The traditional Kuda Kepang dance gets a modern spin in Malaysia

On the surface, the Kuda Kepang dance would probably strike undiscerning observers as a typical cultural performance in Southeast Asia — dancers in elaborate costumes, carefully choreographed moves, accompanied by the beat from traditional instruments, and festivities to liven up the mood.

However, the dance is anything but typical.

Of Javanese origin from Johor, and usually performed by communities of Javanese lineage there, the dance straddles the grey area between what’s permissible by religion, and what’s true to tradition.

What is the Kuda Kepang dance?

This erratic yet enthralling procession features men straddling rattan horses, spinning in a state of “mabuk” — or trance — and are said to be possessed by the spirit ‘Hyang’, a supreme being of ancient Javanese and Balinese mythology.

Kuda kepang dance being performed by Project Cahaya.
The Kuda Kepang is traditional folk dance that was brought by the Javanese people who migrated to the peninsular. (Photo: Project Cahaya)

In these states of trance, dancers would perform superhuman feats such as the eating of glass, the breaking of coconuts with their bare heads, or even comical dance moves to entertain crowds.

Few faithful interpretations of this forgotten artform exist today.

As a cultural artefact, the Kuda Kepang is often relegated to a footnote within the colourful fabric that is Malaysian mainstream culture.

Yet, this mystical and unconventional dance continues to attract its share of attention from aficionados and aspiring practitioners alike.

Reviving a lost art

This was exactly how two DJs from Kuala Lumpur, Zulamran Hilmi, and Taufik Kamal, were drawn to the dance’s mystical elements, and their decision to retrace the footsteps of their ancestors.

From their SeniLab studio in suburban Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI), they saw the potential of reviving this lost art, and aimed to cast this traditional dance in a new light.

That led to them founding Project Cahaya, a performance showcase that reinterprets this traditional dance for young, modern Malaysians.

For added reach and credibility, they also partnered with the non-profit PUSAKA, the national custodian of traditional performing arts, and Kumpulan Kuda Kepang Parit Raja, a renowned troupe from Johor.

“We’re recontextualising and reinterpreting the Kuda Kepang performance by finding intersections between tradition, technology and music," Zulamran explained. "We’re finding parallels between those practices, and their rich historical legacies — packaging them as a modern performance and art show."

A performance of the Kuda Kepang art form by Project Cahaya.
Project Cahaya includes modern lights and sound together with the traditional. (Photo: Project Cahaya)

For their special performance, Cahaya 004 – Kitab Basah, Taufik was tasked to engineer a completely unique cultural experience inspired by many traditional elements

“After learning about the Kuda Kepang troupe in Johor, the Project Cahaya team used light structures to represent elements in the performance — the gelanggang (court) to represent the perimeter; the offering table for the isms, the top-light shaped as 'eyes' to represent the all seeing eye of the Bapak (father) in controlling the seen and unseen, the mirror and chrome floor to represent the seen and unseen, and electronic music to add to electrify the atmosphere further," Taufik shared.

While they have been encouraged by the positive feedback so far, Project Cahaya producer Jonathan Lee hoped that the performance would help more people to broaden their horizons.

“We don’t have an audience in mind as this cultural artefact belongs to all, but we hope that all attendees would keep an open mind. Be keen to observe and be ready to participate in the performance.”

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