Jakarta. Growing up in Kampung Sewu in the quiet town of Solo in Central Java, Siko Setyanto was brought up in a poor family. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a substitute teacher. Knowing they didn't have the means to send Siko to university, his parents encouraged the precocious child to dream big.
Before being introduced to dancing, Siko had wanted to be an athlete. He loved badminton and running but his father couldn’t afford the admission fee to the city's sports clubs.
When Siko was nine years old, a cousin took him to see a dance performance at Sanggar Maniratari in Solo. It was then that Siko discovered his love for dancing.
"The first time I saw [a dance performance] by the students there, I was mesmerized. It was so beautifully choreographed. I got carried away and couldn’t stop thinking about it," Siko said.
A few months later, he enrolled himself in Maniratari, and came under the influence of dance maestro Wied Sendjayani.
Maniratari trained Siko as a contemporary dancer and helped him prepare for a professional career.
"Ibu [Wied] came from a contemporary dance background. She knew I was passionate and serious, so she trained me harder than everyone else. She recognized my talents," Siko said.
After completing his training at Maniratari, Siko moved to Jakarta. In 2007, he started working for Ballet Sumber Cipta, a dance company helmed by one of Indonesia’s dance maestros, Frida Oetoyo.
Although he was already trained as a contemporary dancer, Siko said when he was a kid he had also wanted to learn ballet.
"I don’t limit myself. You have to learn everything. To become a professional dancer you have to explore and open up your mind to new things," Siko said.
One dance that Siko has never studied – ironic since he grew up in the court city of Solo – is classical Javanese dance.
"I grew up in the contemporary dance scene. I learnt a little Javanese dancing but never had a chance to master it. One day of course I'd love to do it," Siko said.
Siko said he had faced a lot of discriminations, mostly from friends, when he was a young man just starting out his dance career.
"I used to be so embarrassed by it. My friends told me dancing is only for women. They used to call me names because of it," he said.
When he was in high school, Siko said he had an identity crisis and started questioning his passion for dancing.
"My male friends didn't dance. They were playing soccer, singing in a band, modding their motorcycles, spending days in their rooms playing video games, but I never enjoyed any of that. The only thing I wanted to do was dancing," Siko said.
"Men don’t dance," "There must be something wrong with you," "You're not a man" – Siko has heard it all.
Now, whenever Siko feels sad and down, he channels his energy into dance.
"Dancing is very healing for me. It's a safe place to express my feelings," Siko said.
Siko is very thankful to his parents who always supported his passion for dancing.
"My parents have always been very supportive. They always make sure I stay true to my passion," he said.
Dance as a Religious Experience
"I never get tired of dancing," Siko said. For him dancing is also a way to worship and pray to god.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe last week, Siko said dancing allows him to connect to a higher consciousness that transcends time, space and reality.
"When I dance, I feel like I am fully connected to God. I feel there’s this huge figure standing behind me. My body becomes an instrument that receives this incredible power," Siko said.
He also said dancing offers him a momentary escape from life when it becomes too hard to bear.
"When I dance, I can put all of my cares to rest. The dance floor is my sanctuary, it's where I express all my anger and sadness," Siko said.
Siko said his deep connection with dancing distinguishes him from other dancers.
"A lot of dancers are pleasant to watch, but if there's nothing unique about you, people will quickly forget," he said.
Siko said his biggest inspiration is the environment around him.
"To me, Jakarta is a city of opportunities. I enjoy every moment I have in this city. I am visually and spiritually inspired by the city’s traffic jams, huge crowds, even the random people I see when I ride my motorcycle," Siko said.
"Success doesn’t come in the blink of an eye," Siko said. To reach where he is today, Siko said he trains more than eight hours a day.
"I dedicate my life to dance because it's a part of me. I’ll die if I don’t dance," Siko said.
In 2014, after Frida Oetoyo passed away, Siko resigned from Ballet Sumber Cipta and started pursuing a solo career.
He also joined the Marlupi Dance Academy where he's trained award-winning dancers like Kevin Yuliantio and Rebecca Alexandria.
Because of his talents and his distinctive style, Siko was selected to represent Indonesia in Asia Dance Project in Korea in 2015.
Siko also teaches private dance classes for dancers interested in pursuing a professional career. Each class goes for three hours and the training is extensive.
"I don’t charge my students, I only tell them to rent a dance studio," Siko said.
"It has always been my dream to give back what I have learned. I want to leave a legacy," Siko said.