The backbone of Balinese culture is dance, which is performed during
temple festivals and in ceremonies of the cycle of life and death. What
is performed in hotels and restaurants for tourists is only a small fraction
of what Balinese dance has to offer.
From the time that Balinese history was being recorded in written form,
its dance has existed. Ninth century inscriptions named the wayang (puppet
theatre) and topeng (mask dance) as the main entertainment of the day.
Gamelan music goes back still further to the Dong Son bronze culture of
the first millennium BC. Apart from the trance dances, much of the Balinese
dance heritage actually originates from Java.
History of Balinese Dance
After the Majapahit warriors subdued Bali in the 14th century, Javanese
mini-principalities and courts soon appeared everywhere, creating that
unique blend of court and peasant culture, which is Bali - highly sophisticated,
dynamic and lively. The accompanying narrative for dance and drama is
to a large extent based on court stories from pre-Majapahit Java. Even
the Indian epics, another favorite of the stage, especially the wayang,
use Javanese, complete with long quotes from the ancient Javanese Kakawin
poetry So Javanese culture, which disappeared from Java following Islamization
in the l6th century, still survived in Bali in a "Balinese form",
which became classical Balinese culture.
However, colonization brought about the fall of classical Bali. With the
rural courts defeated and with new lords of the land, the centre of creativity
shifted to village associations, and to the development of tourism. The
30's and 50's were particularly fertile decades; while the old narrative
led theater survived, lively solo dances appeared everywhere, accompanied
by a new, dynamic kind of music called gong kebyar. This trend continued
in the 60's and 70's with the creation of colossal sendratari ballets,
representing ancient Indian and Javanese stories adapted to the needs
of modern audiences.
Dance & Religion
Balinese dance is inseparable from religion. A small offering of food
and flowers must precede even dances for tourists. Before performing,
many dancers pray at their family shrines, appealing for holy "taksu"
(inspiration) from the gods.
In this rural tradition, the people say that peace and harmony depend
on protection by the gods and ancestors. Dance in this context may fulfill
a number of specific functions:
a) As a channel for visiting gods or demonic gods, the dancers acting
as a sort of living repository. These trance dances include the Sang Hyang
Dedari, with little girls in trance, and the Sang Hyang Jaran, a fire
b) As a welcome for visiting gods, such as the pendet, rejang and sutri
c) As entertainment for visiting gods, such as the topeng and the wayang.
In some of these dances, the role of dancing is so important that it is
actually the key to any meaning to be found in the ritual. In wayang performances,
the puppeteer is often seen as the "priest" sanctifying the
As well as their use in religious ceremonies, dance and drama also have
a strong religious content. It is often said that drama is the preferred
medium through which the Balinese cultural tradition is transmitted. The
episodes performed are usually related to the rites taking place; during
a wedding one performs a wedding story; at a death ritual there is a visit
to "hell" by the heroes. Clowns (penasar) comment in Balinese,
peppering their jokes with religious and moral comments on stories whose
narratives use Kawi (Old-Javanese).
The typical posture in Balinese dance has the legs half bent, the torso
shifted to one side with the elbow heightened and then lowered in a gesture
that displays the suppleness of the hands and fingers. The torso is shifted
in symmetry with the arms. If the arms are to the right, the shifting
is to the left, and vice-versa.
Apart from their costumes, male and female roles can be identified mostly
by the accentuation of these movements. The women's legs are bent and
huddled together, the feet open, so as to reveal a sensual arching of
the back. The men's legs are arched and their shoulders pulled up, with
more marked gestures, giving the impression of power.
Dance movements follow on from each other in a continuum of gestures with
no break and no jumping (except for a few demonic or animal characters).
Each basic posture (agem), such as the opening of the curtain or the holding
of the cloth, evolves into another agem through a succession of secondary
gestures or tandang. The progression from one series to the other, and
the change from right to left and vice-versa, is marked by a short jerky
emphasis called the angsel. The expression is completed by mimicry of
the face: the tangkep. Even the eyes dance, as can be seen in the baris
and trunajaya dances.
The Dances of Bali
Tambulilingan or bumblebees Dance.
The Balinese like a blend of seriousness and slapstick and their dances show this. Basically the dances are simply straight forward ripping yarns – like vaudeville shows where you cheer on the goodies and cringe back from the stage when the baddies appear. Some dances have a comic element with clowns who counter balance the staid, noble characters. The clowns often have to put across the story to the audience, since the noble characters may use the classical Javanese kawi language while the clowns (usually servants of the noble characters) converse in everyday Balinese.
It is not hard to find dances – they’re taking place all the time, all over the island and are usually open to anyone. Dances are regular part of almost every temple festival and Bali has no shortage of these. There are also dances virtually every night at all the tourist centers; admission is usually costs from 50.000 to 80.000 rupiah for foreigners. Many of the shows put on for tourists offer a smorgasbord of Balinese dances with a little Topeng dance, a taste of Legong dance and some Baris dance to round it off. If you see one disappointing performance of a particular dance then look around for another venue as the quality and the level of drama varies. Some of the more common dances are:
"Cak-cak-cak." The obsessive sound of a choir from beyond the
dust of ages suddenly rises between the lofty trees. Darkness looms over
Hundreds of bare-breasted men sit in a circle around the flickering light
of an oil lamp chandelier. "Cak-Cak". They start dancing to
the rhythmic sound of their own voices, their hands raised to the sky
and bodies shaking in unison. This is the unique Kecak, perhaps the most
popular of all Balinese dances.
Visitors rarely leave the island of Bali without first seeing a Kecak
performance. Originally the Kecak was just an element of the older Sang
Hyang trance dance. It consisted of a male choir praying obsessively to
the souls of their ancestors. At the initiative of painter Walter Spies,
this religious choir was transformed into a dance by providing it with
a narrative. The ballet is the Ramayana epic. The prince Rama, his wife
Sita and his brother Laksmana are exiled in the middle of the forest.
Rama goes hunting a golden deer at the request of his wife, who saw the
strange animal and has asked him to catch it. While he is away, she is
kidnapped by Rahwana and taken to the latter's island kingdom of Alengka
Rama allies himself with the monkeys and in particular with the white
monkey Hanuman. They build a bridge and cross to the island. War ensues
until finally Rama defeats Rahwana and is again united with his faithful
Barong and Kris Dance Barong and Kris dance like the kecak dance the Barong and Kris dance is a battle between good and evil spirit. Barong can take various forms but in this dance he takes the form of the dance Barong Keket, the most holy of the Barongs. The Barong Keket is a strange creature, half shaggy dog, half lion and is played by two men in much the same way as a circus clown-horse. His opponent is the witch Rangda.
The barong personifies good and protects the village from the witch Rangda, but he’s also mischievous and fun loving creature. He flounces into the temple courtyard, snaps his jaws at the gamelan, dances around and enjoys the acclaim of his supporters-a group of men with krises. The Rangda makes her appearance, her long tongue lolling, her pendulous breasts wobbling, human entrails draped around her neck, fangs protruding from her mouth and saber-like fingernails clawing the air.
Now Barong dance is no longer the clown, but the protector. The two duel with their magical powers and the Barong’s supporters draw their krises and rush in to attack the witch. Randa puts them in a trance and the men try to stab themselves, but the Barong also has great magical power and casts a spell which stops the krises from harming the men. This the most dramatic part of the dance – as the gamelan rings crazily the men rush back and forth, waving their krises around, all but foaming at the mouth. Sometimes even rolling on the ground in a desperate attempt to stab themselves. Finally Rangda retires defeated and good has won again. Good must always triumph over evil on Bali, and no matter how many times the spectator have seen the performance nor how well they know the outcome, the battle itself remains all important.
The end of the dance still leaves a large group of entranced Barong supporters to be brought back to the real world. This is usually done by sprinkling them with holy water, sanctified by dipping the Barong’s beard in it. Performing the Barong and Randa dance – with all that powerful magic – is an operation not to be taken lightly. Extensive ceremonies must be gone through to begin with, a temple priest must be on hand to end the dancers’ trance, and at the end a chicken has to be sacrificed to propitiate the evil spirits.
Legong Dance Legong this is the most graceful of Balinese dances and to sophisticated Balinese connoisseurs of dancing the one of most interest. A Legong Dance, as a Legong Dancer is always know, is a young girl – often as young as eight or nine years olds and older than her early teens. Such importance is attached to the dance that even in old age a classic dancer will be remembered as a ‘great Legong’ even though her brief period of fame may have been 50 years ago.
There are various forms of Legong but the Legong Kraton, or Legong of the palace, is the one most usually performed. Peliatan’s famous dance troupe, which visitor to Ubud often gets a chance to see, is particularly noted for its Legong. A performance involves just three dancers – the two Legongs and their ‘attendant’ knows as the condong. The Legongs are identically dressed in tightly bound gold brocade, so tightly are they encased that it’s something of a mystery how they manage to move with such agility and speed. Their faces are elaborately made up, their eyebrows plucked and repainted and their hair decorated with frangipanis.
It’s a very stylized and symbolic dance – if you didn’t know the story it would be impossible to tell what was going on. The dance relates how a king takes a maiden, Rangkesari, captive. When Rangkesari’s brother comes to release her he begs the king to let her free rather than go to war. The king refuses and on his way to the battle meets a bird bringing ill omens. He ignores the bird and continues on to meet Rangkesari’s brother who kills him. The dance however, only related the lead-up to the battle and ends with the bird’s appearance. When the king leaves the stage he is going to the battle that will end in his death.
The dance starts with the condong dancing an introduction. The condong departs as the Legong come on. The Legongs dance solo, in close identical formation, and even in mirror image when they dance a nose to nose love scene. They relate the king’s sad departure from his queen, Rangkesari’s request that he release her and the king’s depature for the battle. Finally the condong reappears with tiny golden wings as the bird of ill fortune and dance comes to an end.
Baris the warrior dances know as the Baris is a male equivalent of the Legong in which feminist and grace gives way to the energetic, warlike, martial spirit. A solo dance, the Baris dancer has to convey the thoughts and emotions of a warrior preparing for action and them meeting an enemy in battle. The dancer has to show his changing moods not only thought his dancing, but also through facial expression. Chivalry, pride, anger, prowess and finally some regret (well war is hell, even in Bali ) all have to be there. It’s said that the Baris is one of the most complex of the Balinese dances requiring a dancer of great energy, skill and ability. Familiar tale in Bali but the dance has been a relatively recent addition to the Balinese repertoire. It tells much the same story of Rama and Sita as told in the Kecak Dance but without the monkey ensemble and with a normal gamelan orchestra accompaniment. It’s also embellished with many improvisations and comic additions. Rawana may be played as a classic bad guy, the monkey god Hanuman can be a comic clown, and camera-wielding tourists amongst the spectators may come in for some imitative ribbing.
Kebyar Dance Kebyar this is a male solo dance like the Baris Dance, but with greater emphasis on the performer’s individual abilities. Development of the modern kebyar is credited in large part to the famous pre war dance Mario. There are various forms of the dance including the seated Kebyar Duduk where the ‘dance’ is done from the seated position and movements of the hands, arms and torso plus, of course, facial expressions are all important. In the Kebyar Trompong the dancer actually joins the gamelan and plays an instrument called the trompong while still dancing.
Janger Both Covarrubias and Hickman in their between-the-wars books on Bali comment on this strange new, almost un-Balinese, dance which suddenly popped up in the 1920s and 1930s. Today it has become part of standard repertoire and no longer looks so unusual. It has similarities to several other dances including the Sanghyang where the relaxed chanting of the women is contrasted with the violent cak-a-cak-a-cak of the men. In the Janger dance, formations of 12 girls and 12 young men do a sitting dance where the gentle swaying and chanting of the girls is contrasted with the violently choreographed movements and loud shouts of the men.
Topeng Dance Topeng the word Topeng means ‘pressed against the face’, as with a mask. This is a mask dance where the dancers have to imitate the character their mask indicates they are playing. The Topeng Tua, for example, is a classic solo dance where the mask is that of an old man and requires the performer to dance like a creaky old gentleman. In other dances there may be a small troupe who dances various characters and types. A full collection of Topeng masks may number 30 or 40.
Another mask dance is the Jauk dance, but this is strictly a solo performance. The dancer plays an evil demon, his mask an eerie face with bulging eyes and fixed smile, long wavering fingernails complete the demonic look. Mask dances require great expertise because the dancer is not able to convey the character’s thoughts and meanings though his facial expressions, so the character of the unpleasant, frenetic, fast-moving demon has to be conveyed entirely through the dance.
Pendet Dance Pendet this is an everyday dance of the temples, a small procedure gone through before making temple offerings which doesn’t require arduous training and practice. You may often see the Pendet dance being danced by women bringing offerings to a temple for festival, but it is also sometimes danced as an introduction and a closing for other dance performances.
Sanghyang Dances Sanghyang Dances the Sanghyang trance dancea originally developed as a means of driving out evil spirits from a village. The Sanghyang is a divine spirit which temporarily inhabits an entranced dancer.
The Sanghyang Dedari is performed by two young girls who dance a dream-like version of the Legong. The dancers are said to be untrained in the intricate pattern of the dance and, furthermore, the dance in perfect harmony but with their eyes firmly shut. A female choir and a male Kecak choir provide a background chant but when the chant stops the dancers’ slump to the ground in a faint. Two women bring them round and at the finish a priest blesses them with holy water and brings them out of the trance. The modern Kecak dance developed from the Sanghyan.
In the Sanghyang Jaran a boy in a trance dances round and through a fire of coconut husks riding a coconut-palm hobby horse-it’s labeled the fire dance’ for the benefit of tourist. Once again the priest must be on hand to break the trance at the close of the dance.
The Gamelan As in Sumatra and Java, Balinese music is based around the gamelan orchestra. The whole gamelan orchestra is known as a gong – an old fashioned gong gede or a more modern gong kebyar. There are even more ancient forms of gamelan such as the gong selunding, still occasionally played in Bali Aga village like Tenganan.
Though the instruments used are much the same, Balinese gamelan is very different from the form you’ll hear in Java. The Yogyakarta style, for example, is the most reserved, fomal and probably the gentlest and most ‘refined’ of gamelan – while Balinese gamelan often sounds like everyone going for it full pelt. Perhaps a more telling point is that Javanese gamelan music is rarely heard except at special performance, Where as in Bali you seem to hear gamelans playing all the time everywhere you go.