Dance as a way of life

Dance as a way of life

The dynamic and ancient dance tradition of Bali, which is an integral part of the religious and artistic tenor of the Balinese people, enthrals Kavita Kanan Chandra

Legong dance at Puri Saren Royal Palace. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The open-air stage is set with the backdrop of the ornate gold and orange Angkul-Angkul (main entrance gate) of the Puri Saren (royal palace) at Ubud in Bali. The guardian statues in stone, guarding the gate, wear chequered sarongs and udeng (head band) wherein tucked beneath is flower. More flowers are on display; some behind the ears of the musicians who are all set to play the gamelan, an ensemble of percussion instruments and a bunch of fragrant flowers woven into the bun of the Legong dancers.

As dusk descends on the courtyard of the vibrant and exquisitely aesthetic palace, the warm glow of diyas and soft lights enhance its beauty. The hanging mangoes from a tree and the lovely frangipani flowers add to the ambience. The tourists throng the venue and latecomers scramble for a seat on the carpet as no chairs are vacant.

The sonorous sound of traditional gamelan instruments resonates in the air. Uniformly dressed in red, the musicians’ golden and red bonang complement them. The percussion instrument, bonang appears to be a collection of small gongs that look like ‘pots with lids’ placed horizontally in a wooden frame. The opposite side seats another group that have sarons, looking like a xylophone that is struck by mallets. It has up to seven bronze bars placed on top of a wooden frame. There are also kendangs that look like Indian dholaks, so common in temples and folk music.

Kecak dance at Uluwatu temple at Badung.
Kecak dance at Uluwatu temple at Badung.


Most Balinese dances are accompanied with gamelan that are an ensemble of musical instruments typically from Java and Bali, usually made of bronze and brass that gives a loud resonant sound. As in Indian culture, the Balinese use dance and music in their temples, in rituals and religious ceremonies. As celebrations are a way of life with Balinese, the tourists get to see spectacular dance-dramas all around the year in various temples, theatres and palaces. Greatly influenced by the tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous animist belief system; Balinese Hinduism is endowed with spiritualism. Most ritualistic dances are influenced by the epics Ramayana and Mahabharta and the worship of the trinity of Hindu Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. As the dancers express themselves in struggles between the good and the evil, it feels like déjà vu for any Indian sitting as a spectator.  

Graceful female dancers enact the roles of Ram, Lakshman and Sita from the Ramayana in Legong dance. Their beauty and poise, gorgeous colourful dresses, head adorned with fresh flowers and precise hand movements, are reminiscent of South Indian classical dances. Legong is derived from ‘Leg’ meaning graceful dance movement, and ‘gong’ meaning gamelan. It is the most refined and elegant dance performed by lead female dancers who look like nymphs dancing in heaven just as King I Dewa Agung Made Karna of Sukawati in the 18th century had dreamt, and the dance was created accordingly.

Rhythmic movements of Legong dance synchronise with gamelan beats. Another Ramayana-based Kecak or fire dance, however, finds rhythm in the accompaniment of chanting of around 50 bare-chested men with red hibiscus flowers behind their ears. Clad in white and black sarongs that represent good and bad, they let their hands flay about, clap and repeatedly shout ‘chak-chak’ in a sing-song tone. The cliff-side amphitheatre in the laid-back Ulu Watu temple comes alive every evening in the backdrop of the setting sun as the visually entertaining Kecak or Fire dance enthrals and excites the audience. The Hanoman, who is highly revered in Bali as in India, however, is more entertaining and interacts with the audience at intervals as the dance is in progress. The dramatic setting of the seashore temple becomes more fascinating as Hanoman walks nonchalantly over the hot coals spread on the floor.  

ecak or fire dance Hanoman in Uluwatu temple near Kuta.
Kecak or fire dance Hanoman in Uluwatu temple near Kuta.


The recurring leitmotif of every Balinese dance is the struggle between good and evil and this is most conspicuous and complex as in Barong dance. One can catch an afternoon Barong dance performance at Monkey forest in Padangtegal village near Ubud. The benevolent mystical beast Barong takes on the hideous evil Rangda. As in life, the symbolic dance does not have a clear winner, but a constant struggle is seen between the good and evil. The dances in Bali have originated due to religion and still have a lot of religious significance. As Balinese retain animism beliefs, dances that involve trance that goes beyond the realm of seen to supernatural, to the land of God or even death is supposed to bring luck and magic to villages and temple. Young girls dance in Sangyang dance as messengers to the unseen world. In Odalan dance the statue of Goddess Uma, often riding a white cow, a symbol of fertility, is paid tributes. The Topeng dance is more like an opera where masked dancers must become the character they represent, and this is performed during festivals in temples. The Pendet dance is a dance making offerings in the temple.  

There are several other entertaining dances like Lesung dance, that is performed in villages by housewives. This would remind Indians of many harvest folk dances. The Balinese women dance after a good harvest by hitting long wooden pestles against big mortars swaying rhythmically to show their gratitude to God. Another post-harvest dance is Joged that is a fun-filled and secular dance accompanied by bamboo instruments. It’s a seductive dance which is popular in the countryside. Jegog dance, from west Bali where bamboo grows in abundance, is fast-paced yet precise and artistic, in sync with the beats of bamboo instruments.

Apart from these, no kingdom would be bereft of wars, and thus a war-themed dance like Baris. Accompanied with gamelan, this dance glorifies the triumph of a Balinese warrior, full of martial expressions, thus instilling a sense of pride in the Balinese history. Not only in art, but Bali’s unique culture, peace and harmony and their constant struggle to maintain this balance reflect in all their dance, dramas, ceremonies and way of life.