- Erotic Triangles: Sundanese Dance and Masculinity in West Java
Picture what was once a common sight not only in the West Javanese highlands (also known as Sunda) but also in other parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. A social function in a remote village, perhaps a lively family celebration or maybe a festive communal rite, lit by smoky torches. An attractive female singer-dancer in traditional costume, accompanied by a small gong-chime musical ensemble infused with the energizing rhythms of a hand drum. Through movement and song, she entices male punters to put aside their social inhibitions to dance with her. Men intoxicated by alcohol, female beauty, music and the whole atmosphere of the event take to the dance floor to show off their moves. Some strike masculine poses with bravado, others clown around. The singer-dancer adroitly avoids drunken groping while providing sufficient encouragement in her voice and looks to fuel sexual desire. The drummer follows the lead of musically astute male dancers, dramatically emphasizing their moves and subtly molding the movements of dancers lacking musical sensitivity through sonic cues. Onlookers and musicians shout out encouragement to the intrepid male dancers. At the end of a musical piece, the male dancers place their palms together in a sembah of respect, hand money to the singer-dancers [End Page 313] and perhaps also the musicians, and retire from the stage. They are soon replaced by other men. Ronggeng, as the singer-dancers were once generally known in Java, are now rare. Even at traditionalist tayuban dance parties, the ronggeng role is bifurcated between typically young and attractive dancers on the dance floor and typically elderly pesinden (singers) who are seated with the gamelan musical ensemble. Yet in Sunda, the "erotic triangle" of the singer-dancer/drummer/male dancer triad remains an ideal informing popular dangdut shows and theatrical renditions of social dance such as tari tayub.
Spiller's monograph is a structuralist analysis of this performance triangle based on fieldwork carried out in West Java in the late 1990s and incorporating a large range of historical and mythic materials from Sunda and other parts of the island of Java. Dancing with ronggeng (referred to in Sunda sometimes as ketuk tilu for village affairs or tayuban for aristocratic functions) appears on the surface to be simply a ludic diversion, a social occasion authorized by adat (custom) for men to burn money. But, as Spiller's erudite musical and choreographic analyses reveal, complex power dynamics are articulated in this performance arena. Drawing on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theory of homosocial desire, Spiller understands male dancers as "jockeying for power within a patriarchal system" (p. 165). Dancing allows them to express their masculine bravado without feeling shame; drumming in particular "empowers them to be bold" (p. 61). The drummer reputedly makes music to follow a dancing man of higher social status, but in subtly leading a dancer's movements he can overturn this hierarchical relation and even mock the artistic pretensions of his patron. To save face, among other reasons, wealthy devotees of social dance in the past generally brought along their own drummers to dance parties (p. 73). Ronggeng dancers are castigated for low morals and often assumed to be prostitutes. They also are idealized for their magical powers to attract men—which, Spiller argues, emerges from the divine origin of the profession in mythology. Social dancing balances freedom with structure. The dancing of the ronggeng is rhythmically regular, but her singing is free-metered. Dance movement is encoded into drumming and dancers generally move to this groove. But in the beat just before the gong stroke that concludes a musical phrase, male dancers stop in their tracks in a moment of cherished freedom known as ngala genah. As one Sundanese choreographer explained to Spiller, this pause allows the dancer to take stock of his surroundings and come back together with the people around him.
Spiller ably surveys how various dance forms practiced in Sunda today are derived from the classic tayuban...