but can be inspired by or mixed with their own choreography. This has more appeal internationally.
In Bali, children learn dance so people from all backgrounds might become dancers. People might do it as a Sunday activity. It’s growing more. Tourism gives it more of a practical purpose because people can make a living as a performer.
It’s less common now in Java. People don’t find it important. It’s hard now to encourage people to learn traditional dances. Children don’t seem interested. The Government does try to encourage people to have carnivals where big groups are invited to dance, each school might send children to participate.
It’s the same on other islands, where dance might only be performed at school art performances or to celebrate Indonesia’s Independence Day on 17 August. There are also competitions run by the Government to encourage children to learn.
Lexigo: Where is it performed? Where are good places to see it if travelling to Indonesia?
Ms Safira: In Jogja, traditional dance is performed regularly at the keraton and Prambanan temple, where the Ramayana ballet performs the story of Rama and Sita with the spectacular temple as a backdrop. There are also performances at Solo’s keraton.
In Bali, you can see dance performed at the Ubud Palace and Uluwatu Temple. On other islands, dance would be performed at tourist destinations, for big weddings for local officials or visits by important officials such as the President of Indonesia.
Lexigo: What’s your favourite thing about traditional Indonesian dance?
Ms Safira: Firstly, we inherited these dances. It’s a treasure we have because our ancestors created it. We need to preserve it, we need to keep it alive. The dances are very unique and different, they have their own stories.
My favourite dance is from Bali, it tells the love story about two birds of paradise, the movements, costume details and music makes you want to dance every time you listen.
I want to preserve my dance, I want future generations to understand how precious it is and I hope they will be glad to inherit it too.
Lexigo: Who are some famous Indonesian dancers?
Ms Safira: Eko Supriyanto does contemporary dance only, but he draws on interesting research in remote Sulawesi where he trains local children in dance. Didik Nini Thowok is a Javanese dancer who mixes traditional and contemporary styles, using masks to contrast between Javanese and Japanese dancers for example.
In Indonesia, artists struggle to reach a professional level. You can still make money as a traditional dancer by performing at weddings, but there are few professional companies. It’s more competitive to be a professional dancer, you need to be different and find a way to stand out.
Safira Aulia is from central Java, Indonesia’s biggest and most populous island. She is now based in Brisbane Australia, where she expresses her love of country and dance by teaching and performing traditional Indonesia dance through her company, Inabella Dance Group. Follow her on Instagram @inabelladance or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Sophia Dickinson, Lexigo: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences at sophiadickinson.com.au