Why I Will Always Live to Practice The Classic Javanese Dance

Being a Javanese in Indonesia, you are more likely to be associated with feudalistic and patriarchal tradition where people uphold seniority and respect towards elders in the family. And that is the response from Indonesians that I get every time I mentioned the fact that I love doing Javanese Dance. Nevertheless, it is not the reason why I love dancing. In fact, I have always rebelled towards Javanese norms. I never understand the etiquette and the over respect towards elders, and I am always going to be grateful I am not born into a royal family.

Classic Javanese Dance is the dances inspired by Javanese culture and folklore. Its movements are slow and smooth. It is controlled, deliberate, and refined. Most of the movements are performed while the knees are half-bent while standing. This position is called mendak. Mendak will help the body create a firm posture by using the body’s core. Yet it is hard to maintain this position.

The mendak pose where a lot of Indonesian traditional dances use, comes from the philosophy where humans needs to be closer to Earth. It is the symbol of humility. But a lot of the time the meaning of the stature has been distorted. Since Javanese culture has adopted the Patriarchal ideology, mendak has been associated with gender bias that says women should not stand taller than men. But the mendak pose is used by male dancers as well, so this saying that women should not be taller than men is silly.

I specifically emphasize the fact that Javanese Dance also has a classical form, like Ballet because a lot of people take this dance for granted. Ballet has the classical and the contemporary form and so does Javanese Dance. It is important to distinguish the two in order to preserve the basic moves and style of the dance.

I started studying Javanese Dance in late 2014 at a Javanese Dance Studio. I was taught by Nuk Sri Lestari whom I usually call Bu Nuk (Bu is a prefix to formally address women). She specializes in the Surakarta Style of Javanese Dance. She first taught me how to do the walking move in Javanese Classic Dance as the basics, and went on with the hand movements.

At first, it was kind of hard as I never understand the Javanese music beat. I tried to survive the classes. I was also studying Jazz Contemporary Dance while I was attending Classical Javanese, but I was not able to stick through the Jazz classes. I did not realize, 6 months have passed by and I am still studying the Javanese Dance until today.

Classical Javanese dance attracted me. It felt like coming home. As a third culture kid, I was barely exposed to the culture my parents were accustomed to. My parents especially my mom enforces the idea of “nationalism” since I traveled and lived abroad a lot. I didn’t get the idea of national identity.

I must admit that at first, my initial motive when I studied Javanese Dance because of the need for attachment to a specific identity and the idea that I have to excel in specific performing art. And when I knew that I had ancestors coming from Surakarta and that I was dancing the specific Surakartas style, it fits everything. But my process of studying Javanese Dance goes beyond my need for an identity.

Practicing Javanese Dance with Bu Nuk on every weekend became something I could not miss. It became personal. And it annoys me when I could not attend her classes. Although I take breaks every now and then because I have other stuff to do and matters to attend to. I always come back. I always find ways to attend her classes.

It was the nature of the dance that made me felt like home. I was reintroduced again to my body. The dance movements taught and showed what my body could do and feel. The slow and deliberate moves made me feel my own blood, flesh and bone.

I used to hate the idea of being slow and was always intrigued by fast-paced dances, but not with this dance. I struggled a lot with the slowness, but I use the struggle to compose myself.

It also put my mind off things and gave me the chance to breathe and to slow down with my life. Some people would say it’s like Yoga because it is slow and relies on the body’s core, but to be honest I can not survive Yoga.

Is Javanese dancing just about practicing? Well, you can not master it in just one night. Just like Ballet dancers, I don’t think they memorize and master their dances in one night. Even if they don’t have showcases, they always practice routinely. That goes the same with every dance. You just don’t excel in it in one night. A lot of dances take years to master and you know one when you see an amateur.

No one could ever pick this dance in one night unless the person already mastered the basic and advanced moves. The dance needs perseverance and resilience because at some point you may have to fight the discomfort you may face during the practices and performing the dance.

Other than the moves, practicing the dance also comes with the social life. I have met all kinds of people through this dance. And the once who stayed after months of practices are the people I find interesting.

I must also state that even though as much as I love and live to practice Javanese Dance, I don’t like to perform it for men. I personally reject and decline if any man asks me to do it just to please the male gaze and their fetish towards the orient and traditionalism. Performing the dance with all the costume has become a personal yet sacred thing to do. And performing it for men for the sake of sexual arousal will ruin the sanctity of the relationship that I have with the dance. I don’t want anyone to desecrate the image of the dance in my mind.

If I showcase and have the chance to perform it on a real stage, then I call it faith. It’s also a bonus. Performing on stage is not the end goal of me diligently practicing every week. But my goal is the process of mastering the dances.

The Dance has become a part of me. It is what made me. Moreover, it made me empowered and made me reclaimed something that I missed which was my relationship with my body.