A man performs a Silat air kick at a temple in Indonesia. [Image: Agus Triyanto / Pixabay]

Indonesian Martial Art Silat Sees Rising US Popularity

Indonesia ASEAN Asia

Indonesian Martial Art Silat Sees Rising US Popularity

The Asian martial arts scene in the United States has continued to diversify as more Americans embrace more subtle approaches to self-defense. Silat, a martial art practiced in Southeast Asia but gaining popularity in the United States, combines imitations of animal movement with dance accompanied by traditional music while also incorporating artistic and mental-spiritual practices.

The spiritual aspects of the sport are an essential part of training that differentiate silat from Western martial arts such as fencing, boxing, and wrestling. Silat practitioners are taught to strengthen their relationship with God, nature, and other human beings. While Western martial arts often focus on taking down attackers, silat practitioners are trained to protect themselves and others while avoiding harm to the offender in dangerous situations.

Archaeological evidence shows that silat was first practiced in the Southeast Asian kingdom of Sriwijaya, followed by the Majapahit kingdom that ruled what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore from the 7th to 16th centuries. In Indonesia, each region has its own distinct moves, costumes, music, and weaponry used in the sport. During the Dutch occupation of Indonesia from the 17th to early 20th centuries, the Javanese court adapted silat into a form of dance to avoid suspicion from their colonizers, or practiced the sport in secret in an attempt to preserve the martial art.

Silat was first introduced to the United States in the 1960s by various practitioners, including Herman Suwanda, Santosa Basri, Tonny Makmun, and the De Thouars brothers. Silat communities began to flourish in several states like Oregon, Maryland, Virginia, and California. Naga Community, a silat academy in Portland, Oregon, provides self-defense classes based on the Poekoelan technique developed by Willem Johannes Christoffel Wetzel in 1956 that incorporates elements from silat, kung fu, judo, and kendo. Naga Community co-owner Silvia Smart recently launched The Empowerment Podcast, which aims to train women in self-defense techniques that can be used in cases of violence and sexual assault. Silat Martial Arts Academy in Rockville, Maryland, offers various Indonesian silat techniques that include Cimande from West Java, Harimau Singgala from West Sumatra, and Al-Azhar Seni Bela Diri from East Java. Pentjak Silat USA in California focuses on teaching foundational principles of the sport that can be applied to various martial art techniques. Meanwhile, Silat Virtual Academy in Sterling, Virginia, provides training online.

The rising popularity of silat in the United States was demonstrated by Virginia’s hosting in 2019 of the first Unites States Open Pencak Silat International Tournament, which draws athletes from the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and Uzbekistan. Abdul Malik Ahmad, vice president of the USA Pencak Silat Federation, hopes that the popularity of the martial art will continue to grow and help spur the inclusion of the sport at the 2032 Summer Olympics, which the Australian city of Brisbane will host.

Natasia Engeline is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Her research interests include monetary and fiscal policy as well as ASEAN–US relations.