To Save Traditional Indonesian Dance, Allow Change

By Marzuki Hasan

In November 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially added Indonesia’s Saman Gayo, a sitting dance from the Gayo Lues district of Aceh, to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Urgent Need of Safeguarding. While other “intangible” Indonesian cultural traditions — including batik textiles and wayang puppet theatre — have already been recognised as part of the country’s cultural heritage, Saman Gayo is the first to carry the stipulation that parties to the matter consider implementing urgent measures to keep it alive.

As an Indonesian and a teacher of Acehnese dance, I am proud that Saman Gayo has been acknowledged by UNESCO. However, I am equally worried that instead of keeping this dance alive, Saman Gayo’s new status will unintentionally lead to its stagnation and decline if it becomes associated only with a specific historical time and place, rather than becoming a living tradition that can reach many groups of people.

Saman Gayo is performed by a group of men sitting in a tight row who execute various coordinated hand and upper-body movements accompanied by music. Saman Gayo is unique from other sitting dances as it is performed using the Gayo language and costumes instead of those of coastal Acehnese. In Indonesia, such dances often incorporate Islamic themes in their song lyrics.

UNESCO reasoned that Saman Gayo is in need of urgent safeguarding because of the declining number of leaders with knowledge of Saman Gayo, a dearth of skilled dancers and a lack of funds for performances – all of which have resulted in the decreasing frequency of presentations of the dance.

The Indonesian Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Mari Elka Pangestu, spoke in support of the initiative in November, saying: “We are worried that if [Saman Gayo] is not registered immediately, another nation may claim it as theirs […] To prevent [this], the dance must be acknowledged, preserved and promoted.” While Pangestu wants Saman Gayo to be recognised and protected, she also has an interest in Saman Gayo being recognised as distinctly Indonesian.

I question the idea that in order for an art form to remain a vital, living tradition, it must be limited to a single region or set of rules. Indeed, this very purism can lead to stagnation, decay and even the eventual extinction of cultural traditions.

Indeed, if we look at Saman Gayo in the wider context of Acehnese dance, we find two sitting dances from Aceh – Saman Gayo and Ratoh Duek – whose origins are only a few dozen kilometres apart, yet that have followed very different paths. Unlike Saman Gayo, the global success and popularity of Ratoh Duek, which is traditionally performed in Acehnese by women, is not dependent on any special international status, but by its popularity at the grassroots.

Since the 1960s, sitting dances including Saman Gayo, have been performed in large cities like Jakarta, Medan and Yogyakarta. However, Ratoh Duek has been the most popular and widely performed of these dances thanks to the support of dedicated Acehnese artists, schools, universities, NGOs and governments. But this popularity is due primarily to the dance’s appeal to youth groups, who have made it a popular extracurricular activity across the archipelago. Moreover, its popularity is not limited to Indonesia. Various international educational and cultural institutions have studied it, often travelling to Indonesia to learn from local teachers.

One of the keys to Ratoh Duek’s popularity has been the dance’s openness to hybridisation. New costumes, songs and variations on movement have been incorporated to performances that reflect global values, along with a shift to mixed-gender dance troupes. Ratoh Duek expresses Islamic messages in its song lyrics, but its main appeal is its focus on harmony and teamwork. Indeed, Ratoh Duek has become so popular that it is now also performed by non-Muslims, a rarity in today’s divided world.

Ratoh Duek has proved a uniting force. Before migrating outside of Aceh, it provided a common activity for people of different families, villages or social statuses to participate in together. Today, youth from different ethnic, gender, religious and national backgrounds sit side-by-side and perform the dance on stages around the world.

Those who worry that Saman Gayo is “endangered” and in need of urgent safeguarding should learn from Ratoh Duek, which has not only been “preserved” but has thrived, in large part by being open to change. If we truly want to ensure Saman Gayo’s vitality and survival, we must allow one of Indonesia’s great traditions to adapt.

Marzuki Hasan is a lecturer at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts. He is also a singer, dancer and choreographer who has taught many Acehnese dances for over 50 years.

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