Javanese “Horse Trance” Dancing In Joo Chiat

It’s been too long since I showed Joo Chiat some photo-love on this blog. We often wander there for bak kut teh at Sin Heng or drinks at The Cider Pit, but perhaps because I take it for granted for being so close to home, I rarely bring my camera. A few weeks ago, I did, which is why I managed to film and capture one of the intriguing things I have ever witnessed in public in Singapore.

At the junction between Joo Chiat Road and Joo Chiat Place, a traditional Javanese dance called Kuda Lumping (also referred to as Kuda Kepang) was being performed. Apart from carrying and manipulating horses made of woven bamboo, the participants in this dance are said to go into trances where they behave like horses and are treated accordingly, such as being fed and whipped. As they are supposedly immune to pain while in this trance-like state, they also perform various dangerous feats such as eating broken glass.

Participant in Kuda Kepang / Kuda Lumping dance

It’s hard to see in the photo (below), but that’s broken glass on the mat beneath him.

Kuda Kepang / Kuda Lumping dancer

Throughout the performance, there were “handlers” whose job seemed to be to showcase the nature of the transformation that has taken place in the dancers by treating them like horses, such as feeding, watering and whipping them. 


Whipping during Kuda Kepang / Kuda Lumping dance

Sometimes, a “horse” would also get overexcited and the handlers would have to calm it. Although it did involve some measure of forceful restraint, I observed that they seemed quite protective of the “horse” even while restraining him – see, for example, the hand placed under his chin so that his face wouldn’t get grazed against the concrete.

Calming the "horse"

Every now and then, a “horse” would wander out of the cordoned-off area and into the crowd of onlookers, many of which seemed to know what this was all about (as opposed to me, before I was able to get home and google it). One horse made clear to an onlooker that he wanted some of her Coke, which she then fed to him. Another was offered the lit end of a cigarette, which he took into his mouth.

Mouthing a lit cigarette!

In this video, you can see one “horse” having his face wiped by an onlooker, while another wanders almost to the road and is followed by a handler.

And here, you see a “horse” chewing stolidly on something as he is whipped, never flinching. Later, a different “horse” lies prone on the ground and another “horse” comes over and nuzzles him in curiosity.

I wasn’t properly equipped to shoot or film something like this, taking place at fairly high speeds in low light, but I hope what I’ve captured does at least give you a flavour of how interesting it was to watch. Since I’m lucky enough to be acquainted with a Joo Chiat expert (Tony, previously mentioned here and whose restaurant I was on my way to patronize when I came across the kuda lumping performance), I’ll definitely ask him if he knows how often these performances take place, and try to watch another one. If you’d like to watch something like this for yourself, let me know in the comments and I’ll keep you informed of what I find out.

Edited 30 July: I just found out that the closing presentation at HAOcamp, a “freestyle conference platform that brings together folks who are part of cultures/subcultures”, on 4 August (event details here) will be “Kuda Kepang: Subculture Through Revival, A Talk & Demonstration”. I just might go.


  1. Hey Michelle, I finally got a moment free to post! Did you manage to go the event? I met Siti with Wee Cheng; she is the priestess of the Tedja Timur group. Her group managed to inspire over 40 groups to start and now many of them are commercial and “perform on order”. Whats nice to see is that at Joo Chiat Square, these groups are not paid and does this regularly. Many versions of the story behind Kuda Kepang, best one I’ve read is this
    Hope to catch up with you guys soon. Take care!!!! :-)

    1. Hi Tony! I didn’t manage to go to the HAOcamp talk due to the annoying inconvenience of a burst sewage pipe in my home that afternoon, but I’m certainly eager to see more of it at Joo Chiat Square and enjoyed reading that great post you linked to. And I intend to stuff my face with more of that laksa goreng in the near future, so I’m sure I’ll see you soon enough. :)

  2. hi, thanks for your post ! im now looking for one sub culture for my final project .is there any website that you have to help me? thanks in advance ! :)))

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