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Bali Dance

Dances and dramatic performances form an important part of nearly every ritual on Bali. They are seen as an integral part of Balinese religion and culture and are employed as an expression of one’s devotion to the gods (ngayah) as well as a means of instilling centuries-old values in each new generation of Balinese, through the medium of movement, Music and words.

Training and Gifted

Balinese children are exposed to dance at a very early age. They are taken to performances long before they can walk, and begin to take dance lessons soon after. Most take great pleasure in this, whether or not they perform, as they are just as interested in the learning experience as in the final product.
There are no warm-ups before a lesson begins, and the teacher plunges right into the dance. The movements are not taught individually; the child stands behind the teacher and follows her movements. When the teacher feels that the pupil understands the basic sequence, she will move behind the student, take her wrists or fingers and move them through the desired positions. The student’s body must be both full of energy and relaxed


”listening” to the teacher’s fingers as much as to her words, which are sol-fa syllables imitating the music.
After many hours of such manipulations, the movements are said to have ”entered” the student. He or she then dances alone, with the teacher correcting from behind as needed. Only after completely memorizing a dance will the student practice with a full gamelan orchestra.
Balance is essential in Balinese dance, as in everything the Balinese do; rarely do they trip or fall. Control is also important the dances demand control of every limb, muscle and emotion. The dancer must learn how to express the character of his or her role as opposed to expressing one’s ”true self’ (a very non-Balinese concept). One could say that dance involves a displacement of the ego.
The most important aspect of dance is that of taksu or ”divine inspiration” the electrifying presence that mesmerizes audiences and transports performer and viewer to another time and place. Taksu can transform a plain-looking dancer into a great beauty and a technically deficient one into a great artist. A dancer studying Topeng will often sleep with a mask above his bed so he can study and absorb its character. Masks have their own special taksu. One who lacks taksu is likened to a ”weak flame” and dancers pray to the god of taksu before each performance. It doesn’t always come though; even the Balinese have ”off’ nights.

Sacred Dance


The most truly indigenous dances of Bali are the sacred rejang, baris gede and mendet, which are considered temple ”offerings” in and of themselves. These are usually performed in stately lines by groups of men or women, with an occasional priest or priestess leading, in the jeroan of the temple. The dancers often bear holy water and offerings which they present to the gods.
On the first days of an odalan temple festival, the Rejang and Baris Gede are usually performed in the early morning, sometimes in tandem. The Rejang dance consists of a procession of females ranging in age from two up to eighty. They move in a slow and stately fashion toward the altar, twirling fans or lifting their hip sashes. Costumes range from simple temple attire (Batuan) to elaborate gold headdresses and richly-woven cloths (Asak and Tenganan).
Baris dances are rooted in courtly rituals of war; the term baris refers to a formation of warriors. In the Baris Gede or Upacara, a weapon of some sort is used, while in the Baris Pendet an offering is carried. Various Baris dances are named after the particular weapon involved, and a mock battle between two warriors is often re-enacted. Trance sometimes occurs, and the main function of this dance is devotional it matters not if the dancers are in unison with one another or with the music, or if they dance with precision. Baris Upacara maybe seen in mountain villages near Batur, in the Sanur area, in Tabanan, and now in the Ubud area.
Late at night at the end of a temple festival, a Mendet dance is performed by the married women of the village, though in some cases young women and girls join in as well. The women carry woven offering baskets, holy water, or libations of distilled liquor to offer up to the gods on their divine journey home. A procession is formed and they weave around the temple grounds, stopping before each shrine to offer up their gifts. Mendet, like Rejang and Baris Upacara, is not taught but learned in performance.

The divine descent

The word sanghyang means ”deity” and performers of the sacred Sanghyang dances are said to be possessed by specific deities who enable them to perform supernatural feats. Their role is an overtly exorcistic one they assist in warding off pestilence and ridding the village of black magic. Trance is induced through incense smoke and chanting by two groups of villagers - women who sing the praises of the gods and ask them to descend, and a chorus of men who imitate the gamelan using the word ”cak” and other sounds.
There are many kinds of Sanghyang. In Sanghyang Dedari, two pre-pubescent girls (chosen through a ”trance test”) are gradually put into trance, dressed in costumes very similar to the Legong (many scholars feel that the Legong developed from this form). They are then carried on palanquins or shoulders around the village, stopping at magically charged spots such as crossroads, bridges and in front of the homes of people who can transform themselves into leak or witches. After this, the sanghyangs lead the villagers back to a dancing arena at the temple or bale banjar, where with eyes closed, they dance for up to four hours. Stories from the Legong repertoire or dramatic forms based on the calonarang and cupak are reenacted. In some villages, the sanghyang dedari execute the entire dance mounted on the shoulders of men, performing astounding acrobatic feats, this part of the ritual is accompanied by a complete gamelan group, who have been thoroughly trained and rehearsed.
In Sanghyang Jaran, a small number of men are put into trance, but their transition is much more violent they fall, convulsed, to the ground and rush to grab hobby horses. the pre-trance chanting, coconut shells have been lit, leaving red hot coals. The trancers are said to be attracted by all forms of fire and onlookers are required not to smoke. The entranced dancers leap into the coals, prancing on top of them, picking up the hot pieces and bathing themselves in fire. The sanghyangs are accompanied only by a kecak chorus of chanting men.
Both types of Sanghyang may be seen four times a week in Bona, where it is claimed that the performers are indeed possessed, albeit by lesser deities.

The exquisite Legong

Perhaps the most famous of Bali’s dances, the Legong is also by far the most exquisite. Performed by three highly trained young girls, it is said to have been the created by
the king of Sukawati, I Dewa Agung Made Karna (1775- 1825), who meditated for 40 days and 40 nights in the Yogan agung temple in Ketewel and saw two celestial angels, resplendent in glittering gold costumes. When he finished his meditations, he summoned the court musicians and dancers and taught them what he had seen, calling it the Sang hyang Legong. This was first performed in the temple with nine masks, and is still performed there every seven months.
Most scholars agree that the Legong grew out of the Sanghyang Dedari. all Legong pieces are for two young girls. Some are totally abstract with no narrative; others tell a story and the legongs act out different roles. In 1932, Ida Bagus Boda, a famous Legong teacher, created the condong or female attendant role, which serves as an introduction to the piece. In shimmering costume, her body wrapped like a gilded cocoon, the condong makes her entrance. After a solo of about ten minutes, she spies two fans on the ground scoops them up and turns around to face the two legongs. Dancing in complete unison. they take the fans from the condong, perform a short piece called bapang, and the condong exits. It is here that the narrative begins.
The most commonly performed tale is that of a princess lost in the woods of the wicked king of Lasem. He kidnaps her and tries to seduce her, but she spurns his advances. Upon hearing of her fate, her brother, the King of Daha, declares war on the king of Lasem. As they go forth into battle, the condong reappears wearing gilded wings a guak (crow) or bird of ill omen. The two kings fight, with evil Lasem invariably meeting death at the hands of King Daha.
Other stories portrayed are Jobog, where the two monkey kings Subali and Sugriwa fight over the love of a woman; Kuntir, where Subali and Sugriwa are seen in their youth; Kuntul, a dance of white herons; and Semaradhana, where the god of love Semara takes leave of his wife Ratih and goes to awaken the god Siwa (represented by a Rangda mask) out of meditation. The traditional centers for Legong are Saba, Peliatan and Kelandis. Today one can also see performances in Teges, Ubud and many other villages.

The Kecak

In the 1930s, when tourism to Bali was just beginning, two western residents, painter Walter Spies and author Katharane Mershon felt that the ”cak” chorus of the Sanghyang dances, taken out of its ritual context with an added storyline, would be a hit among their friends and other visitors. Working with Limbak and his troupe in Bedulu village, they incorporated Baris movements into the role of the cak leader. Eventually the story of the Ramayana was added, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that elaborate costumes were used.
The Kecak dance, as it is now called, involves a chorus of at least 50 men. They sit in concentric circles around an oil lamp and begin to slowly chant: cak-cak-cak-cak is the sound they make. Up to seven different rhythms are interwoven, creating a tapestry of sound similar to the gamelan. One man is the kempli or time beater and his ”pong” cuts through the chorus. A juru tandak sings the tale of the Ramayana as the drama progresses. Tourists call this the ”Monkey Dance,” because at the end of the play the men become the monkey army sent to rescue Sita. The cak sound also resembles the chattering of monkeys.
Kecak is performed solely for tourists. One would never see it in a temple ceremony. Even though it has its roots in the Sanghyang trance dances, the Kecak dancers themselves do not go into trance.

The Mario Kebyar Duduk

At the turn of this century, north Bali was the scene of great artistic ferment, as gamelan competitions were common and each club vied to outdo the other. In 1914, Kebyar Legong was born a new dance for two young women who portray an adolescent youth (the prototype for the dynamic Taruna Jaya, choreographed by I Gede Manik in the early 1950s). There was no story ” the emphasis being instead on interpretation of the music, a new phenomenon. This form swept the island like lightning, which is what kebyar literally means. The music is equally electrifying, full of sudden stops, starts and complex rhythms.
Four years later, the king of Tabanan commissioned a gamelan kebyar to perform at an important cremation. One member of the audience was so taken with the music that he began to compose and choreograph his own pieces in this style. This was I Ketut Maria (also known as Mario’), the most famous Balinese dancer of this century.
In 1925 Mario debuted his Kebyar Duduk a dance performed entirely while seated on the ground. With no narrative to tell, the Kebyar dancer presents a range of moods from coquettishness to bashfulness, and from sweet imploring to anger. Mario himself performed this while playing the trompong (a long instrument with 14 inverted kettle gongs), using theatrics and flashy moves to coax sound from the instrument.
In 1951, Mario was approached by British enterpreneur John Coast and Anak Agung Gede Mantera of Peliatan to create a new piece. They wanted a boy-meets-girl theme for their world tour in 1952. Tambililingan Ngisap Madu (”a bumblebee sips honey’), now known as Oleg Tambililingan, was the result created for I Gusti Raka, one of the tiny Peliatan legongs, and Gusti Ngurah Raka, Mario’s prize Kebyar student. It is a story, mimed in abstract terms, of a female bumblebee sipping honey and frolicking in a garden. A male bumblebee sees her, encircles her in a dance of courtship and they finally mate.

The Birds and other beasts

This decade has ushered in new forms which re adding to the classical repertoire of Balinese dance. These Kebyar style forms may be popular for a year, a decade or a century one can never be sure with the Balinese. Most of the new forms are being created by teachers and students at SMKI and STSI.
In 1982 these teachers inserted a bird scene into one of the Mahabharata Sendratari episodes This team effort was then refined into Tari Manuk Rawa (”long-legged bird dance”) in 1982 by I Wayan Dibia, a lecturer at STSI and one of Bali’s most prolific modern creographers. The movements of the bird are stylized; the costumes have cloth wings attached.
Such was the popularity of Manuk Rawa that other bird forms sprung up, notably Tari Kedis Perit (”sparrow dance”) by Ni Ketut Arini Alit, and Tari Belibis (a story of a mother swan and her young) and Tari Cendrawasih (”bird of paradise dance”) both by Ni Luh Suasthi Bandem, also a lecturer at STSI. Two dances that one can see everywhere are Kijang Kencana (by I Gusti Ngurah Supartha), a ”golden deer dance” performed by tiny girls with abundant energy, and Jaran Teji by I Wayan Dibia, a humorous dance of
horseback riders that has become a real hit.

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