Almost everything celebratory in Bali starts with a dance. Whether it’s a religious ceremony, a festival, opening of a conference, or even a dinner at nice resorts, a traditional Balinese dance will be performed to welcome the attendees and kick start the occasion – a unique gesture that has captured the hearts of many.
What began as part of sacred rituals performed on the temple grounds and under the banyan trees on a small Indonesian island, Balinese dances have now graced the performing stages around the globe. You may have noticed one being performed as a prelude to a Balinese themed dinner; and if you have, know that the dance was performed not only to let you know that the dinner was about to start, but also to welcome you as a diner.
Away from the popular tourist hubs, the dances are also performed in the village temples or homes during special occasions. And as I sat down with Ni Ketut Arini, a Balinese dance maestro in her Denpasar home studio, I learned that a Balinese dance is so much more than just a welcoming act to greet the visitors to Bali, a unique island with hospitable nature.
Take the Legong dance for instance. As one of the most famous Balinese dances, Legong is regularly performed for the tourists as an evening show in a number of venues in Ubud. Whilst entertaining it is at the same time displaying a unique work of art since Legong was originally created to serve a religious purpose. “Legong is the interpretation of a dream of a Sukawati prince named Dewa Made Karna. He was meditating in a temple when saw a vision of women figures making graceful movements. The figures were like angels,” Arini said.
Arini further explained that the sole purpose of Legong is to welcome the deities and spirit of ancestors as they descend upon the earth on auspicious days, when the Balinese people hold an important ceremony in the temple. “The attending devotees in the temple will know that the ceremony will soon start when the dancers have assumed their places. It means that the deities and spirit of ancestors have arrived, and the dancers are ready to welcome these important ‘guests’. This is also why, when performed in the temples for ceremonies, dances such as Legong can only be performed by little girls and women who are above 60 years of age, for the little girls, being virgins, and the elderly women are considered to have pure hearts and souls. Basically they’re like angels.”
In addition to the religious purpose, traditional Balinese dances typically also serve as entertainment. “It’s also common for Balinese dances to take place in the homes of the Balinese people, especially when they’re inviting neighbours and relatives for a celebration. The Balinese people are naturally hospitable, and welcoming dances are the norm,” Arini added.
Now that Bali has become one of the top holiday destinations in the world, Balinese dances have also become not only entertainment for the vacationers, but also a performing art that serves as an introduction to the island’s rich culture and history.