It is past six in the evening and the dying echoes of the call to prayer can be heard across Jakarta. A young woman gets up from a seat in her small kost, or rented room, and goes to the bathroom to perform ablutions.
She returns and grabs a prayer set from the side of a closet. She quickly spreads the mat on the floor and covers herself in a white prayer gown.
Her lips move slowly as she whispers the prayer. She raises her hands and places them across her chest. Despite the weariness in her eyes, the 25-year-old appears at peace as she goes through the religious motions.
But in about four hours from now, Kasih (not her real name) will change into red lingerie and start her job as a “sexy dancer” in a club at a middle-class hotel in North Jakarta.
“I am actually tired of doing this. Every night is the same,” she said. “I plan to leave this job as soon as the contract finishes.”
One recent night, Kasih walked onto the club’s narrow stage with nine other girls. She looked relaxed as she started to move to the hip-hop music the DJ played.
Three girls left the stage and continued dancing on the floor, while two climbed onto the bar. Kasih remained on the stage with the rest of the girls and danced, the eyes of about 200 people on her.
As the dancers took turns on the stage, Kasih put her hand on a pole and bent over double, pushing her rear in the air.
Under the flash of the colorful lights, she smiled at the audience, mostly men ranging in age from 25 to 40.
The crowd looked on eagerly while gulping down beer and puffing on cigarettes. The few female visitors just smiled and moved a little to the music.
Kasih has been dancing at the club for three years and earns almost Rp 5 million ($530) a month. She is also allowed to keep any tips she receives from guests. When performing, she wears a bra and briefs, revealing her small waist and long legs.
She acknowledged that all this goes against her religious beliefs. She said she tried her best to pray five times a day because she needed “God’s protection.” Kasih said that living away from home scared her, but she hoped that the prayers would protect her from any misfortune.
“My parents don’t know about this [job]. They live in West Java,” the second of four children said. “[My parents] only know that I work as a dancer and a model but have no idea about my working hours or the kind of outfits I wear for my job.
“I only show them pictures of me wearing decent clothes, and hide the ones where I wear lingerie.”
Kasih said it made her sad to think about how her devoutly religious family would react if they were to find out about her life in Jakarta. Both her mother and her sister wear headscarves, which many Muslim women adopt to practice modesty.
“I’m sure they would be really sad and hurt,” she said.
Six nights a week, Kasih dances three 15-minute sessions. But working at night doesn’t mean her days are her own.
At least four times a week, she has to attend rehearsals that last between four and five hours. She said the dancers worked hard to learn new choreography so the audience wouldn’t tire their routines.
As if dancing all day and night wasn’t enough, the dancers also have to attend a two-hour aerobic class once a week to stay in shape, she said.
“I once passed out at work because I was so exhausted,” she said. “I was supposed to perform one last session but I could not stand it. I simply collapsed.”
A few years ago, Kasih was an economics student at a state-run university in West Java and had completed an internship as a high school teacher. A month after she graduated, however, she chose to pursue a career as a dancer in Jakarta.
“I wanted to know what life was like in a different city,” she said. “And I thought Jakarta could help me develop and help develop my career.”
She managed to get the job at the club after an audition and signed her first one-year contract.
Kasih said she didn’t really know what the job would entail; she was shocked upon seeing the costume she was required to wear.
“I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable,” she said. “But I had signed the paper, so I had to do it.
“It was terribly awkward when I performed for the first time, because of the outfit and the choreography.”
Fortunately, she said, she soon overcame that feeling. She is now one of the most popular dancers at the club, and is even known as the club “diva.”
“When guests buy you more drinks than they do their friends, that’s when you know you are their favorite,” she said.
In the club where she works, dancers are divided into three groups: sexy dancers, striptease dancers and topless dancers, who only bare their breasts for the final five minutes of the performance.
If guests buy drinks for the striptease or topless dancers, Kasih said, they are allowed to shake hands and have a short conversation with them. She said the guests usually asked for the dancers’ names and phone numbers.
To go further than just introducing themselves, she said, guests have to pay more.
“Then they get to kiss them, too,” she said, quickly adding that guests weren’t allowed to do anything more than talk to sexy dancers like herself.
Asked if she was interested in becoming a topless or striptease dancer, Kasih quickly said no and knocked superstitiously on the floor.
“Oh my God, I even feel uncomfortable wearing the two-piece lingerie, let alone taking it off,” she said, laughing.
Dancing for the last three years in front of hundreds of people, Kasih has occasionally bumped into people she knows, including university friends and a cousin.
“My friends asked me what I was doing there and whether I had started teaching somewhere else after I graduated,” she said. “I was so embarrassed. Luckily the theme that night was Harajuku schoolgirls. We were wearing sexy school uniforms. So it kind of saved me.
“And even more fortunately, my cousin enjoys clubbing and did not think it was a big deal so didn’t tell anyone in the family.”
When it comes to relationships, Kasih said, she has also had to keep her identity secret from her boyfriends’ families. Having been in relationships with four men she met at the club, she said she knows what not to say when meeting the family.
“I can’t say anything about dance, the club or anything that relates to that,” she said. “My boyfriend tells his family that I work nine-to-five.
“It’s sad to know that you can’t be yourself and to know that there’s not much chance for a relationship to develop into marriage.”
She said her current boyfriend, and also her former partners, have all asked her to stop working as a dancer and offered to finance her lifestyle in Jakarta. However, Kasih rejected their offers.
“If I took the offer, it would make me feel like a mistress,” she said. “I hate to feel like I am using them. I am proud to be able to buy stuff with my own money.”
Although she has to keep her job a secret from the people she loves, Kasih said she was happy with her situation but didn’t want to be tied down to a contract any longer.
“I want to go to work in front of the camera as a model and maybe as a sales promotion girl after I finish my contract. I will still dance, though. I love dancing, I just want to be a freelance dancer.”
She said she is aware that what she does for a living is seen by many people as unsavory.
“People judge all nightlife workers the same,” she said. “And I totally understand that. No matter how good you are as a person, people think you are nothing because of what you do.”
Adult Entertainment: A Night on the Town
Many people go to see erotic dancers out of curiosity, while some just go to have fun with friends. Here is what a few people said about the nightlife attraction:
‘Malik,’ 23, university student
“It has been a while since I last went to a striptease club in North Jakarta with my friends. I think I went there earlier this year.
“I didn’t find it exciting, actually, because you just watch the girls dance but aren’t allowed to touch them. I just love to go out and have fun with the boys. But, having been there three times now, I think I’ve had enough. It’s boring. I’d forgotten about it until I was asked just now.
“I feel sorry for those girls because they have to do this to earn a living. But they chose to be like that, so what can you say?”
Lena, 35, private company employee
“The first time I went to a striptease place was to accompany my husband to entertain some of his clients. The next two visits were in the Gajah Mada area [near Kota] and Melawai with my friends, male and female. We did not see a striptease, just topless dancers.
“I didn’t find it interesting to watch but it wasn’t because I’m a woman. My male friends who went didn’t find it attractive either. Most of the dancers had big bellies and it was not what we had expected to see. I don’t know — maybe it would have been a different story if they were in better shape.”
‘Angga,’ 22, cameraman
“I have been to striptease clubs lots of times with my male friends. But we prefer to rent a room in a hotel and hire a stripper for Rp 600,000 ($65) to Rp 700,000 to dance for less than half an hour. We usually get the girls from Blok M. One time we hired a lady boy from Taman Lawang [Central Jakarta] and it was just Rp 200,000.
“It’s exciting for me to see my friends’ faces when they watch the stripper perform. But deep down I feel sorry for them and I feel guilty. Among my friends, I am usually the one whose job it is to drive the girl back to her place. In the car, I love to talk with them and they are very open with me. They usually cry when I ask, ‘Does your mother know?’ ”