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Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

Dance & theatre
Ultimate grace and refinement

The graceful swing of a scarf, a smooth turn of a polse, the chained small paces on a shining floor, the blinking of the stones in the crown of the dancers on the moment that she, in a slow head movement, makes unforgettable impressions in the Javanese dance, long after the dance has ended. The spell cast from this centuries old refined dance is overwhelming, and so overwhelming that a visitor only after the show awakes from it's trance and realizes what he has just seen.

The language of the movements

Unless a big variety of forms and places where shows are given - from simple village ceremonies to busy pasar malam ('evening market') and a graceful palace pendopo - all Javanese have dance-features in common. The seemingly unwilling body and the special postures of the neck, hands ankles, recall the same kind of dances from countries like Cambodia and Thailand, but as much with the wayang kulit. The body of the dancer moves in a flat surface from left to right; the two dimensional effect of wayang kulit. The stretched back and the awkward movements mirror Indian ways of dancing and a Javanese aesthetic ideal.
Every study of moving is based on cultural and esthetical values. Javanese ideals like controlling emotions, avoiding of conflicts and respecting expressions from the body and dance. A civilized Javanese distinguish himself with refined behavior. His face has to give a natural friendliness and his movements have to be graduate, controlled and flowing, never rude, sudden or in a hurry.

And that's why it's not very strange that the education for the dance is also seen as education for behavior as well; a refined Javanese moves refined, and refinement of a movement reads to refinement of personality. Dance instructor Sasmintamardawa from Yogyakarta says it this way:" Dancing lessons define behavior for an important part."

In the precise worked out head-, feet and hand movements the Javanese show their love of refining and their passion for details. The difficult hand signs may have, just like other Asian dances, had a meaning, but on the whole that is lost a long time ago.

Ideal characters

The Javanese dance is just like the guiding gamelan music very structured. Movements are built from units which count eight counts and is adjusted to the structure of the music. Every form of dance has it's own regulation. Whether it is a simple gesture or a complete choreography, development of an individual expression is hardly known.

Central in this and other traditional dance-, and theater-forms is showing of many types of character, which exist in the mythological world of kings, monkeys and giants. The stories are taken from stories of heroes like Ramayana and Mahabharata and to the story of Panji. Also they can have the Menak-history or an historical love history from the babad ( Javanese books ) as subject. Which story it may be, every time the same features play, every one with a stereotype showing.

Just like in wayang kulit in the dance are also recognizable personages, seen at the costume, specific movements and the language they use. Characters are divided in three main groups: women-like, refined male and fierce male. The dance of the woman is a series of continuing subtle movements of legs and arms. The movements of the male dance are also subtle, but more powerful than the women dance, while body movements have more freedom to move. The strong male dance is powerful, with wide movements of lifted arms and legs.

Inside this three main groups there are many different features, specially made for refined and humble, fierce, rude and short-tempered. Also exceptional personalities like prince Arjuna, the white monkey Hanoman, and the goddess Indra have their own specific style. In a dance show not only the story is told, but also a variety of personalities is shown, in which the Javanese is familiar with.

Royal dances

With the royal dances of bedoyo and serimpi a formation dancers does the movements in perfect unity. The bedoyo, which is seen as the highest ideal of refinement, is the sacred dance, dedicated to the royal highness. In fact all bedoyo-dancers are a part of the royal dinity, like shakti or the women respect of the royal ruler. This is associated with Loro Kidul, the invisible, mythical goddess of the South Sea and 'quiet power' behind the throne.

The bedoyo tradition is soaked with rituals and symbolism. In slow and static dance, nine young dancers move in one flowing movement from one precarious stand into another. The own identity is totally on the background, so it seems that they are one, undividable piece. People say that during the yearly returning event of the show of the sacred Bedoyo Ketawang at the royal house or Solo, Ratu Kidul appears as a bearly visible 10th dancer, which goes to a private place with the royal ruler after the show.

The serimpi is four dancers forming two pairs, which make the same movements in a seemingly reflection. The dancers, earlier only princesses, suppose to be fighting women, which fight each other in a glorious and also avoid each other. The serimpi is less mysterious than the bedoyo and has the status of the most refined woman style.

Solo dances

Solo dancer are also showed in big numbers. Remarkable is, however it is a love needing lover, or a coquettish lady they show, they dress explicitly and wear excessive make-up.
Two women solo dancer are the golek and the gambyong. Both are sprouts from the taledektradition of nomadic singers, which used to be associated with prostitution and farming rituals. There was a time that the glodek was found too provocative by the royal house to be danced by a woman, so only men could do this job.

The Gambir Anom and the Kelana Alus are refined male dances from Surakarta ( Solo ) and Yogyakarta. They unite the male and female elements in a subtle way. In Surakarta the Gambir Anom is most of the times danced by a woman.

Gatutkaca Gandrung and Kelana Topeng form the robust male opponents. The first shows the popular hero from the Mahabharata, which is gandrung or desiring for love. The second plays the role of the angry king Kelana from the Panji-cycle, a rude and fierce personality which is short tempered. He wars a red mask ( topeng ) with round bulging eyes, a long nose and a big mustache.

Continuity and change

Traditional dance is taught in royal houses or in villages, but nowadays there are private schools and dance academies (ASTI; Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia). The education in royal dancing, that only took place inside the walls of the royal palace, is now allowed for anyone. Even foreigners stay in Central Java for years.

However these renewals didn't influence the way of teaching. The dances are in fact taught in interaction between the student and the teacher. There is no formal teaching schedule, the dance is not thought in special blocks and the movements are not separated. The students imitate the teacher, which repeats his movements endlessly and sometimes corrects slightly.

Traditions of dance and theater change rapidly these times. The Ramayana Ballet of Prambanan - a gigantic theater production with over 200 actors, developed on the hand of an tourist organization - was the first break with the traditional ideals of beauty and was therefore a breakthrough either. People were used to see the dance from a little distance, so they could enjoy every small detail and the perfect costumes, movements and dialogues.

In Prambanan the dancers are no more than very small people, spread over a giant open air platform. However costumes and movements are still traditional, the dialogue is left away while the dance is more streamlined because of the line of the story. Special shows for tourists form nowadays the most important source of income for the dancers.

Also other changes are also remarkable. However they are still slow and quiet, the dances are shortened to fit modern time schedules. On the whole elements of Indonesian styles of dances are fitted, what is a great contrast to the fierce regionalism of earlier times. New shows express scenes from daily life like the plantation of rice and weaving.

Such a process of adaption is not new. This was the cause of the start of the golek dance in the 1920's, the time that most theater dances got their actual shape. Even a robustly ritual dance, the bedoyo started a process of chance in the middle of the 18th century. It has been adapted to the taste of every royal ruler, time and time again.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
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