Pakkarena Dance: Makassar, South Sulawesi

Home to Sulawesi’s largest ethinic group, the Bugi’s, Makassar is a port city. Its history dates back 500 years and the city is a maze of historical buildings.

It is also home to an interesting dance form called Pakkarena and the only place in the archipelago where it is performed. Unfortunately there are only a few of these Pakkarena dancers left in Sulawesi and one of them is 87 year old Mak Coppong. Andi Hajramurni writes from Makassar about this remarkable woman:

‘Mak’ Coppong: Lifelong ‘Pakkarena’ dance expert

Despite her advanced years, Coppong Daeng Ranu can still move perfectly when she performs the Pakkarena, a traditional dance from Makassar.

She is strong enough to perform for an hour at a stretch. The slow movement of her body, which is integrated with the calm expression on her face, reflects her spiritual union with the dance.

For Mak Coppong, as the 87-year-old woman is known, the Pakkarena is part of her life. When she performs the dance every day, she seems to be living in another world, oblivious to what is going on around her.

She seems not to be aware of the loud applause from her audience.

Even the sound of the accompanying music fails to disturb the solemnity surrounding Mak Coppong when she performs each of the 12 types of Pakkarena. Every time she performs, she dedicates herself to it completely.

She has never felt nervous, even at an international event.
“I dance not to be admired; I dance because that is a calling from within,” she said at her home in Kampili village, Gowa regency, South Sulawesi.

That explains why Mak Coppong never really expected to win awards or earn any reward for her skill as a dancer. The only thing she hopes for is that there will be new Pakkarena dancers from new generations so that the traditional dance will not become extinct.

Only a few Pakkarena dancers still exist in South Sulawesi. Younger artists prefer modern dance and think that the movements of the Pakkarena are too slow and ponderous.

The Pakkarena captivates art-lovers abroad. A number of foreign observers from Germany, the U.S. and Britain have visited Mak Coppong as they want to learn more about the dance and how she breathes life into it.

Robert Wilson, the director of the I La Galigo dance drama performance, gave a role to Mak Copping in his colossal dance drama inspired by the Sureq Galigo epic from South Sulawesi. She was given the role of Dewi Sangiang Seri and became an interesting element of the performance, which has been staged in a number of countries in Europe, the U.S., Singapore and Australia.

In every country that Mak Coppong happens to visit, she makes her mark. “Every time I La Galigo is performed in a particular country, Mak Coppong will surely attract the attention of the audience and art lovers in that country.

“They will ask for Mak Coppong’s autograph and hand her bouquets of flowers. Audiences abroad show great appreciation of her skill in performing the Pakkarena dance,” said Andi Ummu, a Makassar artist who usually accompanies the dancer.

Mak Coppong has not been influenced by the appreciation shown her abroad. For her, there is no special stage, even when abroad. In fact, she has visited no fewer than nine countries. “All stages are the same to me,” she said.

At home, in South Sulawesi province, there has hardly been any appreciation shown to her by the government, the local administration or even from people living in her neighborhood, despite the extent to which she has promoted the province abroad.

Every time Mak Coppong is invited to perform a dance at an event, she will get only a thank-you in return.

In fact, Mak Coppong has only a simple hope. She would like to establish a decent dance workshop so that she can teach interested children the Pakkarena dance.

In her everyday life, Mak Coppong is just a rural woman who lives quite modestly. She takes care of her three children and grandchildren. She does her housework herself, including tending to her late husband’s rice fields and gardens, from which she earns a living.

In her village, Mak Coppong is better known as Passalonreng as she often performs the Sanlonreng, a dance specifically performed in a rite for medical treatment by Makassar people or during a rite to ward off evil.

In Makassar language, Pakkarena is made up of two words, “pa“, which means a performer and “akkarena“, which means a dance. So Pakkarena means a player or a dancer.

However, with the passage of time, the dance that Mak Coppong usually performs, which has no name, has come to be known as the Pakkarena.

Mak Coppong began to dance at the age of 4. She learned dancing from her father, Sado, who was also a drum player. To improve her dancing skill, Mak Coppong learned intensively from a dance instructor in her village, Masoi Daeng Ngola.

After mastering her dance skills, Mak Coppong joined the art troupe of her father and dance instructor to perform in wedding parties, rites related to circumcision and thanksgiving as well as royal events.

She was often invited by the Dutch colonial government and the Japanese occupational administration to perform her dance.

Mak Coppong can perform under any circumstances, with or without music. When she was 14 years old, she was invited by the Dutch colonial government to perform at Karebosi Square in Makassar to welcome the birth of Queen Beatrix during World War II.

She performed to the sound of cannonfire.

As she has grown older, Mak Copping has only one simple hope left. She wants to see other dancers inherit her skill to ensure that the Pakkarena will not be consigned to history.

Andi Hajramurni