Searching for Women in Trance: Attitudes of and towards the Female Performers of Jathilan Dance
Keywords:gender equality, jathilan, Javanese culture, kuda kepang, performing arts, spirit possession, women
Jathilan is one of the names of the traditional dance that has pre-Islamic animistic origins but still enjoys remarkable popularity in Javanese communities in Indonesia and abroad (including Malaysia and Singapore where it is better known as kuda kepang). The state of trance is considered to be the main attraction of the performance; dancers are believed to become possessed by the spirits which give them powers to demonstrate various feats of physical invulnerability. It can be generally perceived as a masculine practice, since the dancers ‘riding’ flat woven horse effigies represent soldiers or noble warriors of the past (satria), however lately more and more young women were joining the existing performing groups or even starting their own. The objectives of this paper are to reflect on the experience of these female performers, their backgrounds, beliefs and motivations; to consider the differentiation in understanding of male and female roles (in terms of spiritual strength and potency) in the tradition of Javanese spirit and magic beliefs (kejawen); to see, how the perception of these female performers by their audiences and their selfidentification are formed in the conjuncture of local mysticism and understanding of gender norms prevalent in the society; to assess what kinds of mystical and mundane threats female performers should be more aware of in comparison to their male counterparts, and whether they truly break the barriers of gendered expectations or rather adjust their performing practice according to them.
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