Record-breaking dance in Indonesia's Aceh promotes unity

More than 10,000 people turned out in Indonesia's Aceh on Sunday to stage a record-breaking song and dance performance stressing the need to conserve a threatened national park in the westernmost province. The men, clad in elaborate black and yellow traditional costumes, sat in neat rows, clapping their hands on their shoulders and laps and moving in an increasingly fast-paced rhythm to a traditional song. The saman, or "the dance of a thousand hands", is one of the country's most popular. In 2011 it was included in the UNESCO list of items of intangible cultural heritage. The event was aimed at attracting more visitors to the province, the head of the local tourism agency, Syafruddin, told AFP. The men, mostly from the ethnic Gayo community, made occasional wave-like movements without breaking formation. Their song focused on the importance of protecting the province's Mount Leuser National Park, home to rare Sumatran tigers and elephants, which is threatened by rampant poaching and rainforest destruction due to the expansion of palmoil plantations. Thousands of spectators flocked to an open field tucked amid lush green hills in Gayo Lues district to watch the performance. The Indonesian Museum of Record certified it as breaking a national record with 10,001 participants -- beating last year's record of 6,600. The dance is usually accompanied by a song performed in unison. It emphasises teamwork, a symbol of unity. "In the old days the lyrics were usually about spreading Islamic teachings. These days we can adjust the lyrics to deliver any message we wish to convey to the audience," Syafruddin said. Aceh's international image has been tarnished by its public punishments under Sharia law, such as caning for homosexuality. "I am very impressed with the performance, the dancers synchronised very well and it makes me proud as an Indonesian. It was incredible," Sarah, a visitor from Jakarta, told AFP.