The music of the gamelan rings through the air across the island of Bali. Its tempo is dynamic, though oddly soothing. This traditional percussion orchestra music is central to Balinese dance. Watching a performance, you’re quickly entranced by unique, jolting steps, dramatic eye movements that convey emotions and intricate finger positioning. A Balinese dancer must learn to move and isolate every part of the body while expressing the human soul – or an otherworldly spirit.
Inspired by nature and symbolizing Hindu traditions, the foundation of Balinese dance is in ceremony, rather than pure entertainment. That means you won’t see any booty shaking here, but you will be transported to a mystical world of drama, intrigue and rich meaning.
The Intriguing World of Balinese Dance
There’s a serious and sacred side to the Barong dance, as it’s performed to dispel evil forces. In a classic story of good triumphing over evil, the theatrical dance features Barong, as the lion-like good guy. The villain is Rangda, a widowed witch with the power to make soldiers turn their swords upon themselves.
Luckily for the soldiers, Barong casts a spell to save the day. To the Balinese, Barong represents health and good fortune at times of celebration. The witch, Rangda, is a mythological symbol of evil, as well as ordinary, everyday bad behaviour.
The musical drama of Kecak is held at dusk, continuing into the night and often dazzling guests with fire elements. There is no backdrop, other than what nature provides, which is usually a clifftop overlooking the ocean. There are no musical instruments either, as this is a voice orchestra.
Traditionally, the action focused on 50 or more bare-chested men representing an army of apes, wearing checkered sarongs and rhythmically chanting. Now, the Hindu story of Ramayana is portrayed, complete with a narrator and dancers. The most popular spot to watch a Kecak Fire Dance is at Uluwatu Temple, as the orange sun sinks into the sea.
Trance rituals are intrinsic to Balinese culture and different styles of the sacred Sanghyang dance highlight this. It’s usually performed by pre-adolescent girls without formal dance training. They’re induced into a trance and it’s said that spirits of heavenly nymphs enter their bodies, enabling them to rise and perform intricate, acrobatic movements.
The dance is believed to help purify villages, ward off illness and banish evil spirits. Though it’s usually performed in rural villages, variations are sometimes offered as part of tourist shows. However, sacred dances can’t be shown to tourists in their entirety.
The trance-like Sanghyang dance may have inspired today’s popular Legong, which was once only performed before the royal family. Female dancers swathed in sparkling gold brocade and elaborate headdresses display skilled, complex movements and dramatic facial expressions. Legong dance portrays a variety of stories founded in romantic tales of lost maidens and heroic princes. A great spot to see it is in the courtyard of Ubud’s Royal Palace.
Still thinking about booty shaking? You’ll have plenty of opportunities in Bali’s incredible beach clubs, bars and nightclubs. However, it’s well worth delving into traditional Balinese dance, to transport that booty to an otherworldly realm you’re not likely to forget.