If Wangi Indriya could travel back to her childhood and change something in her past, it would be the way she fell in love with dancing.
Having danced for the last 40 years, the traditional tari topeng (mask dance) maestro still bares scars from her childhood, when her father forced her and her sisters to learn how to dance to make a living.
“My father kept telling us: ‘Dancing comes first. School is second, and playing is third,’” recalled the 49-year-old petite woman, who was born in Indramayu, West Java. “My father said it was better for us to dance and make lots of money, than to work on a farm.”
Wangi was born with the blood of artists running through her veins, as she was raised in a family that made a living from traditional art performances. Her great grandfather – and grandfather were multitalented artists, her father is a dalang (puppeteer) and established a wayang (puppet shadow) troupe, while her sisters are tari topeng dancers and sinden (singer who accompanies Javanese gamelan performances).
“We didn’t have any professional dancers in our family before us, so my father was obsessed about his daughters following that path,” Wangi said after performing at the recent April Festival event in Jakarta. “So, when I was eight, I learned serimpi [the mystic dance of the Surakarta sultanate], and later when I was 13, father invited a tari topeng instructor to teach us at home.”
Wangi’s childhood felt like a boot camp, she said. Every day, after returning from school at 1 p.m., she had to do house chores or help her parents on the farm. After sunset, she would rehearse dancing or macapatan (Javanese poetry) classes.
“I also spent my nights performing around Cirebon, Majalengka, Kuningan and North Subang, with my father,” said the woman, who’s also a dalang. “The only time I had a chance to study was at 4 a.m. before I went to school.”
But the past is the past, as Wangi underlined. She finally fell in love with dancing. “I started liking and enjoying it. I guessed dancing was really my destiny.”
It is indeed her destiny, as dancing has taken her as far as Spain, France, England, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore, Australia and the US.
“I’d always wanted to be a stewardess so I could travel around the world, but I had to put this dream aside at 15, when I decided to leave high school,” she said. “But today, I’ve been able to travel around the world anyway – through dancing.”
And because of her painful childhood, Wangi has not only become a first-class traditional dancer – but also a wonderful dance instructor. Wonderful, because she makes sure none of her students are forced into dancing.
“I want my students to be interested in arts in a natural way. I don’t want them to feel what I felt,” said Wangi, who now teaches around 300 students. “I always ask their parents first whether the desire to learn comes from them or their children.
“My mission is to preserve traditional arts and transfer my skills to younger people without forcing it onto them,” she smiled.
Wangi admitted there were instances where she found out her students’ parents had forced their children to take dance classes.
“I had some heart-to-heart talks with the parents, advising them never to force arts onto their children. The love for the arts is supposed to grow naturally.”
She, however, is thankful most of her students are genuinely interested in learning tari topeng. Some parents even forbade their children from taking classes, but they still attended and paid with their own money.
“One of my youngest students, who’s only 4 years old, cried and got angry with her mother for not being allowed to learn how to dance,” she laughed. “So her mother had no choice but to bring her to my class.”
Wangi now heads Sanggar Mulya Bhakti, a dance school her father founded in the 80s in her hometown Jatibarang. Every Sunday, around 70 children from eight districts take tari topeng and karawitan classes there. Classes only cost Rp 1,000 (11 US cents), and are free for pre-school kids.
“I want to unite people from all backgrounds through tari topeng. My students’ parents are pedicab drivers, food sellers, farmers, school principals, village heads and high-ranking officials,” she said. “I’m very happy to see them interacting with each other… Their mothers even set up an arisan [gathering] just so they could see each other regularly.”
According to Wangi, most of her students don’t come from families where the art of dancing has been passed down from generation to generation. And many of them walk as far as 15 kilometers to get to her place.
“My students are all very enthusiastic about tari topeng, especially when it comes to performing in front of the public,” Wangi said. “They’re even willing to chip in to pay for the sound system rental. I feel bad for them because I still can’t afford to buy a sound system for them.”
She said she had already asked the local government to fund the purchase of a sound system for student performances, but her request had fallen on deaf ears.
“When I perform, I take musicians with me and pay them Rp 4 million. But when the children perform, it’s just too expensive for them to do the same,” she said. “So, using [recorded] music is the best option, but that means we need a sound system.”
While still working on collecting funds to purchase a sound system for her students, Wangi is now is living her other dream: Introducing tari topeng to formal schools.
“I’m happy I am now teaching in four primary schools,” she said. “It’s not a compulsory class, so only those interested are invited join. But I can say, responses from students have been overwhelming.
“In an era where the interest in traditional dances is waning, this kind of response from such young people truly touches me. I just can’t believe they still care about their traditional heritage,” she added.
In her tari topeng classes, Wangi doesn’t only teach the moves, but also the philosophy behind the art
form. Tari topeng, according to her, is about the relationship between humans – who are completely dependent on Mother Nature – and their environment.
“Originally, the dance had five segments, each of them featuring a human character represented by one type of traditional mask,” she explained, adding the characters were Panji, Samba, Rumyan, Tumenggung and Kelana. “But because performing one character can take up to two hours, dancers today usually perform the Panji and Kelana – the good and the evil characters.”
She added that tari topeng was once a medium to disseminate Islam in West Java. “Karawang people, for example, were introduced to Islam through this dance,” she said, and continued, “therefore, I’m very sad [Islamic] hard-liners today are against traditional dances like this.”
Wangi hasn’t given much thought to groom a successor that will continue her dream. None of her three sons are learning how to dance, as she has never forced them into the arts – although two of them have become dalang and karawitan performers.
“I don’t want to indoctrinate my sons [into doing the same as me],” she said, and smiling while adding, “That is one thing my childhood has taught me.”