The Javanese Dance and Drama

There are many kinds of dances and drama (such as Serimpi, bedoyo, wayang kulit, golek, gombang) in Java, the most densely populated island of Indonesia, particularly in Jogjakarta and Surakarta (well known as Solo), where the culture of the aristocracy has the most developed.

The dance and drama are a high and rich form of culture but also the most efficient way to learn refined manners, and altogether a very valuable kind of social training. The graceful elaborate hands, delicate turn of wrist and the highly articulated head, demonstrate the Javanese penchant for ornamentation and their great attention to details. The Javanese place a very high value at emotional control, social difference and avoidance of conflict. The facial expression must be pleasant but emotionless and the movements smooth, controlled, never sharp or rushed.

Strict structures and ideal characters

Gamelan plays a big part of Javanese dance which highly structured and very modular music. Improvisation or individual interpretation and expression are very limited or inexistent. The dancer has to identify completely with one of the well known ideal characters, usually taken from Mahabharata or Ramayana epics (from India). The stories are usually known by heart by the audience so there is no suspense involved at all. The main attraction is to appreciate the dancer’s ability to become one of the particular characters.


The dance and drama used to be taught in the courts or villages are now studied in private schools, national dance academy or academy of performing arts. Some dances; formerly only allowed to be learned by princes and princesses are now taught to anybody, even to foreigners. Apart from this, the teaching methods have changed little. Dances are learned through osmosis and no movements are broken into separate parts. The pupils learn by imitating the teacher with occasional correction here and there as well as the endless repetition.

The Ramayana Ballet of Prambanan, intended for the tourist, has a big influence on dances and drama in Java nowadays. Obsession with details is less then before (to adapt with big stages), stories are made shorter (to prevent audience getting bored) and the dialogues have almost completely been deleted. Well, evolution might just be seen as a normal phenomena (most of the dances and drama in Java changed their form many times last centuries), but we are not so sure. The spiritual part of the dance (based on Hindu beliefs and stories), seem to get less and less support from the government. We hope this will not be a irreversible change.


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