Kuda Kepang in Singapore

herIn Java (Indonesia), there is a folk dance so crazy, that you will squeak, scrimp, and look away in horror. While I have not seen it in Indonesia, I have seen it in Singapore – where it is supposed to be conservative – and I almost cried. It’s one of the positive culture-shocks that travellers to this part of the world, must experience.

If you are looking for traditional festivals in Singapore, also check out my pictures from the mid autumn festival here!

Kuda Lumping is a traditional Javanese Dance form and literally means ‘flat horse‘, denoting a prop that is used throughout the dance. In Singapore, it is called Kuda Kepang. During my first days here, I used to visit the Malay heritage village every weekend, near the Paya Lebar MRT station, to catch a glimpse of this awe-inspiring dance performed by the small local Javanese population. Now the Malay heritage village has been pulled down and relocated to the Malay Heritage centre in Bugis, which unfortunately does not feature this dance anymore.

Muda keeping singapore dancer

A male kuda kepang dancer, mounted on his rattan horse.

The origin of Kuda Lumping in Indonesia is often attributed to a prince called Diponegoro, with the Javanese reenacting his skills with the horse during a battle against the Dutch. The dance is done using a Rattan (palm tree) horse, which is nestled between the dancers legs, and the performance itself is often accompanied with musical instruments like gongs, drums and Angklungs.

Kuda Kepang Singapore

Fellow dancers watching a colleague performing.

In its general form, it is just a dance. I haven’t figured out the distinction yet, but in some kuda kepang shows, there is an element of trance, which makes it an amazing sight. Supposedly, one of the dancers enters into a trance while dancing, and starts to believe that he is the horse itself! This is followed by him doing tasks which are normal for a horse, like enduring whipping, walking on hot coal, or even eating broken glasses! I have seen these performances myself, and I don’t think it is an act, because I don’t think the dancers even blink an eye when doing any of the above.

Kuda Kepang Singapore

Even women are part of the dance crew.

Kuda Kepang Singapore dancer

Another female dancer

While Kuda Kepang mostly celebrates masculinity and spiritual power, there are female dancers too, but they dance in a more feminized manner. (reminded me of one of those Japanese Pony cartoons!) While it is a very common part of the culture in Indonesia, I think this dance-form is slowly fading from Singapore. The pictures here are taken from an unannounced Kuda Kepang show, which I was lucky to chance upon in one of the empty car parks of Joo Chiat Road.

If it does fade away, it would indeed be a shame.

Rattan horse in kuda kepang

The rattan horse is an important part of kuda kepang.

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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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