Information before you go
The Bali dance is religious in nature and full of drama where the dancers move their bodies on the pace of Gamelan music. Every movement of fingers, hands, head, body, feet and even eyes is important and tells the story of the Balinese vision of life. This art form plays an important part in the life of the Balinese and from an early age dance and music are taught at every village Banjar.
The dances are learned from a very early age on and a special commission is there to choose which child has the most talent to perform a certain dance. Until the 1920's dances were performed by male dancers only. Young girls were selected and danced the Legong by the age of 5 years. However once they reached puberty their 'career' as dancer ended. Today things have changed....
The Balinese dance and drama have various functions. It plays an important role in the Balinese religion and it is performed as devotion to the gods. The trance dance Sanghyang Dedari or the Sanghyang Jeran (fire dance) is a channel for visiting gods. The Pendet dance, Rejang dance and Sutri dance are performed to welcome visiting gods, while the Topeng and Wayang are there to entertain them.
The Gambuh, the oldest known Balinese dance is based on the Hindu-Javanese tales about wars between kingdoms during the Majapahit empire. This ancient drama has influenced many dances you still see today on Bali while the ancient Javanese literary language is also still used.
Ceremonial dances are only performed during odalan festivals of temples. Such a dance is the Wayang Wong, a human performance based on the shadow puppets Wayang Kulit. This dance is performed at the temple complex as an offering to the gods.
However dance has also been a source of entertainment and a tool to share historical events, literature, philosophy, moral standards to the next generation but also to portray governmental messages. The mask dance drama Topeng still draws a crowd today and shares stories of ancient Balinese clans and kingdoms. There are two versions of the Topeng dance, the Topeng Pajegan where only one masked actor performs and the Topeng Panca, in which five masked actors play various roles.
Not only do Balinese dances have a specific purpose they can also be divided into three main groups, based on ares of the temple complex it may be performed.
1. Wali dances, such as the Baris Gede and Sanghyang has its origin in animistic, old Indonesian, ritual and sacred dances and is only performed in the inner sanctum of the temple
2. Bebali dances, such as Gambuh and Wayang Wong are semi-sacred dances often portraying Hindu-Javenese stories and are performed in the middle courtyard of the temple
3. Balih-balihan dances, such as Legong and Baris are public dances taking place in the outer courtyard of the temple but also on a podium for visitors.
Today these dances are also performed for tourists. Tickets are widely available on the streets of Ubud especially at Monkey Forest Road and around the Central Market for dances such as...
Ubud is the indisputable cultural centre of dance and drama and you’ll find numerous Balinese dance performances almost every night. It costs around 50.000 rupiah to see a one-hour lasting dance performance, which is a real bargain if you ask me.
Today you can also see lots of dances in hotels and restaurants but these are often a fraction of the real dances performed in temples. Some of the hotel dances give you an OK impression but most of them are plain dinner entertainment.
Instead of hotels, restaurants or even the beach quality dances are performed in special designated settings with a circle-like open stage called ‘kalangan’, a temple gate called ‘candi bentar’. From here the dancers emerge under huge banyan trees. You will hear real-life crickets in the background and it looks like they are used for their special effects.
The Pendet dance (bebali dance) has its origin in bringing offerings to the gods and everybody with a dance education is able to dance the Pendet. Nowadays the first dance before the Legong dance is the Pendet. Here the dancers welcome spectators with throwing flowers into the audience.
The Pendet Flower Welcoming Dance
There are as many Barong dances as there are myths and legends available in Bali. The stories are often between the struggle of good and evil. One of the most popular Barong dances you can find is the Barong Keket and Rangda story.
The Barong Keket is a shaggy half dog, half lion mystical creature played by two men in one costume with long fangs, bulgy eyes and naughty behavior. There’s also a group of men who carry krisses (traditional daggers), the supporters of the Barong. The opponent of the Barong is Rangda, an evil witch with sabre-like fingernails, long tongue and threatening fangs.
Rangda the witch
In the story each opponent tries to overcome the other with magical powers but when things do not look to good for the Barong the supporters will try to attack the evil witch with their krisses. This doesn’t work because the witch has used her power to put the men in a trance so they will stab themselves.
The Barong also has magical powers and puts a spell on the men to prevent this from happening. This is the most memorable part of this dance because the Gamelan plays dramatically and the men foam around the mouth, moving backwards and forwards and some are even rolling on the ground.
A priest arrives and sprinkles holy water on the supporters to free them from the spell. In the end the evil witch Rangda is defeated and good has overcome bad again.
The Barong, half-dog-half-lion
This Legong (balih-balihan dance) is without any doubt the most gracious of all the dances. This Balinese dance is accompanied by the beautiful sounds of the Gamelan
The Legong dancers are often young girls around 8 to 10 years old and selected from the village for their beauty and suppleness. They will perform the Legong till puberty and then start dancing other types of traditional dances. The Legong Keraton is performed by three dancers, two of them are the Legongs and the other is known as Condong.
The Gracious Legong Dance
The Legong are wearing identical costumes with tightly bound gold brocades and their faces are made up with detail to the eyebrows and their hair decorated with beautiful frangipani flowers. Their movements are choreographed in detail with the twisting of the fingers, hands, feet and facial expression. This dance is worth watching.
The Legong Kraton tells the story of a king, who kidnaps a maiden called Rangkesari. Her brother begs the king to let her free rather than to go to war. The king ignores his begging and is on his way to the battleground when he meets a bird that brings ill omens. He ignores the bird and continues to meet Rangkesari’s brother on the battleground, who kills him.
The Oleg Tambulilingan (balih-balihan dance), is a graceful love dance between a flower and a bumblebee. The female dancer resembles the flower and dances gracefully to attract the bumble bee. The bumble bee is danced by a male dancer and half-way through the performance they dance together in a seducing and teasing way.
The Flower is waiting for the bumblebee
The Sanghyang dance (wali dance) is often performed in combination with other dances such as the Kecak dance. At the end of the Ramayana story one man is in a trance. He performs the Sanhyang Jaran trance dance and rides on a wooden horse kicking burning coconut shells around.
The Sanghyang dance is there to protect the village of dark powers and is often performed when things go bad and to prevent more misfortune.
At the end of the Sanghyang dance a priest helps him to come out of the trance and the performance ends.
The Sanghyang Dancer in a trance
Unlike the Legong which is a very feminine and gracious dance this dance is a male warrior dance. The warrior prepares himself for battle and is accompanied by the Gamelan gong. The Gamelan gong player has to express the warriors feelings.
The warrior looks a bit insecure from the start but gains momentum during the dance where he rises on his toes and whirls like a guy ready for action. I’ve seen two of these Baris dances in Sanur and I have to be frank, they looked funny…
The Baris Warrior in action at Ubud Kelod
Here I made the mistake to watch this dance in the hotel and on the beach because there was something clowny about the whole thing. The ‘warrior’ looked like a spoiled little kid without his ice-cream.
Luckily in Ubud my opinion about the warrior dance changed. At the Ubud Kelod Community Hall in Jalan Monkey Forest Road I saw a classical Baris Dance. This one is a world apart from the one in Sanur. Here the warrior was really fierce looking and performed every detail with intensity and style.
The Kecak is a special kind of performance, where the story of Ramayana isn't accompanied by the usual Gamelan orchestra but by the chants of men.Read more
Dance isn't the only form to share stories. Originated from Java, the Wayang Kulit shares ancient stories and current issues through puppets by candlelight.Read more
Dances performances are always accompanied by a Gamelan orchestra. Each village Banjar has one and the Balinese learn to play at early age.Read more
Now and then people send us inspiring emails and this generates even more enthusiasm to share all of the things we know about this lovely island in the hope that you can plan your tropical holiday properly and have as such a great time as we always have. Hope to see you there!
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