During the final weeks of Gen. Suharto's dictatorial rule four years ago, as thousands of student protesters streamed into the streets demanding his ouster, Indonesia's riot police found that force could no longer cow the crowds. So they cranked up the loudspeakers, put on the poco-poco and asked the students to dance.
Suddenly confronted with the irresistible rhythms of Indonesia's eastern islands, the demonstrators began to prance with the police and tensions briefly melted, several Jakarta security officials recall.
Suharto ultimately fell. But the poco-poco has gone on to greater glory, capturing hearts and hips across Indonesia's sprawling archipelago.
The latest craze sweeping Indonesia is a line dance whose name, pronounced poh-choh poh-choh, means voluptuous. The dance attracts women in conservative Muslim head scarves with no less zeal than those in miniskirts, and although its steps are rooted in the tribal traditions of the country's most remote island, the dance was popularized by the army's much-feared special forces.
In a country where soldiers often finish their barracks dinners with song and where Gen. Wiranto, former military commander in chief, recorded a CD of ballads and karaoke melodies, it is no surprise that Indonesia's powerful armed forces are behind the hottest music fad of the past two years. It was once part of the morning exercise regimen for the troops. Now it is de rigueur at village celebrations, where hundreds of peasants sway in open fields amid the rice paddies, and is the surest way to jam the dance floor at chic city nightclubs.
"I learned it one night two years ago and I haven't been able to stop doing it. It's always the most popular dance and always the most requested song," said Rini Mantiri, a flight attendant, after catching her breath at a Jakarta club and returning to a table shimmering beneath a rotating disco ball.
At a high-society wedding recently, the guests put aside their dishes of succulent stew and spicy chicken soup at the sound of the poco-poco. For 90 minutes, they had politely milled about the ornate hall, lining up to pay respects to the bride and groom, both resplendent in outfits of gold. But when a quartet began singing the poco-poco, the staff was barely nimble enough to clear the mounted flower arrangements out of the way before dozens of guests formed lines and began to sway.
Two steps to the right. Two to the left. Two steps back and then forward and then back.
Women in wraps and shawls of brilliant yellows and oranges and reds wove amid men in batik shirts and plaid sarongs. Head scarves bobbed among black felt caps and gold metallic headdresses. The guests were so taken by the beat that when the song finished and the quartet moved onto Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," they continued dancing the poco-poco step.
No harder to learn than America's own Electric Slide of the 1980s, the poco-poco is a simple line dance, but with a genealogy as eclectic as that of modern Indonesia.
The poco-poco has its origins in a dynamic, hypnotic dance. It was performed to the beat of tribal drums in the rugged mountains and rainforests of Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province, formerly known as Irian Jaya. Indonesian soldiers and police officers, deployed in Papua in large measure to put down a separatist rebellion, took up the dance.
"It was part of the program in nearly all meetings and gatherings of the army and police in Irian Jaya," said S. Budhisantoso, a University of Indonesia anthropologist and admitted poco-poco addict.
As the soldiers were reassigned, the dance moved west with them. The denizens of Manado, a seafaring and party-loving people at the northern tip of Sulawesi island, standardized and slicked up the choreography. Then two years ago, pop star Yopie Latul from the Molucca Islands put the song on the charts, recording the number with lyrics in the local dialect of Manado: "You dance very hot. Your body is so sexy. You're the only one I love but you're making my head hurt."
Latul, however, cannot claim credit for taking the dance nationwide. That honor belongs to Gen. Agum Gumelar, former head of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces known for their fierce, often brutal campaigns over the years to suppress domestic dissent and eradicate separatist movements.
Gumelar considered himself a man of culture. He encouraged his soldiers to perform traditional dances from their areas of operation. (Following Wiranto's example, he also recorded a CD this fall with 10 Indonesian and Western ballads, including "Leaving on a Jet Plane.") When he was inaugurated as Kopassus commander in 1994, Gumelar ordered his men to do the poco-poco at the ceremony. Since then, the dance has become a regular part of military functions across Indonesia.
"The dance was very helpful in establishing solidarity and togetherness among the soldiers, especially those from the special forces, who usually conduct their operations with very small numbers of team members," Gumelar recounted in a recent interview.
In following years, Wiranto's wife became the dance's main patron. Whenever the commander in chief would travel the country, she would accompany him and arrange poco-poco dance parties with the local troops and their families, recalled Budhisantoso, the anthropology professor.
The country's top leaders, many of them former and current military officers, continue to find the rhythm hard to ignore.
"We Indonesians love to dance but we're trying to have a new way to express ourselves that comes from our own culture and own tradition, not just salsa and jive," said Imam Santoso, a middle-aged architect who recently donned a sharp red shirt and black slacks to go dancing at Bug's cafe in southern Jakarta.
His wife, Ani, offered a more practical explanation for the dance's popularity: "Poco-poco will make you sweat. We like it for our health and to lose weight. I've lost 20 pounds."
The dance's popularity has already surpassed the cha-cha and salsa as dance club standards, said Darul Aksa, supervisor of the Big Ben nightspot on the sixth floor of a Jakarta office tower. Indeed, perhaps the best measure of the poco-poco's appeal, he said, is that it has proved an even more popular line dance than that other Indonesian favorite: "Achy Breaky Heart."