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Dancer Didik Nini Thowok hopes to preserve cross-gender performance culture

Liza Yosephine
Liza Yosephine

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Thu, November 22, 2018 | 10:35 am
Dancer Didik Nini Thowok hopes to preserve cross-gender performance culture

Didik Nini Thowok dances in a performance titled “Dua Wajah: Tradisi Peran di Istana dan Masyarakat” (Two Faces: Role of Traditions in the Palace and Society) in Jakarta over the weekend. (JP/Wienda Parwitasari)

Didik Nini Thowok showcased his expertise as a cross-gender dancer to audiences in Jakarta over the weekend, as the 64-year-old maestro strives to preserve the tradition of the performing arts genre. 

For an hour, Didik donned traditional Indonesian costumes and delivered movements commonly designated to characters of the opposite sex, wearing a kebaya, sanggul (traditional hair up-do) and full face make-up, along with changing masks and headdresses.  

His performance, titled "Dua Wajah: Tradisi Peran di Istana dan Masyarakat" (Two Faces: Role of Traditions in the Palace and Society), is among a list of performances scheduled during the month-long theme of dance at the Indonesia Kaya Gallery (GIK) in Central Jakarta's Grand Indonesia shopping center.   

Speaking to journalists at the end of his performance, Didik explained the roots of cross-gender dancing. Across various regions throughout the country, he said, the cross-gender tradition was an established dance genre on its own, which can be seen from Pawestren in East Java, Bebancihan Dance in Bali and Bissu in South Sulawesi to Randai in Padang, West Sumatra.

Wayang Wong, or Wayang Orang (human puppet dance theater) in Yogyakarta during the reign of Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono VII-VIII, explained Didik, were all played by men. The reason, he said, was due to religious values, as the Sultanate of Yogyakarta had embraced Islam.

"In the dance there are scenes where the characters would hug and touch. Well, if it is played by women, then it's not allowed, because touching [someone of] the opposite sex that is not a family member is not allowed. So then it is played by men," said Didik.

Read also: Five Cirebon mask dances on the brink of extinction

In addition, safety and security are among the reasons for the palace not to display their daughters in dances whenever they would entertain Dutch guests during the colonial era as it would sometimes take place late at night.

Cross-gender dances, in various forms, continue to be staged across the country, but its popularity is waning.

"Dancing is one of the efforts that I make to preserve the traditions of our ancestors. This dance tradition has been around for a long time, but not many young people are interested in learning it," Didik said. 

He expressed hope that the performance would spark interest in learning about the history of this dance tradition and preserving the culture. 

Born in Central Java, in Temanggung district, Didik has gone on to travel the world in the name of his art, including study trips to gain global knowledge about the culture and traditions of other regions, as well as introducing Indonesian cross-gender dance to audiences worldwide. 

Most recently, Didik said he had performed at Yale University in Connecticut, a prestigious Ivy League university in the United States, upon invitation. Next month, he is also slated to travel to Japan to perform. (mut)

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