Ronggeng - a 500-year-old history

By Mohd Hisham Salim
Head of Resource & Information
Majlis Pusat - Kirana Seni
This article was published in the program book of Majlis Pusat's Festival Tari Serumpun II in Sept 2006
Reproduced for Sri Mahligai Central with permission from the author and Majlis Pusat

Ronggeng is one of the several names for a kind of dance event that is found throughout the Melayu culture area. The Ronggeng dance is a social dance in which mixed sex couples dance and exchange verses of pantuns (poems) to the accompaniment of a violin, frame drums and a gong (Goldsworthy 1979). The basic format is the same everywhere, female and male dancers dance being accompanied by mostly male musicians.

In Sumatra, the Riau Islands, Malay Peninsular and other Melayu areas, the event is known as Ronggeng or Joget, Ketuk tilu, Jaipongan and Cokekan in West Java. Taledhekan or Tayuban in Central and Eastern Java. These are the different versions of this same performance genre. In each region, the dance movements, the musical instrument ensemble, and the music played are different, but the structure of the event is the same.

A dance of this similar type was described in a fourteenth-century Javanese poem, but the genre may well be older still. The origins are possibly in rituals of fertility and renewal however nowadays, it is generally a secular entertainment performed in either formal and informal functions such as weddings, circumcisions, and other domestic or community celebrations.

Historians believed that the origins of Ronggeng started as a dance performed by the Portuguese sailors and traders. The history of it can be traced as early as the 16th Century. Many of the descendants of these merchants continue to live in Malacca retaining their own culture - food, religion, attire while simultaneously merging their some of their culture with those of the locals. Two of the most popular Portuguese dances are the Branyo and Farapeirra.

Throughout the Melayu region, Ronggeng has been known to be a fast paced dance with modest yet elaborate costumes and a catchy beat. It appeals to both young and old alike and although it is a dance with combines both genders; it truly conforms to the Malay adat (customs and traditions). No contacts are made between both genders and most of the dancers danced a distance apart. The female dancers wear the Malay Kebaya Panjang or Baju Kurung while the male dancers and singers are dressed in Baju Melayu with a Samping (a sarong tied round the waist) and a Songkok (fez-like head-dress).

In Malaysia, Ronggeng has largely disappeared from its former older, raffish form, but the repertoire of sounds that accompanied it has detached itself and become freestanding. These songs are recorded on cassette tapes and CDs. They are performed widely in televisions and cable channels. Often, it portrays a more formal demonstration of a Melayu dance, embodying a more formal and polite atmosphere.

Whereas in Indonesia, particularly in the Northern Sumatra region such as Medan, Deli and Serdang regions, the Ronggeng has elevated its rank as the nation's many national dances whereby Sayuti, a well known dance teacher, choreographed a unique Ronggeng version of the well-known Serampang Duabelas in 1934.

The repertoire of Ronggeng songs can be divided into several formal types. The slow songs that began a dance pair are called Senandung. They are performed in a slow quadruple meter, with a comparatively long drum cycle. Faster songs are of the Mak Inang or Lagu Dua types: Mak Inang is in quadruple meter, played at a moderate tempo, while Lagu Dua are in a fast triple meter or a duple meter with triple subdivisions.

Ronggeng music and dance have an obviously hybrid character. The violin, of course, is European: the Portuguese probably brought it to Southeast Asia in the early 1500s. The tambur used could also be Portuguese, or more likely English. The frame drums may be Middle Eastern or indigenous to the region. The harmonium was Indian: the accordion was European. Other elements in the Ronggeng dance, the role of the gong, the use of pantun, and the basic performance-context all seem indigenous.

Usually at the end of a Ronggeng performance, the drumming speeds up into a rapid dance section, in which two dancers face each other and, standing on their right legs, extent their left legs forward until their feet touch; then they switch legs. Two names are given for this dance genre: Perancis bol and Seken kaki. However, neither of these phrases makes much sense in Malay, but they can be imitations of foreign speech. The first seems to combine Perancis, the Malay word for "France" or "French", with the English "ball" or French "bal"; the second joins the Malay word kaki, "foot" with what could be the English for "shaking".

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