As a teenage boy growing up in Ponorogo, East Java, Wisnu Hadi Prayitno took dance lessons while a group of men watched him and his friends. Wisnu's elegant moves required hard work, and when he caught the men staring at him dance, Wisnu felt a sense of pride. The men were warok, a word refers to respected dancers who play the dominant main character in a dance tradition called Reog Ponogoro.
“Maybe because I was dancing in a feminine way, waddling from side to side,” Wisnu told VICE. "So they thought maybe I could become their gemblak.” Gemblak, in reog dance, refers to another main character usually played by a much younger male dancer. The dance itself is a story of an intimate relationship between the two characters, but the dynamic usually extends beyond a performance. In real life, warok and gemblak usually have a mentor-mentee, or boss-assistant relationship. Sometimes, they're lovers too.
This complicated dynamic is portrayed in a recently released film Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of My Body), which won last year's Asia Pacific Screen Awards in the cultural diversity category. The film's protagonist is Juno, a talented, soft-spoken young dancer. He grows close to an unnamed warok, a man easily 20 years older, though their respective age is never specified. One night, the warok publicly declares him his "private assistant," which causes uneasiness in their village. The warok is then forced to fight a professional boxer for his right to "keep" Juno. It's clear there's something erotic about their relationship—they're not mere dance partners, or a mentor and a mentee.
In Indonesia, this kind of relationship between two men, against the backdrop of mysticism and art, is unique to Ponorogo. Experts believe that Reog Ponogoro was born in the 15th century, created by a servant of the Majapahit Kingdom named Ki Ageng Kutu. At the time, Islam was beginning to spread in the area, and Ki Ageng Kutu was determined to use the dance to preserve Hindu culture.
Wisnu, the grandson of a famous warok in Ponorogo's Seboto Village, explained to me in great details the complexity of the ancient tradition.
The warok title is only given to Ponogoro-born men who display "warrior-like" qualities—strength, honesty, discipline, et cetera. Warok is not just a character a man plays in a dance—it's an identity he brings all the way to his grave. When a man is given the title warok, he assumes the position of a leader of a Reog Ponogoro dance troupe.
A warok is known to be a sorcerer who's prohibited to have sexual relations with women. In fact, the more teenage boys a warok surround himself with, the more sacred he's perceived by the community. A warok courts his gemblak the same way a typical Indonesian man courts a wife—with offerings of livestock and expensive gifts as dowry to the family. Once the family agrees, the warok is expected to care for his gemblak—help them finish some sort of education, give them pocket money, and essentially raise them for a couple of years. In return, gemblak is expected to join the travelling dance troupe.
Wisnu told me that many warok-gemblak pairs eventually become sexual partners by choice, not out of a warok's insistence to achieve more spiritual power.
“It’s purely driven by desire," he said.
Now that Islam has become the majority religion in growingly conservative Indonesia, the tradition of reog has changed, and the warok-gemblak dynamic is often stripped of all of its nuances.
Efendi Ari Wibowo, a teacher and a Ponogoro native told VICE that more than a decade ago, government officials in Ponogoro introduced new regulations that have changed the way the dance is performed today.
“They wrote a guidebook for it," he said. "To align the dance with Islamic teachings."
Of course, the tradition was also affected by Indonesia's red scare, which peaked when an estimate of half million people suspected to be communists or communist sympathizers were brutally murdered in 1965. Many reog dance troupes were banned, because many of them were often invited to perform at the Institute for the People's Culture (Lekra), an art organization believed to be affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party.
Today, the role of gemblak in a reog dance is often played by a woman. Bramantio Ranggapoda, a Ponogoro local, told VICE that he's never seen a reog dance like those his parents and grandparents would describe. "I don't think I've ever watched a reog show where men make up all the dancers," he said. "There are always women in the group."
Though reog has gone through many changes over the course of history, and though Wisnu has no intention of ever becoming a warok, he told me that he'd promised his grandfather to always carry the best qualities of a warok in him.
"A warok is a leader with self-respect," he said. "He's his own master, and he treats everyone with equal respect."
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.