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  • Syiva Zahra

Saman: Perfect Harmonization of a Hundred Hands

(Image credits: Zuhri Noviandi via Kumparan)

Indonesians associate Saman dance with powerful body movements and melodious singing. The dance originated with the Gayo ethnic group and was created by Syekh Mohammad as-Samman, a Sufi teacher, in the 17th century. Syekh Samman uses the performing arts as a way to deliver his teachings of Sufism. According to Resi Septiana Dewi, Syekh Samman derived his inspiration from ancient Melayu dances, paired with Islamic verses to ease his way of teaching. A few of Syekh Samman’s students received his permission to spread the dance, reaching the land of Melayu as well as Gayo, Aceh, where it became a part of the locals' traditions. There, locals referred to the dance as “ratib saman” (with one "m"), now known as the Saman dance. As of today, the Saman dance was recognized by UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in November of 2011.

Saman is an evolution of the popular Acehnese folk game Tepuk Abe. The popularity of the game prompted Syekh Samman to incorporate a variety of lyrics containing Islamic values into the game so that young people would learn about the values more easily. The religious nature of the Aceh region is reflected in the fact that the Saman dance's hand and body movements are completely devoid of any suggestiveness. Dancers move together or alternate with each other, clapping their hands, slapping their chests, thighs, and the floor, clicking their fingers, and moving their bodies and heads to the changing rhythm.

Customarily, the saman dance is exclusively performed by men. Presently, however, many women have begun performing it onstage, which has garnered a great deal of appreciation and increased its accessibility. Nevertheless, its popularity among women has also been met with backlash from some Acehnese who believe female dancers should not be allowed to perform it. Traditionally, each dancer wears a black costume that has colorful Gayo embroidery on it, representing nature and noble values. The embroidery represents values such as harmony, strength, courage, and unity. Not only are the costumes symbolic, but so are the verses that are sung during the dance. The verses are mostly sung in the Gayo language, and the leader takes a seat in the middle of the group. While the lyrics sung can be inspirational, romantic, or humorous in nature and offer guidance, the majority of the time, the lyrics that are sung are Islamic teachings or praises directed toward God.

Behind the dance moves of the Saman lie deep, symbolic meanings that are applied to the everyday lives of the Aceh locals. Starting from the verses sung during the performance, the lyrics pay an oath to God, saying that every living thing on this earth would not be here without the presence of God. The Saman dance would otherwise have no meaning if separated from its lyrics, which express appreciation and value for belief in God. The rules of ethics and good manners are also taught through Saman. It is first shown in the dancer’s gratitude towards the audience through the sung lyrics at the beginning of the dance: “Salam kupenonton, salamualikum kupara penonton, laila la aho, aimale munengon kami berseni, lahoya, sarre e hala lem hahalla, lahoya hele lem hehelle,” or “Greetings to the audience, assalamualaikum to the audience, there is no God but Allah, who wants to see us perform art, so do all men as well as women.” The teachings of good ethical behavior can also be seen in the great synchronization within the dance and how it takes years of diligent practice and effort to reach its perfect harmony. Saman dancers would not be able to create the signature rhythm without total unanimity, which is achieved through their discipline.

All-in-all, the Saman dance has become one of Aceh’s most ritualistic dances and has successfully become one of the icons of Indonesia. The dance itself contains many religious, ethical, and social values that can be applied to our everyday lives. The complicated harmonization of a hundred hands needs to be properly and effectively preserved to ensure the appreciation of generations to come.


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