JAKARTA – Rosmayam has the poise of a dancer as she steps lightly onto the matting, her head covered by a jilbab scarf, with wrists rolling and fingers rhythmically flicking the air.
But after a spin-kick and a quick flurry of vicious punches into her opponent’s chest, there’s no doubting the Indonesian competitor is trained for combat and not the dance floor.
Rosmayam — who goes by one name — competes in pencak silat, a traditional Indonesian fighting art also practiced with knives, and one of a plethora of lesser known sports on the card at this year’s Southeast Asian Games.
Pencak silat, Vietnamese martial art vovinam and sepak takraw, a cross between football and volleyball, are among a dozen disciplines unfamiliar outside the region which are joining the regular athletics line-up.
Critics decry their inclusion for diluting the quality of the events and handing host nations medals in their niche sports.
But complaints are swatted away by competitors and fans in Southeast Asia who relish the chance of regional match-ups in indigenous games.
“It is important to be here to keep our culture strong,” explains Indonesian pencak silat coach Karyono, as Rosmayam slams her opponent to the floor, delighting the partisan crowd.
“Pencak Silat is very old, it is a way of life. Competition is good for the young people to take part in and for the crowd to see what it is.”
The discipline spans a range of traditional fighting skills from Indonesia and the surrounding area and is part sport, art and self-defense — Indonesian independence fighters drew on their pencat silat techniques against the Dutch.
Once seen as an important part of a young man’s education, it still pulls an enthusiastic following, thanks in part to increased opportunities to compete on the international stage.
The bouts start slowly, with opponents tentatively stepping into the circle that forms the fighting area in a well-rehearsed ritual.
After a series of choreographed feints they unleash a fierce barrage of kicks and punches aimed at a scoring zone on the chest and attempt to throw each other to the floor.
“It’s the only martial art with the punch, kick, scissor-kick, sweep and take-down,” says Philippine competitor Ronald Perena.
“I started in karate but pencak silat has a lot more technique. It’s good for fitness, it is lots of fun and it is unique to this region.”
The knife-fighting element also makes it dangerous.
Forty centimeter (16 inches) blades are flashed in the demonstration — non-contact — category of competition spurring an incredible show of agility as opponents go through a range of evasive blocks, dodges and high-kicks.
“In the villages people fight with knives and sticks, it takes lots of skill to control the weapons… and defend against them,” says Karyono pointing to scars on his stomach and ankle caused by accidents during demonstrations.
Traditionally fighters “call out” their opponent, goading them into a bout in a similar manner to the televised American wrestling, giving the event more drama.
Even without that particular showmanship at the competition this week, the home crowd cheers every move — especially from an Indonesian.
There are 12 traditional sports on display at this year’s Games with dozens of gold medals available in pencak silat and vovinam — a Vietnamese self-defense technique that has become popular in France and Italy.
“We need to be here,” says Laos vovinam coach Nguyen Thanh Sang. “These Games are for our region, so we should compete in what we are good at.”