Tag Archives: Culture

Dance Night in Semawang

So far Semawang Stories has been a little light on the actual stories and events so this week I thought I’d share an evening from a couple weeks back.

Bali is famous for its dances. Most are performed as part of rituals with deep spiritual and symbolic meaning and others are for entertainment. There have been dozens of ethnographies detailing their meaning and purpose. This is not one those.

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The statue of Ganesha, which normally causes minor traffic confusion anway, was decked out with offerings while the street was shut down. Also, the guy in the foreground is wearing an udeng.

A few weeks ago, Semawang hosted its own evening of dances. Actually there were several evenings of events but I only attended the one. The (for lack of a better term) festival, surrounded a purnama ketiga or ‘third full moon’. I won’t pretend to know the significance of this or why it was being feted but it was clearly important enough to block the main intersection with a substantial tent and force a traffic diversion.

In the tent there was a stage with a none-too-authentic Styrofoam set that belied the true localness of the atmosphere. The Semawang banjar of Sanur is a pocket of Balinese more or less surrounded by hotels, villas, and restaurants but locals have more or less held a large swath of real estate a couple hundred meters from the resort-lined beach.

The whole banjar, decked out in traditional garb, gathered for the evening’s entertainment. The men in white shirts, sarongs, and udeng (a folded cloth headpiece) stood or sat at the back, while the colorfully dressed women took up the 20-or-so rows of chairs.

By the time I arrived around 9, the dancing had already begun with kids, seemingly under the age of five, decked out in the elaborate gold and making the smoothly sharp and intensely choreographed movements that define Balinese dance.

YT standing awkwardly with Ibu Wayan before she takes the stage.

YT standing awkwardly with Ibu Wayan before she takes the stage.

The reason for my attendance on this particular evening was the promised performance of friend and neighbor. As dance followed dance, I starting noticing tourists creeping closer with smiles of awe and good fortune until they were literally against the stage, filming and photographing what they were lucky enough to have stumbled across. One (I think) Japanese guy almost tripped onto the stage with enthusiasm. But despite this secondary entertainment, there was still no Ibu Wayan (That’s my neighbor’s name, also my landlady’s name. The name means “first born” so there are a lot of Wayans around).

After a quick run back to the house, I was told that the ibus were up next. It seemed that the program was scheduled according to age and with an older troupe on stage when I returned (the stage was abotu a two-minute walk away) it seemed logical. An ibu did come out but it wasn’t Ibu Wayan (well, maybe it was, but not our Wayan) and she didn’t perform the high-choreography of the early performances. Instead, a man from the crowd joined her on stage and they pantomimed a sort of quasi-sexual pursuit for which the man mockingly apologized to his wife and the crowd on several occasions to great laughter.

Ibu Wayan sans partner. Note the

Ibu Wayan sans partner. Note the “elaborate” setand the microphones hanging down from the rafters.

The first woman ‘hosted’ three men in the same fashion and another danced with two before our Ibu Wayan finally took the stage with the audience well warmed-up and full of laughter. As Ibu Wayan’s second date was leaving the stage, I was asked if I wanted to join in. Now my hesitance at performing on stage goes back to early childhood when I hid under the table at Epcot Morocco rather than even chance an encounter with the in-house belly dancer. Once again it ruled the day and I politely refused participation with only minor pangs of regret.

All told it was an enjoyable and marginally educational evening. I didn’t learn much about the dances themselves but the fact that Balinese society has an easy sense of humor, even when it comes to one of their most storied traditions, was certainly on show. And I realized that I’m still afraid of dancing on stage with women.

On being kept at arms’ length

I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.

I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.

Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed

Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.

This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.

And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.

But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.

And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.