Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Free school preserves 'lengger' dance legacy

Slamet Susanto and Tarko Sudiarno, Wonosobo, Central Java

Wearing a T-shirt and a yellow scarf, Halimah, 16, fluttered her hand gracefully. Her head and legs followed in the same graceful manner to the sound of the kendang, kenong, kempul and gong of the gamelan orchestra. Other girls watched her movements from a distance.

Soeparno, 60, studied Halimah while giving instructions once in a while. The laughter and the music filled the air at the lengger traditional dance studio in Giyanti village in Selomerto, district, Wonosobo.

Soeparno, the head of the Rukun Bedoyo Puteri workshop, said the studio was established by his grandfather, Hadisoewarno, in 1975 to train dalang (puppeteers).

Hadisoewarno often invited his neighbors to practice at the studio free-of-charge.

"There was no lengger or other dance studios at that time," Soeparno recalled.

He said that about 1977, the lengger dance underwent a crucial transformation: it was performed by female dancers to make it more attractive. In the past, the dance was performed by men dressed as women.

As a result of the change, more women became interested in learning the dance. On the other hand, fewer men wanted to become lengger dancers or puppeteers.

"The lengger is a traditional dance that dates back to the era of the Mataram kingdom (8th to 10th century AD). The soldiers entertained themselves with the dance during the war. Since there is no war now, the demands of society also changed.

"We do not know who started it, but the dance has featured female dancer since 1975 to make it more attractive," Soeparno said.

The female students at the workshop began opting for the dance rather than the dalang training. In 1980, the dalang workshop was transformed into a lengger dance workshop. The lengger dance of Giyanti still uses a gamelan orchestra to accompany the dance.

Besides the studio, the workshop also include a boarding house for visiting students.

Soeparno said that the dance workshop had no particular goal. He said he and his predecessors only wanted to preserve Bali's culture.

Thus, there is no specific curriculum at the lengger dance studio, he said, adding that nor was there a time line for graduation.

A student who can show his or her ability to perform the lengger is considered "graduated". To reach this point can take a student anywhere from one month to more than a year.

Soeparno's family pays for the studio's operational costs, since students study there for free. Nor does the studio receive financial support from the local authorities. Money from the sale of rice from their family land is allocated to pay the studio's daily expenses. The staff and the students eat modestly.

"We do not require the students to pay for their training. We even provide lodging and simple food for visiting students. I understand that we are in a difficult situation, but we have absolutely no intention to close down the studio."

"There are hundreds of alumni from our workshop; I can't even count their numbers. Many of them become housewives while other are still performing for a living. We are now housing 13 students."

Dwi Pranyoto, Soeparno's son, said the students were required to contribute 10 percent of their performance fees to the school. Their contributions are used to subsidize visiting students and to pay for the day-to-day operation of the studio.

The school did see an improvement in its financial condition when Wonosobo began to attract tourists in 1999. Many travel agencies started looking for lengger dancers to perform at the Sasono Krido Budoyo arts building in Giyanti village every Monday evening.

The dance at the arts building was scheduled to last for between one hour and 90 minutes. Because this was shorter than normal, the dance movements were also cut down. The full dance can take a whole night to complete.

Dwi said the studio made about Rp 500,000 (US$54) each time the students performed the dance. The money is divided among 15 people, consisting of dancers and musicians, after a 10 percent deduction for the studio.

"The final amount is no different from what we get when we perform at hotels. There will be additional money, of course, for transportation. The hotel operators used to ask us to bring our own gamelan set, though they have their own at the hotels," Dwi said.

One tour agent, L. Agus Tjugianto, has pledged to help preserve the dance. He took the initiative to help the studio modernize its management, for example by creating a commercial dance troupe to earn income.

However, he noted that the dance troupe still needed to improve. He said the dancers were not as serious as they should be about the performance.

He said at the troupe's last performance at a hotel, the dancers had all the movements down but lacked the passion. The musicians, he said, also brought their children with them to the performance, which turned out to be a bad idea when the children could not sit still through the performance and bothered the other people around them.