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Indonesia's Traditional Drag Queens

CW: Homophobia, Queerphobia, Implications of Abuse


As one of the biggest spice importers in the world, it’s worth noting that Indonesia is not only serving spices but also serving looks. With a total of 18,110 islands and a population of 280 million, it’s no wonder that this archipelagic giant is home to many cultures. One of the islands of the archipelago is the island of Java, where the province of Banyumas, and our drag queens, are located.

A traditional dance from Banyumas called Lengger Lanang is one of the most iconic dances from the province, implementing elements of drag and spirituality in this ritual. The dance starts by having male performers dressing up in traditional Indonesian clothing and makeup, then meditating to invite a spirit into their bodies. Once they are possessed by the spirit, they are said to dance gracefully and effortlessly.

What started as a fertility ritual has now become an outlet for Indonesian drag queens to express themselves and their gender identity. The only problem is that it's now on the verge of extinction.

Dragged into extinction

Indonesia's intolerance towards queer expression has made it difficult for Lengger Lanang to thrive in today's society. With only an acceptance rate of 3% towards the LGBTQIA+ community, it's difficult for many individuals to truly embrace their gender identity or sexuality due to the pressure that society and family members have put on them.

During Dutch colonial rule, Lengger Lanang and trans performers were widely celebrated, but the communist crackdown of the 1960's has made it impossible for them to thrive the way they used to. Nowadays, any form of gender expression has been met with violence or rejection, as the nation is incapable of accepting its own queerness.

Research conducted by Hofstede Insights suggests that Indonesia is a Collectivist society, meaning that individuals are expected to conform to (gender) roles that they have been assigned to from birth. It's also mentioned that Indonesian society has the need to maintain outward appearances and would much rather avoid direct conflict or confrontation if possible.

The high percentage of homophobia and queerphobia paired with the need to maintain a certain image are the two main factors that are responsible for driving Lengger Lanang into extinction. However, Lengger Lanang dancers from Banyumas are not willing to let this part of Indonesian culture die. It is still being performed at dance competitions in villages and a new method of preserving the dance is helping it evolve.

Preserving our future

Motion capture of a hand
Motion capture technology has made it possible to archive this traditional Indonesian dance

Rianto is an Indonesian choreographer and Lengger Lanang dancer who is advocating for preserving the dance. With motion capture technology, Rianto aims to create an archive of himself performing the dance with the help of VCA's Traklab and Monica Lim in the School of Dance, Victoria.

“We have lost all of our Lengger masters, those who hold the knowledge of the dance,” he says, “which is why I work so hard to preserve the art form, through sharing it with other bodies, so that Lengger may continue into the future.”

In his archiving process, Rianto carefully studies each movement in the dance in order to translate them into a language that was never present in Lengger Lanang before, making it more accessible to learn and pass on.

Rianto has also established "Rumah Lengger" in his hometown, Banyumas, which trains Lengger Lanang dancers to keep the tradition alive.

For Rianto, continuing the practice of Lengger “gives young people a sense of belonging. It’s also important for the older people of the community to see that their tradition is being kept alive.”

The art of gender expression combined into a cultural, traditional dance is what makes Lengger Lanang so important to me and many other Indonesians. It's crucial that we don't let society erase this part of our culture, as by doing so they are erasing the soul of our country. Indonesian culture has always been queer, and it's about time that we embrace that.


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