Traditional Balinese Dance Forms
The tradition of dances in Bali goes far beyond you can imagine. It incorporates ancient Hindu traditions with drama, portrayed in the form of dance and music. The culturally rich Indonesian island of Bali has many different dance forms, some elegant and solemn, others being extremely bold. Most of these forms involve graceful hand, legs and finger movements, eyes wide open or some even martial art techniques.
Before Hinduism reached Bali, locals from villages had invented dance rituals to fend off the evil spirit. In 15th century, when artists from Java fled and arrived at Bali, they changed the entire art and culture scene. From 15th to 19th century during the Balinese Kingdom era, many Balinese dances were invented, especially ones that were tied to Hindu beliefs. Part of these dances also includes an understanding of the Balinese history, Hindu mythology epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, so as to convey a story through a dance. Since early 1900s, these dances became a huge and important source of entertainment for the tourists who visited Bali. Hence, many temples and other venues started hosting dance shows or festivals. Today, you can visit Bali any time of the year and be sure to catch at least one dance performance.
All in all, they're meant to give you a holistic understanding of the culture of Bali. Read on to know more about the world of dance in Bali.
1. Kecak Dance - The Balinese Fire Dance
One of the most spectacular dances in Bali is the Kecak dance. It is performed by a large group of men and boys dressed in sarongs, sitting in a circle while shaking their bodies and wildly moving their uplifted arms to the sound of their voices chanting Chak Chak-Chak-Chak. In the middle of the ring formation, the love story of the Hindu epic Ramayana is re-enacted as a dance. It shows prince Rama’s battle with the evil king in an attempt to rescue the kidnapped princess Sita. By his side to fight the king’s army is the monkey general Hanuman.
Initially, the Kecak started as a part of the Sang Hyang trance dance, which was a male-only group praying to the souls of their ancestors. But recently there is also a group of female dancers in Ubud are performing Kecak dance.
The Kecak dance is best enjoyed when performed at night when the only lighting will be a burning flame in the centre of the circle, creating an even more dramatic and mystical performance. The best Kecak show in Bali is the one held in Uluwatu Temple; a magical show with a scenic background of sunset by the ocean.
2. Wali - Sacred Dance of Bali
Wali dance is a traditional Balinese dance that is performed in spiritual ceremonies. The Wali dance does not tell a story, but only covers religious symbols. Here are some popular Wali dances.
Rejang is a sacred ceremonial dance performed by teenage girls that have not yet
menstruated. Commonly, it is performed during the temple ceremony procession to
entertain the visiting Gods and spirits. The word “Rejang” means “offering” which the
dancers offer themselves to Gods.
Sanghyang dance is one of the sacred Balinese dances that is inherited from the
Pre-Hindu era in Bali. It is also well-known as trance dance since the body of the
dancers will be entered by God or sacred spirits. Usually, the Sanghyang dance is
performed in sacred ceremonies and is believed to be able to drive out
reinforcements and disease outbreaks.
This dance is performed by male and female dancers while chanting worship songs.
There are three important elements in this dance namely smoke or fire, Sang Hyang
songs, and medium both in the form of a person or a doll. The Sanghyang dance has
several types of dances such as Sanghyang Dewa, Sanghyang Dangklik, Sanghyang
Dedari and many more.
3. Legong Dance - Dance Drama with Expressive Movements and Face
Legong dance is considered Bali’s most graceful dance, combining detailed finger movements, complicated steps and expressive eye movements. The classical dance is only performed by young female dancers often as young as 8 or 9 years old.
The Legong dancers are dressed identically in very tight brocade, and gold coloured accessories from head to toe. It is amazing to see how they still can move with such speed and grace.
The dance tells the story of Rangkesari gets lost in a forest and then found by King Lasem, who is hypnotized by her beauty that he refuses to let her go. Rangkesari’s brother Daha, threats King Lasem to set her free or he will initiate a war. King Lasem refuses to release her, and both men fight in the battlefield, causing the death of King Lasem. The Legong dance describes the farewell of the king as he makes his way to fly with the birds.
4. Barong Dance - Dance Involving the Giant Lion
Barong dance represents the struggle between good and evil. The Barong represents all that is good and has the role of the protector. He is the leader of all good spirits and can appear in all kind of shapes. In the Barong dance, he appears in his most holy form which is the Barong Keket: a combination of a big shaggy dog and a lion. The Barong Keket is a playful spirit who loves a bit of fun and joking around. But when confronted with the evil witch Rangda, his demeanour quickly changes into one of a powerful protector. Two dancers support the appearance of the big Barong Keket while the evil witch Rangda with her big fangs and long clawing fingernails is performed by one.
The most dramatic part of the duel between good and evil takes place when supporters of the Barong try to draw their knives against Rangda who uses her magic to put them in a trance which forces the men to hurt themselves instead.
Supported by the energetic sounds of the gamelan, the Barong dance is an exciting dance to watch. The performance ends when a temple priest removes the trance state of the Barong supporters with prayers and blessed water. Be aware that a small bird might be sacrificed to appease the lingering evil spirits.
During the celebration of the festivals Galungan and Kuningan you will see the Barong going from door to door, cleansing the area from evil influences.
5. Bebali Dance - Semi Sacred Dance of Bali
Bebali dance is a semi-sacred Balinese dance that functions as ritual dances as well as entertainment dances. The Bebali dance originated in the 14-19th centuries. It has a storyline, character, and still nurtures traditional Balinese values. Oftentimes, it is performed during rituals or ceremonies and can be found in the temple compounds. Nevertheless, tourists are allowed to enjoy these dances with conditions that should follow the rules of entering a temple. Here are some Bebali dances:
Topeng or mask dances are dance drama’s where all the dancers imitate the character of the mask they are wearing. The Topeng Bungkulan covers the entire face and is worn at non-speaking performances like Topeng Tua (the old man), Topeng Keras (the stubborn military man) and Topeng Manis (the kind and refined hero). Not all full-face covered masks depicts humans.
The Jauk dance is performed by a dancer wearing the mask of a demon and gloves with long scary nails. The Topeng Sibakan only covers the forehead and nose and is worn in dramas where the performers play comical figures and make jokes using the Balinese language.
Gambuh dance is the oldest dance drama in Bali which is rich in Balinese dance movements and is considered a high-quality dance. This dance is believed to be the mother of all Balinese Classic dances. It is thought to have emerged in the 15th century and was adapted from the story of Panji (Malat) from East Java.
Based on history, the Gambuh dance is strongly related to the collapse of the Majapahit Kingdom in the 15th century. At that time, all of the repertoires of Javanese literature were brought to Bali.
6. Wayang Wong - Balinese Dance Drama Narrating Ramayana
The Wayang Wong was a dance drama that originated in Java, but quickly spread all across Indonesia, now an integral part of the cultures of various islanders. In Bali, this dance-drama draws inspiration from various themes and tales from the famous Hindu epics Mahabharata or Ramayana. It is usually performed in Bali along with the Kecak Dancers, adding to the vibrance and energy of the performance.
7. Arja - Balinese Dance Opera
This is a dance-opera form of theatre originating in Bali. It draws upon classic texts and popular stories, incorporating dance, dialogues and vocals. This was once an inaccessible art form as it solely used Balinese dialogues and because of this, only locals could understand. In recent years, the art form has evolved to meet modern tastes, such as introducing contemporary stories from regions such as China and the Middle East; shortening the length of the exceedingly long performance; and using non-Balinese dialogues.
Arja performances typically include romantic intrigue and comedy. The men wear split robes while the women wear wrap-around skirts, while their headdresses depict their character's social standing. characters wearing crown-like headdresses were royal characters or high-status individuals while others would wear simple headdresses, some even made from cloth.
Not only can you enjoy watching these performances as a tourist, but there are also options for dance classes while you're in Bali. You can head to Bali Culture Centre in Ubud or other such centres anywhere across Bali, and sign up for traditional Balinese dance classes with trained dancers.
The culture of dance in Bali never fails to impress one. Their body movements, costumes, facial expressions, make-up, masks, ornaments, props, and most importantly, the stories and characters they portray via their dance, watching all of this live can transport you to a mythological time.
Whenever you come to Bali, don’t forget to watch one of these Balinese dances. And you will be the lucky one if you get an opportunity to see one of the sacred and semi-sacred dances in Bali.