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Sexy dance shows all the rage even as Indonesia sends Lady Gaga packing

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JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Titin Karisma parades onto the stage wearing a rhinestone bustier and matching bottoms, with sequin fringe that jiggles wildly to the rhythm of the beating drums.

Pre-teen boys watch the singer wide-eyed as she straddles a speaker, whipping her long hair wildly. She licks the microphone and drops to the ground, repeatedly thrusting her pelvis toward a camera.

Lady Gaga's onstage antics are almost tame compared to this act, known as dangdut, the most popular genre of music in this predominantly Muslim nation of 240 million.

But while the pop star's show was effectively banned from Indonesia, tens of thousands of young women here put on performances like Karisma's every night. They shake and grind in smoky bars, ritzy nightclubs, at weddings, even circumcisions. In most cases the hosts say the sexier the better.

The apparent double standard highlights divisions between Indonesia's largely tolerant majority and a vocal minority of Islamic hard-liners. The conservatives hold outsized influence in government, and have successfully picked high-profile battles like the Lady Gaga show, but they haven't been able to stop dangdut, which has a long tradition here.

Karisma's stage shows have gotten nearly a million hits on YouTube. Julia Perez, an actress and wannabe politician, is dubbed the "sex bomb" for her racy act. Another performer, Dewi Persik, is known for her powerful back-and-forth hip thrusting "saw move" and public acknowledgments that she had surgery to become "a born-again virgin" to please her future husband.

The up-and-coming Trio Macan, made of three Gaga look-alikes, with dyed hair and catlike poses, often simulate sex with male customers on stage.

Members of the Anti Apostasy Movement, Indonesian Mujaheeds Council and the notoriously thuggish Islamic Defender's Front, better known as FPI, are quick to say they go after provocative dangdut performances. From time to time their followers jump in vans and ransack dangdut bars and nightclubs in the capital, Jakarta, and its outskirts.

But they know this won't get them the kind of attention they crave, said Andrew Weintraub, a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book Dangdut Stories.

"Lady Gaga is a big name," he said. "It's a big stage for conservative Muslim organizations to promote their own agenda. They'll get a lot of attention internationally -- which is also what makes the state nervous."

All 52,000 tickets for the concert Lady Gaga planned to give June 3 sold out within days, but members of the FPI had vowed to meet her at the airport if she dared step off the plane. Others bought tickets to her show saying, if it went ahead, they'd wreak havoc from inside the packed stadium.

As the weeks-long controversy raged, conservative politicians and members of more mainstream Muslim organizations piled onto the anti-Gaga wagon. And police -- for the first time ever -- denied a permit to one of the many Western stars passing through, citing security. Lady Gaga eventually pulled the plug.

"We hold huge concerts here all the time," said Desi Anwar, a local television anchor, noting that crowd control is nothing new. "This is what happens when the government is perceived as weak and not consistent."

Indonesia is often held up by U.S and others as a beacon of how Islam and democracy can coexist, and in many ways they are right. Most of the secular nation's 210 million Muslims practise a moderate form of the faith and accept differences in others, with schoolgirls in headscarves regularly seen in shopping malls walking arm-in-arm with friends wearing tiny short shorts and T-shirts.

Sweeping reforms that followed the ouster of Gen. Suharto's 32-year dictatorship in 1998 have allowed citizens to directly pick their own leaders, while vastly improving human rights, opening up the media and allowing artists freely express themselves for the first time in decades.

But a small extremist fringe has become more vocal in recent years, using its influence to push through controversial laws banning everything from kissing in public to showing too much skin. They've also become more violent, going after Christians and members of other religious minorities with batons and machetes, usually without paying any price.

More recently, mobs attacked Alex Aan, an atheist, now in jail for his beliefs, and rampaged a book discussion by visiting Canadian liberal Muslim activist, Irshad Manji.

Conservative opponents of dangdut don't worry fans like Imam Siswanto, who says the genre is powerful because it often touches on issues that resonate with the masses: heartache, social inequality and, sometimes, faith.

He said that although critics sent Gaga packing, "I can firmly and confidently say that dangdut will never die."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2012 A16

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