Indonesia’s Dance of a Thousand Hands
The young men seated on their knees, side by side with thighs and shoulders touching, move with the fluidity of an ocean wave, a wave that slowly swells, crests and breaks in a thunderous crash, only to recede back into the gentle depths of the sea. Inspired by the waves that lap at the shores of Sumatra, the men are engaged in Saman or “the dance of a thousand hands,” which is part of the cultural heritage of the Gayo people of Aceh province in Sumatra (Western Indonesia).
The origins of the Saman dance can be traced to the 13th century and have been associated with the spread of Islam in the region. It is thought to derive its name from a 13th-century Islamic cleric from the Gayo highlands named Sheikh Saman, who incorporated Islamic elements with folk ritual as a way of proselytizing the new faith among the Gayo.
Traditionally, the dance is performed by 9 or 11 young men or boys (always in odd numbers) who kneel side by side in a straight line. The Syech, or leader of the troupe, occupies the middle position and leads the dancers through different sections by initiating a series of movements. He starts the dance with an invocation to god in a low voice. With heads bowed and the palms of their hands held out, the dancers begin swaying gently to a choreographed rhythm. A few lines from a Gayo poem signals the dancers to pick up the pace and add hand movements as well as hand, chest, and thigh claps. On cue from the Syech, the tempo increases once again and the dance accelerates. The dancers rise up and down on their knees and rock their heads back and forth and from side to side while slapping their chests and thighs to the accompaniment of vocal outbursts. The action reaches a crescendo as the troupe abandons the uniform choreography of the single line and adjacent dancers move in opposite directions at break-neck speed in a frenzy of mesmerizing movement and hypnotic body percussion. Having reached the ecstatic peak of activity, the action decelerates and the dancers return to the meditative movements with which they started and slowly come to a standstill.
The Saman dance is an interesting example of blending local folk tradition with a broader religious context. The cultural roots of Saman can be traced to a folk game called Pok Ane, a simple clapping game for babies. But its Islamic character is difficult to ignore. Throughout the dance, one can detect some of the physical gestures associated with Muslim prayer. The dancers are seated in a kneeling position that suggests submission. Among the movements, the palms of the hands are held out to express a sense of supplication, the slapping of the chest symbolizes resignation, and bowing the head down towards the ground can be seen as a gesture of prostration.
The vocal attributes of the dance are a mixture of Arabic and the Gayo language. In the invocation to god at the beginning of the dance, one hears echoes of the shahada: “la ilaha il Allah” (“there is no god but god”). Throughout the performance, the Syech initiates the different movements of the dance by reciting lines from folk poetry in Gayo. The poems often contain advice on proper behavior and are colored with references to natural objects the local inhabitants would encounter in their daily lives: “Guava flower, please grow fast and learn how to weave mats.”
Saman is usually performed on special occasions in both religious and secular settings. It is typically the focal point of celebrations such as weddings, local festivals, or the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.
Over the years, the Saman dance has undergone a number of changes as it has gained in popularity beyond its local confines among the Gayo. Originally, Saman had only male dancers but is now often performed by all-female or mixed-gender troupes. The number of dancers has also increased, leading to more and more elaborate dances, and even Saman festivals and competitions. In 1975, 30 performers took part in a dance to celebrate the 30thAnniversary of Indonesian independence. In 2011, a record 5,000 people danced the Saman. That record was shattered in Aceh in 2017, when a staggering 10,000 dancers participated in the largest Saman dance to date.
Ironically, the popularity of the Saman dance has put it at risk of losing its original characteristics. In 2011, this prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to place the Saman dance of Indonesia on the “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.”