High school dance: a paradox?

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Emily Masters, a Fulbright ETA in Java, smiles with local high school dancers in their American-themed costumes. (Emily Masters/Indonesiaful)

When I began to experience everyday life at my public high school in Madiun, social and cultural customs aligned with what I had expected of East Java’s more conservative culture. The students wear uniforms every day of the week; female students wear a knee or ankle-length skirt with a short to long-sleeved blouse, and about a third of the girls wear a jilbab (a headscarf that completely covers a woman’s hair). All the boys sport the same uniform, slacks and a button-up shirt. Dress codes seem to be a necessary standard, and I make sure to consistently arrive at school wearing long pants and a loose-fitting blouse, out of respect.

So you can imagine my surprise when I attended a high school dance competition and observed girls wearing nothing but short-shorts and tight black tank tops, dancing sensually to American hip-hop music. There were approximately ten teams performing at the event, all mixed-gender groups with five to ten dancers. Not all acts were the same, of course—each had a unique mix of songs that sometimes included American tunes which I recognized, as well as many from Indonesia. Many of the dancers were dressed more conservatively, since all of the groups had chosen a different theme. The performances featured many creative choreography styles, and I found most of them quite impressive and entertaining. The most striking to me, though, were the teams that imitated American-style hip-hop dance, complete with moves similar to thrusting and “twerking.” One of these groups donned brightly-colored American flag jackets, and danced to an embarrassingly raunchy mix of American music (including “I Just Had Sex” by Lonely Island and Rihanna’s “S&M”). Even in the States, the songs would be considered risqué and graphic. As the only American in a sea of jilbabs, I was shocked at the stark paradox within the performances. Although I was nearly positive that the other audience members did not understand the lyrics, I still felt awkward and embarrassed. The experience left me with a lot to ponder about my role here, as a teaching assistant and cultural ambassador from the same United States that clearly leaked its naughty influence all over this Javanese high school.

The difference between American hip-hop and traditional Javanese dancing is gigantic. Traditional Javanese dance typically features women in ankle-length, sparkling dresses, using long and colorful scarves as props for their routine. It is gorgeous, in my opinion, and also in the opinion of a fellow teacher at my school who is an advocate for many things traditional and “old school”. (However, he does enjoy American country music!) While watching our school’s hip-hop dance team perform, he mentioned that he enjoys the traditional dance much more, but the hip-hop style is more “attractive.” I deduced that he was alluding to and avoiding the word “sexy.”

In Indonesia’s own pop culture, there is a very well known singer/songwriter named Agnes Monica, more commonly dubbed Agnez Mo. This young woman started her career in Indonesia and is now performing in the United States, hoping to further her fame there. Students have shown me online videos of Agnez Mo’s performances; she is often dressed in nearly nothing, and her style of dance is strikingly similar to that of Beyoncé. Agnez Mo tans her skin now (atypical in Indonesia) to be more attractive to Westerners, and has obviously trained to have a muscular, athletic figure. From my experiences in Indonesia so far, it seems Agnez is straying tremendously from her mother culture—and becoming quite successful doing it. What message does this performer’s success send to Indonesian teenagers who are required, by their beliefs, to cover their skin and hair?

As of now, I only have a series of observations from one small Javanese city. I have been in Java for only a few months, and have noticed what seem to be contradictions within the dominant culture. It interests me that many of these contradictions seem to be highly influenced by not just Western, but specifically American ways. Personally, I fear that this fad of imitating American pop culture might interfere with the beauty and respect embedded in Indonesian traditions and culture.

About the author: Emily Masters is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Madiun, East Java. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse in 2012 with a degree in Biology. When Emily is not in class, she enjoys sewing, playing guitar, and exploring Madiun by bike.

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2 thoughts on “High school dance: a paradox?

  1. Emily, I had the same reaction when I attended the dance portion of my school’s end of the semester celebration/competition! I’m so used to covering up (sometimes not even covering up enough!) to fit in at my school that I was utterly floored when I saw many of my students in short skirts, shorts and sleeves, ripped up tights, and on one group, sheer black lace corsets. Sure, the corsets were over white shirts, but just the suggestiveness of the costuming choice shocked me. Then, the music. One act utilized High School Musical, the next, Pitbull — imagine the whiplash. Most of the music were fairly explicit American club tunes as a matter of fact. Maybe it’s a generational difference; certainly, none of the teachers/staff stayed very long during the event.

  2. My similar experience, summed up in a description one of my students gave of her friend: “She wears a white veil at school…but she wears a hotpants at mall.”

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