Dance of the horse spirit
By Richard Seah
25 Jan 2009
Kuda kepang is a traditional dance commonly performed by Malays in the Malaysian state of Johor (just across the border north of Singapore where I am) although the dance probably originated from Java, Indonesia.
It has been described as a "hobby dance", I guess because the dancers are usually non-professionals and they do not get paid for performing. The dance is usually performed at weddings, festive occasions and other special events.
It appears to be enjoying a revival. I am 53 years old and have only seen it three times, all within the past one year or so!
One that I saw was a stage performance at a Malay cultural centre. It had pretty young girls moving gracefully to choreographed steps. That is not the real thing.
The real kuda kepang has no choreography. It is free-form dancing, with each dancer moving as the spirit leads.
And we are talking about real spirits here. Yes, those from "the other world". This is a dance where the dancers enter a trance and get possessed by spirits, apparently the spirits of horses.
Kuda is the Malay word for "horse" while kepang means "braid". So kuda kepang I guess, means "braided horse." This might have to do with the fact that originally, the horse was made from braided strips of rattan, or alternatively made from leather. It is a flat "horse" that the dancer straddles.
Now horses are not indigenous to this part of the world. So how this dance came about, and where the spirits of horses come from, are mysteries.
According to a Wikipedia entry on the Malaysian state of Johor: Kuda kepang is a dance or game performed by Johoreans, especially of Javanese descent... There are several possible origins of Kuda Kepang. It is said to derive from the struggles of "Wali Songo", a group of nine Islamic preachers in Java. Others said it originated from the movement of horses commanded by Ali, the fourth Muslim Caliph.
But for sure, the dancers move and behave like horses. At times, they strut. Or trot. At times, when the music livens up, they gallop full of energy across the field. This is not a dance that is performed on stage, but in open spaces.
There are two main groups of "dancers" involved in the performance. Those with the horse are typically young, in their teens or early 20s although I have seen older men perform as well.
The other group consists of older people, usually in their 30s or older, who carry whips. These are the people who seem to be in charge, the leaders.
They whip the "horses", who stand still and allow themselves to be whipped. After about a dozen lashes - which make loud cracking sounds - they would whip another time gently on the side and send the "horses" off dancing again.
They also feed the horses, giving them fruits, eggs and other snacks... as well as grass and even glass! I read that the "horses" would lick hot charcoal as well, but did not witness that.
It is said that the people with whips are the ones who invoke spirits to possess the dancers. Plus, they are responsible for "exorcising" these spirits when the dance is over.
From what I saw, it works like this...
After dancing around, eating, drinking and having water poured over the heads (of male, not female dancers) the time will eventually come for each dancer to finish off. At this point, they are mostly just dancing on their own, no longer with the braided horse.
The leader would sort of kneel with a pot of incense on the ground, and extend one hand in an inviting gesture. After a while, the dancer would come along and dance in front of the leader, making some elaborate hand gestures.
Then the leader would hold the head of the dancer and appear to speak (or blow?) into the ear. A second or two later, the dancer would lose consciousness and fall to the ground, with the leader supporting the dancer's neck and back to cushion the fall.
What happens next might be seen as an exercise to revive the consciousness of the dancer. I view it more as a ritual to exorcise the spirit that had earlier possessed the person.
It looks like very intense massage. With both hands pressed against the body, the leaders works his way down to the abdomen and then up again, all the way to the neck, face, head, hair... before finally releasing into the space above the head.
The dancer might also be turned over and have the exercise / ritual done on the back.
One girl I photographed took particularly long time to be revived. My camera had run out of memory card capacity and I took my time changing to a new one. When I got back, they were still working on the girl.
In fact, she was being worked on by two people, And after she came through, the lady who had been working on her initially appeared to be in a trance. It was her turn to be treated.
While photographing the dancers, I noticed also that they sometimes had their eyes turned upwards - so that only the whites of the eye, not the iris, are visible.
Frankly, I found the event somewhat scary - but a memorable one to photograph.
As an aside, it should be noted that although the dancers are Malay, and almost every Malay in Singapore and Malaysia is Muslim, dances of this nature are forbidden by the Islamic religion, as they invoke spirits other than the spirit of Allah or God.
The Malays, however, are a lot more in touch with their traditional roots, even if they live in a modern society.
It seems to me that people in traditional cultures are more accepting of - and in touch with - the spirit world, treating it as ordinary.
Moments after they got revived, the horse spirit dancers walk around and chat with friends as if nothing unusual had happened.
PS: Do a search for "kuda kepang" on YouTube and you will find many videos on this.