There was something a bit off about Rindy Weningsari's legs. She was briefly studying her stockings when one of the women crowded into the 18 square meter greenroom of Yogyakarta's XT Center figured it out and made a comment that could come across as either friendly or mean, depending on how well the two knew each other.
"Your stockings don't match your skin tone," the woman said.
"Whatever," Rindy shrugged. "This is all I have. It's not too obvious, is it?"
The XT Center isn't really the kind of place where your stockings have to match, anyway. The shopping center, an unassuming building in the artsy, cultural hub of Jogja, is the heart of the city's amateur dangdut circuit, a seven-night-a-week party where dozens of young women dance and sing the standards for tips and a cut of the door.
Dangdut is the music of Indonesia's working class, an indigenous genre that effortlessly blends elements of Arabic and Malay pop with genres as diverse as heavy metal, EDM, monster ballads, and K-Pop. It's basically an always-changing, endlessly-malleable music that reached mass appeal in Indonesia decades ago and held tight through a cycle of constant adaptation.
The most-famous dangdut singers can earn a small fortune with a single performance, especially during election times. But the women who take the stage at XT Center are pretty far from the limelight. This center is purely amateur hour, a step above the roaming street carts that perform in cramped urban neighborhoods for tips but well below the kinds of packed outdoor festivals, local television spots, and karaoke videos that the biggest stars demand.
The ticket prices are cheap, men pay Rp 15,000 ($1.07 USD) and women get in for free. But the tips can more than make up for the low entry price, especially when a singer is as popular as Rindy, who performs under the name Rindy Atika.
She has a dedicated fan base, they call themselves "Antikaku," and a spot as a freelancer on the label run by XT Center's owner, a man named Iwan Gilas. Rindy performs at XT Center twice a week and takes freelance gigs on the side. She's using the money to pay her way through university, and, I'm later shocked to learn, she is somehow able to balance these late nights with a busy academic schedule.
"I'm singing to pay for my college tuition," she told me. "So it would sort of defeat the purpose if I didn't actually show up to class. When we have long breaks, I can sing every day. But during exam weeks, like right now, [it's hard]. I don't know how to say no to gigs."
When Rindy took the stage, she was dressed in a skimpy black dress and high heels, her long hair flowing as she whipped her body through the kinds of sexually charged dance moves that get the mostly male crowd of the XT Center on their feet, and get their money in their hands. Rindy is a bit of a realist. She doesn't think she has the best voice, or the hottest setlist. It's her looks that earn her a living, she said, and back when she was a less experienced singer she leaned on her beauty, wearing more revealing clothes and perfecting a catalogue of sexed up moves that brought in the tips.
Today, Rindy is a far more confident singer and she's trying to reinvent herself as an "elegant," singer, a woman who uses her talent, not just a her looks, to keep the crowd's attention.
"It was a phase," she said of her older, more provocative days. "When I was new and my vocal techniques weren't so good, I relied heavily on sexy moves and revealing clothes. In Jogja, there aren't that many singers doing that, so as long as someone can sing one or two songs and do some sexy dance moves, they can make it big."
Another performer, a woman named Sasha Anezka, told me that being a successful dangdut singer is all about balancing sex and singing talent. The audience for live dangdut, most of them men, expect a certain kind of performance. But these kinds of sexually provocative performances can also rub some people the wrong way in Indonesia. The country is outwardly conservative, but also oddly contradictory. Even the briefest of lip-to-lip kisses and low-cut shirts are censored on national television, but the raunchiest dangdut concerts will draw thousands of spectators.
Still, push sex too hard and you'll end up banned. Sasha told me that it's hard to chart a course to success in the dangdut world.
"I used to sing while doing sexy dances," she said. "But I have to control it when there are a lot of people watching. It's hard to be a popular dangdut singer if you don't wear the sexy outfits or do the erotic dance moves. Most of my audience are horny men. That's why dangdut singers are always portrayed as vulgar."
But it's not always all about sex. A new wave of more wholesome singers are rising in popularity in Indonesia, spearheaded by young stars like Via Vallen. In the end, it really comes down to your voice, said Ratna Yolanda, another singer at XT Center. Sure, some women can get famous and make plenty of tips by using their looks, but others can earn just as much on their vocal talents alone, she explained.
“There are singers who enjoy it when the audience puts money on their chest," Ratna told me. "I don’t want that."
Iwan, the club's owner, is wary of anyone being "too sexy," at his club. The dangdut scene's seedy reputation isn't doing him any favors in a city where conservative vigilante groups routinely raid bars and nightclubs.
"I want to make XT Square a one-stop entertainment hub for dangdut music," Iwan told me. "But I don't care if we don't have a huge audience. At least the performers can still perform here. I want to play it safe, so we won't be shut down by religious groups."
But he isn't always in control. Competition is fierce among the women of XT Center, and when dozens of women are taking the stage seven nights a week, some of them will resort to desperate measures to succeed.
"Some women have tried to use black magic to become famous," Iwan explained.
Others turn to more traditional methods to get ahead. The small greenroom at XT Center was a fog of floral perfumes, singed hair, and makeup. And between the dirty jokes and snide comments, the women were talking about cosmetic surgery, nose fillers, skin-lightening injections, and other extreme beauty treatments.
Still, despite the pressure to succeed, Rindy makes sure to draw a clear line between Rindy Antika, the dangdut singer, and Rindy Weningsari the college student. I barely recognized her when we met up a few days later at the Indonesian Art Institute. Rindy walked up with barely any makeup on and her hair concealed in a hijab.
I commented on how different she looked and she shrugged it off. Life isn't all about dangdut. She does what she needs to earn a living, but she doesn't let her nights on stage don't define her.
“I’m just trying to look proper," Rindy said. "People can say that I’m a hypocrite, I don’t care."