Javanese Dance

Refined male character performing sembahan in the jengkeng position.
Refined male character performing sembahan in the jengkeng position.

Like the music of the Javanese gamelan which accompanies it, Javanese dance has Hindu-Buddhist influences seen in the use of stylised poses and intricate finger and hand positions. In the refined female and male styles, there is a slow and flowing meditative quality similar to that of tai chi which allows the movements and poses to be connected seamlessly. In stark contrast, the strong male style is bold and expansive demanding a high level of physical ability comparable to ballet. The rich colours and patterns of the costumes, sumptuous jewellery and detailed makeup only serve to beautify the movements of this ancient and highly complex dance form.

The Solonese tradition of dance is known for its smooth, flowing quality in which individual movements are executed seamlessly and smoothly from one to another like flowing water (mbanyu mili). The body is held upright, leaning forward slightly from the hips, with the legs flexed deeply (mendhak) and turned out. In this grounded position, the weight of the upper body is shifted from one foot to another resulting in subtle, sideways movements of the torso (ngleyek) which engages the other parts of the body into action. The dancer’s energy emanates primarily from the abdomen and is directed into the formation of stylised finger, hand and arm positions giving the impression of reserved strength. The eyes are fixed and intense at all times while the upper body joints (wrists, elbows and neck) are fully articulated in a supple and controlled manner. Indispensable to the apparel of the Javanese dancer is the sampur, a long sash draped over the shoulder or tied at the waist which gives extension, accentuation and gracefulness when flicked and manipulated by the hands.

The vocabulary of Javanese dance movements appears to derive from diverse sources and influences. There are many movements which imitate animals, particularly birds (lincak gagak “crow walking”, gajah ngombe “elephant drinking”), which are most likely vestiges of very old dances. Stylised elements such as finger/hand positions are clearly Hindu-Buddhist in origin, while the flat plane on which the gestures and positions of the male character types are aligned show the influence of wayang kulit (shadow puppets). Long, complex sequences of movements in female formation dances (srimpi, bedhaya) which are performed in symmetrical groupings and rotated along the axis of cardinal points are elaborate choreographies of royal and aristocratic courts designed to be performed in a pendhapa (traditional Javanese four-sided pavilion). More recent dances display a tendency towards realism and narrative structure.

For more information about Javanese dance, see the list of books, articles and other websites on our Resources page.