Traces of cross gender in Indonesian traditional dance

SIPFest 2018 is a performing arts bienalle held by Komunitas Salihara in conjunction with the art center’s tenth anniversary. think archipelago is a proud media partner of the event which runs from 4 August 2018 onwards until early September. To see more of their programs, please click all the SIPFest 2018 banner found in think archipelago website.


Didik Nini Thowok

Didik Nini Thowok in SIPFest 2018, Jakarta, 7 August. Photograph by Witjak Widhi Cahya, courtesy of Komunitas Salihara

It is likely to spark controversy whenever such an issue is brought up amid the majority religious people at the present Indonesia, but cross gender has been a part of the traditional performances across the archipelago which now become the sovereignty of the country.

Dancer cum choreographer Didik Nini Thowok, a 1982 graduate of Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta, whose birth name Didik Hadiprayitno, and who has carved a name on the short list of a patron of cross gender dance remains unshaken by the prevailing sentiment.

He is adamant at preserving cross gender dances in many of his works. One of them was presented in a lecture-performance in SIPFest 2018, Jakarta.

Moderated by Joned Suryatmoko, Didik’s unabated traditional dances and his ability to embody the female character dazzled the audience. All the more precious was his extensive research on cross gender traditional dance shared to public in one occassion. It revealed that the issue is not a new, abhorrent influence. It has thrived in the society before long.

He listed references to cross gender cultural and historical presence in a number of Javanese masked dances, Ludruk, Ronggeng, Balinese theatrical dance, Tari Gandrung, Buginese ritual, and in current times, the cabaret-styled Oyot Godhong in Yogyakarta, whose performers are mostly ISI students.

The routinely-held grass-root entertainment often involves  comedy show and lypsincing, savoring popular songs local and foreign-alike.

In comparison to European classic piece Swan Lake, the humorous Trockadero Ballet,  the Indian Stree Vesham where men perform as women similar to Japanese Kabuki, or the opposite movement of Takarazuka where women perform as men like the Chinese Yueju Opera, and mask dances in many Asian countries, Indonesia has a variety of cross-gender performance of its own, apparent across social groups, from grass root level to the royal castes, from entertainment to rituals, as follow:

  1. Langendriyan, a Javanese Opera performed in the palaces of Yogyakarta sultanate as well as in Surakarta. The opera played in both kingdoms differ in the gender. While the opera group in Yogyakarta consisted of men, the Langendriyan in Mangkunegaran Surakarta was performed by all women dancers.
  2. Wayang Wong, an epic Mahabarata-inspired theatrical dance which reached its zenith in 20th century, also performed before the sultanates of Yogyakarta and Surakarta
  3. Tari Golek, performed following Wayang Kulit
  4. Tari Topeng Cirebon, a female-led mask dance impersonating male character originating from the west coast of Java, such as in Palimanan and Indramayu
  5. The folk performing arts of Wari Lais, whose history can be traced in Cirebon, Cilacap, and Lasem
  6. The popular Ronggeng in Banyumas, which was later called Lengger Banyumas, where female dancer staged Tari Baladewan of male character to accompany local peasant ritual
  7. Lengger Wonosobo, whose origin dated back to Hindu era, performed by male dancers impersonating female eroticism
  8. A play and mask dance of Malang, called Tari Beskalan Putri Malangan, derived from folk tale Panji and played by male impersonators, to accompany ritual ceremony
  9. Ludruk Tutik Bintang Timur from Surabaya, a famous Ludruk group in 1950s, famous for the play Sarip Tambakyoso, a tale of indigenous heroism during the Dutch colonization
  10. Tari Gandrung Banyuwangi, documenting male dancers with female costumes holding drum and violin
  11. Drama Gambuh of Bali, influenced by cross-gender performances of predominantly-Hindu India. It is common to see such type of dance in Hindu society, where one of the goddess Shiva is depicted half male and half female. In Bali, other dances of similar fashion are , Legong Muani, Nandir, Trunajaya, Panji Semirang, Wiranata, Margapati, and so on, making it a land of opportunity for artists to thrive freely, such as dance group Sekaa Gong Kebyar Wanita, Topeng Wanita, Kecak Wanita, Gambuh Muani, and Arja Muani. (Muani means male).
  12. Folk theatrical dance Randai, whose origin can be traced in Padang, West Sumatra. Randai dance required a night-long performance, which explained why dancers are all males replacing the female dancers who are supposed to play their characters by nature due to the local customs of deriding women seen outside homes at night. Ronggeng is an acculturation of Javanese and Sumatran culture, hence the resemblance of Ronggeng and Randai.
  13. The sacred ritual Bissu in South Sulawesi, a tradition of Buginese as written in epic La Galigo. Performed with violent content by male monks, Bissu involve feverish dance and sing to the state of possessed-like and result in self-inflicted stabbing to limbs.

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