Learning Culture by Doing: Javanese Puppetry and Dance in the Ann Arbor Public Schools
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This past school year, students from Dicken Elementary School on Ann Arbor’s southwest side had an unusual opportunity to learn about Indonesian culture by studying Javanese dance and puppetry. They were instructed by two Javanese artists in residence at the University of Michigan, puppet master Sigit Adji Sabdoprijono and dancer Yulisa Mastati. As part of their residency, the International Institute’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) arranged for them to spend one morning a week at Dicken, giving third, fourth, and fifth grade students an extended immersion in traditional Javanese dance and wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry.
It is always a challenge to expose students to other cultures in a non-reductive way. Teachers have found that the arts are a fun way to offer students substantive information on other cultures. Music, dance, and theater can be taught as a means to provide capsules of culture that help introduce new languages and different cultural norms.
Small entrees into other cultures can seem fleeting and are often soon forgotten. The Ann Arbor schools participated in this program to encourage a more lasting impact on its students. The artists immersed Ann Arbor’s children in the rich world of their home nation, allowing them to learn about a new culture not from textbooks or videos, but rather by doing.
During the fall semester, Dicken third and fourth graders studied Javanese dance with Yulisa as part of their gym class. Since Javanese dance has distinctly different styles for men and women, the boys and girls were grouped into different classes, with each working on their own dances at different ends of the gym. The girls learned a kupu-kupu or butterfly dance, new choreography created specifically for them but based in traditional women’s dances from the royal courts of Central Java; the boys started with a traditional jarangan or hobby-horse dance from East Java. With the help of CSEAS Outreach Coordinator Charley Sullivan, who had himself started studying Javanese dance as a child growing up in Indonesia, Yulisa taught mostly in Indonesian, counting and using dance vocabulary for steps and hand movements that the Dicken students picked up quickly from context.
Some days went more smoothly than others for the third and fourth grade, but most students learned to hear drum cues in the gamelan music and to recognize where the gong tone ended and began each cycle of music. Students also learned about two critical elements of Javanese culture: reserve and control from the slow graceful movements of the butterfly dance, and an enjoyment of lively fun from the rambunctious horse dance.
The fifth grade, meanwhile, entered the complex world of Javanese wayang or shadow puppet plays. Sigit taught primarily in English, as he introduced students to characters from the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. In wayang each puppet is a distinct personality, with its own voice and character of movement.
Making the transition from viewer to participant, each student was handed a puppet, and Sigit taught them the basic techniques for holding and moving the puppets, including how to perform sembahan, the ritual palms-together motion of the hands used to greet elders with respect. Sigit used these lessons to teach students the story of the Ramayana in its Javanese form, and particularly about the exploits of the monkey general Hanuman, who aids King Rama in his search for his kidnapped wife, Sinta.
The students moved into a more complex study of dance and puppetry in the winter. Dance was taught only to the fourth grade, and 25 students, or about one-third of the fourth grade, chose to continue studying dance for a spring performance. Half boys and half girls, the students learned the full dances they had begun in the fall, working on perfecting basic movements, and then putting them into a full choreographed piece, recognizing drum beats and other musical cues from the gamelan, and learning the proper bearing and attitude to bring to their dances. But most of all, the students learned that dance—even choreographed dance—can be fun and that the pressure of performance can be a good source of inspiration to improve their movements.
The fifth grade launched a project: to write, memorize and present a 30-minute long puppet show based on themes from the Ramayana. Their story featured Hanuman guarding the forest from invasion by various ogres, giants, and ferocious animals in a fairly direct allegory for the need to protect the environment, both in Indonesia and the United States. They wrote the script in English, with each of the three classes taking a section of the play, blending Javanese story elements with American jokes about Superman and elementary school principals. Sigit staged each scene with the students “playing” the puppets, helping them to watch the complex shadows on the screen rather than the puppets themselves and to time their movements with the voices of their puppets, spoken by other classmates serving as narrators.
The day before the performance, the fifth graders were joined by members of the University of Michigan Gamelan Ensemble, who provided the musical accompaniment to the performance. The elementary school students picked up on musical cues from the gamelan amazingly quickly, and the three individual sections of the story were woven together for the first time.
The play was performed twice. In the morning the entire school attended, capping their own year of exposure to Indonesian culture through class visits by Sigit and Yulisa and through using Indonesian stories in English in their reading classes. In the evening, the performances were the centerpiece of an international festival for parents and families. With costumes and makeup for the dancers and the gamelan playing for the wayang show, the performances took on an added luster, and the students rose to the occasion superbly, performing with surety and enthusiasm, now comfortable in the new cultures of performance they had learned by participating in them.
Charley Sullivan is program coordinator at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the U-M International Institute.