Balinese dance is not a dance for an audience. That is not to say that millions of people haven't enjoyed watching the form as it is danced by all genders and all ages. But Balinese dance is deeply rooted in the Hindu religion, and the dance is based out of an offering to the Gods, a prayer of sorts. Dance in the Hindu tradition is a reference to the constant dissolution and creation of the universe, so the symbolism of every move and costume in Balinese dance is rich with meaning.
Learning Balinese Dance
One of the amazing characteristics of Balinese dance is its perfusion throughout the culture. Children as young as four years old are taught the beginning moves, and it is not uncommon to see eighty year old women gracefully moving to the sounds of the gamelan orchestra. Much of the dance and dramatic meaning came from Java, as far back as historical records go, and today the Javanese traditions are more apparent in Balinese dance than in Java itself (which has become mostly Islamic).
The dance moves themselves don't necessarily fit into a canon of moves that is set in stone. There are many different variations based on which teacher trains the dancer and what part of Bali they come from. There is also much room for improvisation within the movements themselves. The formation of the Indonesian Art Institute in Bali helped codify and record these dances without restricting the creativity of the choreographers - in fact, they are still making "new creation dances" in the present, keeping the art form alive and vibrant.
Generally speaking, the movements of Balinese dance tend to have a lower center of gravity than most western dance, with the legs half bent and the torso and arms moving in isolation from each other, showing grace and dexterity. One of the more famous aspects is the "mudra", specific positioning of the fingers in gestures that have meaning within the stories told through the dance.
The Drama of the Dance
Part of the integration of the dance into Balinese culture is the fact that many of them tell the stories and myths of their people. The long and dramatic tales of the Mahabharata and Ramayana are only two examples. These tales are that they provide a pantheon of heroes and role models for the culture, characters with heroic traits and tragic flaws.
Of course, Balinese dance is also used in the temples as greetings and offerings and supplication to the gods. The dancers are an integral part of the religious experience, not an incidental entertainment. One example of a greeting ceremony would have the dancers circling the shrine three times, dancing and carrying holy objects, accompanied by the Gamelan orchestra. Even the people not dancing sing their prayers, making it a truly inclusive experience.
Another example is the pendet dance, performed by women and girls as a kind of "greeting," either to the gods at the temple or just at the beginning of an event. This dance is used often to begin teaching young women the basic movements of more complicated dances to come later.
Imprinting Balinese Culture on the Young
Of course, not all dances are so deep - some are simply used for training or even for fun. Other examples of Balinese dance include:
- Legong - considered a "classical" dance, girls dance this from the age of five until they reach puberty. It dramatizes the grace and refinement of the nobility, incidentally improving fine motor skills of the children learning it.
- Baris - the boys meanwhile learn this martial dance, a celebration of masculinity. Involving strong stamping moves and intense facial expressions, it is performed at both secular and religious events.
- Janger - One of the "new creation dances" (choreographed in 1925) this dance is designed for twenty or so boys and girls who sing about their identity and the joy of gathering together as they dance. Jokes, teasing, and finally a thank you and goodbye are all integrated into the dance.
Obviously Balinese dance is far more complex than the beautiful performances seen by tourists at hotels. The people of Bali have managed to preserve the richness of their past without letting it stultify the creativity of their youth. It is truly an art form to be celebrated.