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Dancing with the wrong gang?

Misconceptions about ronggeng, a dance with a shady past.

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Published: 24 May 2022


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A former national past time, a village tradition, a shady activity, a female dancer—the ronggeng carries different meanings and associations depending on context and whom you ask. Among the Malay dance genres in Singapore, it is also perhaps one of, if not the most misunderstood. 

At the height of its popularity in the ’40s and ’50s, ronggeng was all the rage and a staple at entertainment venues, state and cultural affairs, weddings, festivities and dinners. But it also had a dark side owing to the notoriety it gained during the days of taxi-dance halls.

So what is ronggeng and why are people confused by it? Before the entertainment venues came about, ronggeng was not only performed as part of village traditions but in the royal courts of Malaya. Similar to but unlike Malay couple dances such as asli, inang and joget, ronggeng is not a style per se but the amalgamation of the three. When performed as a whole, it depicts the different stages of courtship, characterised by incrementing tempos. One highlight of a ronggeng performance is the dondang sayang, a musical setting which features improvised witty dialogue in the form of pantun (four-line verses) exchanged between the dancers. In line with Malay customs, there is no physical contact between dancers. Because ronggeng is frequently used interchangeably with joget, there are many who wonder if they are the same—well, yes but not quite.

When performed as a whole, ronggeng depicts the different stages of courtship.

Here are some common questions people have about ronggeng and why it’s not what you think it is.

Was it the “wrong gang”?

Some scholars credit the Portuguese for coining ronggeng because of their influence on Malay culture, others say it was the British. According to a popular origin story, the term was derived from “wrong gang”—a mondegreen that was the result of a group of Westerners haranguing some locals during a night out. 

However, while its history is obscure, the discovery of ancient bas reliefs in Java has shown that ronggeng dancers might have been around much longer, from as far back as the eighth century. In the past, the term was used to describe the dancers, not the dance. As with other Malay art forms with Javanese roots, this dance genre likely spread from there to Sumatra and Malaya, evolving in music, style and technique along the way as it made its way through villages and royal courts. Hence, ronggeng performed in Singapore is slightly different from its Javanese or Sumatran counterparts and is distinguished by the term ronggeng Melayu.

Who were the ronggeng girls?

In Singapore, ronggeng in the popular imagination typically refers to the dance events that were prevalent during the era of entertainment parks such as Happy World and Gay World. Within these parks were taxi-dance halls or ronggeng clubs where male patrons could buy a ticket and pick a partner for a turn on the dance floor. Due to its transactional nature and the perceived sexual permissiveness of the female dancers, these women earned a bad reputation and were associated with vice activities. 

In reality, despite the stigma of the profession, many of them were often skilled, not only in executing intelligent pantun, but also in dealing with partners who were unable to observe the contact-free rule. Some were actresses and bangsawan (Malay opera) singers doing gigs in between productions, others were divorcees, widows or women with families.

Are joget and ronggeng one and the same?

The short answer is yes, but not quite. A traditional ronggeng performance starts off with a slow dance (asli) and works up to a faster tempo (inang) before ending with the climactic joget. In the context of the dancehall, however, the version that was popular at such venues played fast and loose with the structure and movements. Since these businesses had to sustain their patrons’ interests, they had to keep themselves up to date with trends, at times incorporating western dance styles and music into the programme. Joget modern was one of the dances du jour that forked from ronggeng for that reason. It focused on the joget segment and introduced modified traditional melodies featuring faster Latin-influenced rhythms and instrumentation. 

Because of its heavy association with these taxi-dance halls and the negative sentiments towards it, the term ronggeng was gradually replaced by joget (the most exciting part of the dance) as a more “sanitised” version. Today, in a social setting, the two terms merely mean “dance”.

Where is ronggeng today?

Despite its murky past, traditional ronggeng still survives as art and cultural stage presentations of village life. Much emphasis is placed on form and technique as compared to its spontaneous and chameleonic counterpart from the dance hall days. The tandak (double-step heel-toe movement) as well as hand gestures (clenched fists for the men and the dainty placement of fingers for the women) are particularly important in portraying the energy and gracefulness of the respective gender.

There have also been ronggeng revivals taking place across Southeast Asia in the last decade. In Singapore, Dr Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid, an adjunct lecturer at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, is leading a team of music and dance coordinators in hopes of following suit, and in doing so, remove the stigma of this misunderstood dance.

 

Catch The Wrong Geng 2.0 by Norhaizad Adam at Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts on 27 – 29 May 2022.

 

Sources

  1. Interviews with Dr Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid, adjunct lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Norhaizad Adam, artistic director, P7:1SMA.

Contributed by:

Lim Liting

Lim Liting is a worker bee, house elf and freelance content producer.


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