Gandrung: A Look at “Cultural Preservation” Through Dance

Dance has always played a big role in Indonesia and it has changed dramatically over time. The research methodologies course I am currently taking at UGM featured a guest lecturer recently who grew up in West Java. Dyah–a professor of Dance and Southeast Asian Studies–talked to us about narrative and memory in Indonesia throughout the Soeharto period. She talked about a traditional dance that has undergone many changes since 1965: Gandrung. She broke up her lecture into two parts: the narrative of the dance, and the impact of surveillance on its role in the community.

Professor Dyah at UGM.

Professor Dyah at UGM.


Dyah learned the Gandrung during her childhood in West Java, from her grandmother. Before the massacres of 1965, the traditional dance was performed by women in order to ensure the prosperity of the year’s harvest. It was not a performance in the modern sense of the word (with makeup and costumes), but an important ritual that brought prosperity to the village. To Dyah, the dance was empowering because it enabled the women of the village to be leaders in providing for themselves and others; a feminist ideal very engrained in the community’s culture. Today, however, the narrative of the dance is quite different.


Before 1965, in a stereotypical household, the mother planted rice, and the father tended to the buffalo. This created a sort of equality between the role of the husband and wife in a family in which both supported the land and the family. In 1965, Soeharto’s new regime brought about an anticommunist movement, which violently changed Indonesian culture. The “equitable” way the men and women of Western Java shared roles in the household was deemed inherently communist by the state, and was therefore terminated. The military massacred many villagers in the name of “democracy”. This changed the way villages farmed and because the state mandated a male-dominated economic system, there was no longer a reason for the women to perform the Gandrung.

In 1998, when the anticommunism movement ended, the dance returned as a way for Indonesian people to discover their identities and to remember their history. It was brought back–under the supervision of the state–in the form of grand performances with a large focus on aesthetics. The purpose of the dance for the dancers changed from nourishing the village in the pre-1965 period, to discovering personal identity today. The modern version of the dance also attempts to tell people how to remember the past. Because the state supervises national performances, it effectively rewrites memory to shape morale. Dyah implored us to consider the possibility of revisionism when conducting our research projects.