Bali is an island where colour, art, spirituality and natural scenery all tie together into a bouquet of cultural diversity that is hard to top. The Hindu roots of this island, combined with the traditional influences of the sweeping archipelago that is Indonesia, have certainly created a cauldron of life, and there are few places where this vibrant diversity can be observed better than in Bali’s storied tradition of dance. And, in true Balinese form, there isn’t just one dance that is representative of the Island of the Gods, but a good handful of expressive artistic creations that are sure to impress. What follows are three of the most popular dances on this equatorial escape.
A musical drama that was developed in the 1930s, the Kecak dance is epitomised by the “cak” chant that is repeated throughout the performance, the black-and-white checked sarongs that are worn, and a volley of fiery husks that are hurled between entranced dancers.
Perhaps the most iconic of the Balinese dances, the Kecak dance is that which is found most prominently displayed for those visiting Bali. A musical drama that was developed in the 1930s, the Kecak dance is epitomised by the “cak” chant that is repeated throughout the performance, the black-and-white checked sarongs that are worn, and a volley of fiery husks that are hurled between entranced dancers. The story, which depicts a great battle and includes monkeys, kings, and princes, comes from the Ramayana, and was transformed into a dance by a German man who was living in Bali and observed the Kecak in its original form – a meditative ritual. The performance, which is marked by its high intensity and pace, is typically an all-male performance, though women in the performance are becoming more and more commonplace. While the dance can be found throughout the island, travellers to Ubud will be happy to know that twice weekly (Tuesdays and Fridays), The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, Ubud, offers a Kecak performance that is put on by the local Balinese that live in the neighbouring village. This intimate performance is open to in-house guests as well as non-guests who may also enjoy a Balinese Royal Dinner, served in traditional fashion, after the show.
Legong, which has a longer history as a dance performance than its counterpart the Kecak dance, is another dance, that while not as popular, comes in towards the top in terms of iconic Balinese tradition. Second only to Kecak due to Kecak’s origins as a tourist-oriented performance, Legong originated as a performance for royalty in 19th century Bali. Centred on precise and intense facial, finger, and feet expressions and movements, the complexities of this dance are stunning to take in first hand, and carry a surreal dream-like aura about them. Unlike Kecak, this form of dance is only performed by females, but only those who have yet to reach puberty, as such training is begun around the age of five – and while this interpretation of the dance has been largely loosened in Bali, if you do make your way to a more traditional village, expect for this to be the case. Typically stories of heroism and romanticism, these dances are also decidedly less frenetic and loud as the Kecak dance, and offers viewers a more intimate, elegant and graceful look at Balinese dance.
The last of the Balinese trifecta of dance is the Barong dance. The Barong mask, the red, lion-like mask that is so prevalent around the Island of the Gods, is the centrepiece of this performance, and because of that, it offers viewers an interesting look into understanding the importance of this oft-recognised, yet oft-misunderstood, token of Bali. Barong, in the Balinese belief systems, is said to be the king of all spirits and the protector of good, and in the Barong dance, he is pitted against his mortal enemy, Rangda. The dance takes place over three different scenes, and culminates in a battle between Barong, the king of good, and Rangda, the demon queen. Perhaps the easiest to follow of the three dances, the Barong dance offers viewers an intriguing look into mythological history and the importance of various sites that are quite commonplace on the island. A good balance between the intense Kecak dance and the graceful Legong dance, Barong is a wonderful way to get in touch with some of Bali’s oldest traditions.
So next time you are in Bali, be sure to arrange a viewing of one of these storied Balinese performances. An island mired in colour, tradition and art, there is perhaps no better way to bring it all together into one experiential undertaking, than to take a seat and transport yourself into the trance-like world of Balinese dance.
Note: For information regarding the biweekly Kecak dance at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, or any other dance performances around the island of Bali, please contact the concierge at either The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah or The Legian Bali.
(Featured image: The Kecak dance performed at The Amphitheatre at The Chedi Club Tanah Gajah, Ubud. The dancers are made up of villagers from the local area who make their ways to the hotel twice weekly for the spectacular private show.)