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Gestures of power and grace

Gestures of power and grace
Published: Jun 21, 2009

As Minang dance shows, the guiding rules of culture are often unspoken

Paul Mason

      Guests are welcomed by the Silek Gelombang Dance to the lakeside community of Paninjauan
      during the Idul Ad´ha ceremonies
      Paul Mason

In December 2007, the Maninjauan lakeside community of Paninjauan in the highlands of West Sumatra entertained foreign guests during Idul Adha, an important event in the Islamic calendar. The guests were welcomed with the greeting dance, Silek Gelombang, a sight they witnessed several more times after nightfall when the six Minangkabau communities attending the celebrations each gave their own performances of the dance. As each group arrived, the dance was performed to greet and accept them into the Paninjauan community. These performances were followed by performances of the indigenous martial art of silek, plate dancing and trance-like displays of the mystical practice called debus.

The movements of Silek Gelombang are based on silek. When welcoming guests, the dancers make a series of sideways approaches to an offering placed in front of the visitors. If the visitors are dancers of Minangkabau origin, they too might join in the dance and respond with corresponding movements. Both parties of dancers approach one another with slow diagonal steps, their moves precise yet hesitating, their postures defensive and prepared. They eventually meet at the offering plate and find peace in a mutually negotiated space. Both dancers, along with the crowd, start to jump around and dance in jubilation. The dance becomes a sign of consensus, with the offering serving as a meeting point arrived at after diversity is expressed through movement.

Both parties of dancers approach one another with slow diagonal steps, their moves precise yet hesitating, their postures defensive and prepared

In 2007, during Idul Adha in Paninjauan, many of the Silek Gelombang performances were performed by groups of mixed ages led by Minangkabau elders. The silek demonstrations that followed, however, were mostly rehearsed choreographies performed by the younger generation. These demonstrations commenced with elaborate bows to the audience and to the other performers followed by fight sequences, including demonstrations of knife combat. The real crowd-pleasers, however, were the few older practitioners who improvised silek later in the evening. One of the funnier moments occurred when an older man, instead of defeating his opponent with a gesture of power, stole his hat. The crowd burst out in laughter and applause. This kind of improvisation contrasted with the choreographed performances of the younger generations with their well-rehearsed movements. Minangkabau elders hope that the young generation will learn to improvise with silek movements and will one day learn to lead the Silek Gelombang dance. But the differences between the performances by the two generations reflect deep social changes that are difficult to reverse.

The crystallisation of tradition

Silek Gelombang is traditionally passed down from a maternal uncle to his nephews. The dance, which demonstrates strength and readiness, signifies welcoming, invitation and hospitality. It is conventionally improvised under the leadership of an older teacher, whose moves are copied by the younger practitioners standing behind him. This improvised form is possibly less common nowadays than a choreographed version of the dance called Tari Gelombang, which can be danced by girls and boys and is commonly seen at wedding ceremonies and other official occasions.

Composed of deep postures and strong poses, the dance demonstrates strength and readiness, signifies welcoming, invitation and hospitality

And it’s not just this particular dance that has changed. Inyiak Aguang, a retired school teacher from Panampuang, recalls that in the 1950s the style of silek was different in each village, with no systematisation or general standard. Teachers worked closely with a group of only five to seven students. According to Inyiak Aguang, silek used to be about developing feeling, improvisational ability and self-sufficient learning whereas today it is a combat sport. In the past silek was used as the basis of dance and regional theatre (Randai) as well as a primary vehicle to transmit Minangkabau social ideals and cultural codes.

While the silek choreographies practiced by the younger generation preserve the culture, they no longer fully encompass/express all the values of the older Minangkabau generations. Silek involves more than the body. It has an important relationship to the Minangkabau cultural environment and embodies social codes and etiquettes that are revered by middle-aged and elderly Minangkabau. In current formal settings, the dance form has been crystallised and personal creativity restricted. These choreographed movements ensure that regional identity is preserved but do not necessarily engage with the Minang philosophy that underpins them.

Minang history in bodily movement

Understanding the meaning and unspoken wisdom of silek movements requires laborious one-on-one instruction. The bodily movements of the older generation who studied it this way reveal a comfortable knowledge of Minangkabau culture. But the dance has a different presence in the lives of the younger generation. They do not have the skills to improvise on the set sequences of movement they have learned. Furthermore, the cultural ideal of the ‘indirect approach’, which used to guide both movement and speech, does not have the same value for them.

Minangkabau elders are sometimes didactic, often judgmental and somewhat nostalgic about the dilution of silek and the loss of the cultural etiquette it embodies. Minangkabau tradition favours a circumlocutory approach. Particularly in matters delicate or official, ‘beating around the bush’ is considered the epitome of politeness. For example, instead of stating to a colleague, ‘Business is not going well.’ one might apologise for the poor quality of rice on offer or a lack of side-dishes.

While some younger people can describe circumlocutory manners, few practice them. It is not easy to bring this richly metaphorical style into everyday conversation, as it is inefficient and difficult to learn. Direct comments are more practical in the fast changing modern world of the younger generation. In the same way, choreographed silek movements are much less time-consuming and laborious for both teachers and students, and the choreographies serve as a way of preserving the heritage of the past while adapting to the increasing time pressures of an increasingly globalised world.     ii

Paul Mason (paul.mason@scmp.mq.edu.au) is a PhD student at Macquarie University.

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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