Dance and drama have traditionally been one and the same. Depending on how you look at it dancers have traditionally played characters and acted and actors have traditionally danced around a lot. The dances usually tell a story, often an episode of a Hindu epic characterized by fighting off evil gods or demons.

Balinese dancers move their necks from side to side as if there necks were made of rubber necks. Their movements tend to be both precise and stylized, with an emphasis on finger and hand movements. Dancers generally dance independently and don’t touch one another. Dances are fixtures of festivals and they are often accompanied by gamelan music.

There are many Balinese dances. Among them are the the “Baris” (“Warrior Dance”), with martial arts style moves; “Janger”, a sitting dance with swaying movements performed by groups of men and women; the “Pendet”, a simple dance often performed before making an offering at a temple; and “topeng”, mask dances. Bebalihan (entertainment dance) refers to the dances performed for audiences and tourists. Many new Bebalihan are created yearly or even monthly. These dances are categorized as Kontemporer or contemporary dance and usually performed in social events.

Book: “International Encyclopedia of Dance”, editor Jeane Cohen, six volumes, 3,959 pages, $1,250, Oxford University Press, New York. It took 24 years to prepare.

See Separate Article on Balinese Theater

History of Dance in Bali

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “After the Dutch take-over of Bali in 1908, the traditional central court of Klungkung in Eastern Bali lost its former importance, and the focus of cultural life partly moved to North Bali near the Dutch colonial centre of Singaraja. New gamelan and dance clubs were established, and their competition led to a cultural renaissance in the 1910s–1930s. The most sensational novelty was a style of gamelan and dance called kebyar, which came about through a competition between two villages in creating musical and dance compositions. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki**]

“As the reputation of Bali spread throughout the world, Balinese dance troupes were invited to the West. In 1931 the first full group of Balinese dancers and musicians performed at the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, and in 1953 a Balinese group toured Europe and the United States. The Balinese artists were enthusiastically received, and their performances had a profound effect on many Western artists, including Antonin Artaud, one of the pioneers of modern Western theatre, who projected into Balinese performances his own concepts of “total theatre” and “Oriental dance”. **

“In view of the Western audiences, I Nyoman Mario created a repertoire for the tour with short numbers, easily comprehended by foreigners, such as Oleg Tambulilingan, a composition portraying the mating of bumblebees. Mario’s choreographies have found an established position in Balinese dance repertoire. Tambulilingan already described animals, and since then various animals have inspired Balinese choreographers to create numerous short, non-ritual dances. Besides the animal themes, the Balinese dance of the mid- and late-20th century has been dominated by a kind of gender play. Cross-dressing and particularly women performing the male roles have become popular. **

“When Indonesia achieved independence after a severe period of political strife, Bali became part of the new republic, and again after four hundred years of isolation Javanese influences increased in Balinese culture. In the field of dance, a new, nationalistic concept of art emerged, which was partly modelled after the socialist countries, and engendered a number of dances portraying the life of various ethnic groups and social classes. These included the Peasants’ Dance and the Weavers’ Dance, which reflected the ideas and alms of the new national government. In Bali the kebyar was chosen as the basic technique of these new, relatively simple dance compositions. The new ideas led to many experiments, which, however, did not achieve any permanent popularity.” **

Kebyar Dances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “With its wildly complex dynamics and its florid, embellished sound, the gamelan gong kebyar is probably the most expressive style of Balinese gamelan music. In 1914 it was used to accompany the first performance of kebyar dance, the kebyar legong, performed by two maidens dressed as men. The new style became popular in only a few years. It was further developed by the legendary dancer I Nyoman Mario, who in 1925 presented the first performance of his own innovation, kebyar trompong. In it the performer both dances and plays the trompong, an ancient percussion instrument placed in front of the gamelan. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Kebyar is an abstract non-narrative dance, where the performer interprets the rapidly changing moods of the gamelan with his or her movements and expressions by combining elements from various older dance styles. A characteristic feature of the style is that it is mostly performed in a crouching position, with the dancer often raising the hem of a narrow skirt resembling older legong costume with one hand. The dancer’s bare arms trace expressive movements in the air while the hands and fingers are extended into delicate, quickly changing gestures. **

“The dancer uses a fan to accentuate the rhythmic and emotional patterns of the gamelan accompaniment. Along with the costume, many movements and gestures also derive from legong. Several dance versions were developed at the height of the kebyar fever. The Panji semirang portrays the Princess Candra Kirana of the Panji Tales disguised as a man, a typical feature of the kebyar intermixing male and female roles. The kebyar bebancihan, or neutral kebyar, is in turn a form of dance that can equally be performed by both men and women. Generally speaking, the kebyar style has had a decisive effect on the aesthetics of twentieth- century Balinese dance and music. **

Ritual and Trance Performances in Bali

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bali is the home of many ritual performances that do not exactly correspond to the traditional Western conceptions of “theatre” or “dance”. They are mostly religious rituals, full of magical meaning to their performers and spectators. They may include dances and elements typical of theatrical performances, but are rarely intended for aesthetic or intellectual pleasure in the present-day Western sense of the term. In these rituals, dance and theatre are always made to serve religious and magical purposes. They are usually performed in the inner temple courtyards in connection with calendar feasts. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The performers are mostly non-professional, although some forms of wali may employ professional dancer-actors. In general, dancing skill is of secondary importance. Ritual performances fall into roughly two groups: ceremonial dances, generally ancient sacred dances of indigenous origin, and trance rituals in which the performers and sometimes the audience as well fall into a trance. **

“The most sacred dances are seen as an act of worship or a sign of devotion. Because of their nature they can be performed only in the most sacred part of the temple. Most of the wali dances are believed to be derived from purely indigenous traditions, although they have later borrowed the vocabulary of Hindu-Javanese classical dance. As the most sacred dances are not meant to be performed publicly, it is quite understandable that they have led to secularised variants for commercial purposes.” **

Dance in Bali Today

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “ While Bali has established its reputation as one of the world’s best- known tourist paradises, its classical dance and theatre have become its true trademarks. Ritual performances take place as before, children learn music and dance, and popular performances gather together both local and foreign audiences. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Tourists and travellers come to Bali in large numbers, and every visitor usually attends one or two performances, while the more serious traveller may easily study Balinese dance in some of the numerous private schools operating on the island. Ubud and its surrounding villages continue to attract tourists and offer an opportunity to see several good quality performances daily. Tourism has, naturally, affected the performance practices, which has led to a number of essential changes. Previously, most performances were related to calendar feasts, but today they are held daily. The tastes, or assumed tastes, of tourists dictate the duration and structure of many performances. Most tourist shows consist of a potpourri of the main Balinese dance styles, often performed in a shortened and even somewhat simplified form. Even the annual Bali Arts Festival is basically an international event, and not the kind of traditional religious festivity that in earlier years provided the main theatrical performances. **

“In spite of reforms and mass tourism, there has also been serious work in Bali to maintain the old forms of theatre. The Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia and KOKAR institutes of dance and theatre, operating along pan-Indonesian lines, strive not only towards a new synthesis but also to study and revive old traditions. In the early 1970s cultural leaders decided that the most sacred wali dances must not be secularized or performed commercially for outsiders. This decision showed a clear concern for the dance and theatre traditions of the island, and their innermost sacral core. The dualism of the present situation may, however, explain the secret of the vitality of Balinese theatre. Throughout history, Balinese theatre and dance tradition has been susceptible to change, but its sacral core has remained unchanged. Bali will most probably remain one of the most interesting loci of Asian dance and theatre if Balinese theatre, while responding to the challenges of mass tourism, still retains, as it seems, its deep significance for the Balinese themselves.

Monkey Dance of Bali (Kecak)

One of the most famous Balinese dances is the Monkey dance, or “Kecak”, which is best seen in front of Pliatan temple. The dance is a visual spectacle. The focus of the dance is a small circular stage that is lit by a fire surrounded by a chorus of bare-chested men imitating the chattering of monkeys. Inside the circle a man and a women act out an episode of the Hindu Ramayana legend in which Rama is helped to by the monkey king and his army to rescue his kidnapped wife Sita from the evil king Rawana. It is now performed mainly for festivals and tourist shows. The moneky dance was reportedly coordinated and choreographed by a European.

Sitting around the stage are 150 shirtless and saronged men that are arranged in four concentric circles around the stage. Acting on cues from the actors like a Greek chorus the men chant "chaka chaka chaka,” wave their arms and rotate their bodies in unison while elaborately costumed solists act out episodes from the “Ramayana”. There are a lot of arguments about where "the wave" performed at stadium events began. Balinese have been doing it as part of the monkey dance for at least a 100 years.

Kecak is performed by a group of male dancers and usually performed in the evening. Kecak dancers sit on the ground surrounding a big torch while singing. They sing as though Balinese instrument sounds and are not accompanied by any music instruments whatsoever. The movements only use the hands and head. Sitting, singing, and dancing with their hands and upper torso, the chorus becomes, among others, the Ramayana’s army of monkeys. In the climax, the chorus, with a heightened feverish pitch, rises as it takes part in the events of the drama.

Describing the kepak, Jenny Heaton wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music, "Suddenly, with several short cries the men rise up, then sink down again, making a hissing sound. A single short shout follows and the men break into rhythmic chant...swaying from side to side, hands waving in the air. A solitary voice rises above the rhythmic chattering of the chorus, singing a quivering, wailing melody. Another short cry and the men sink down again."

History of the Monkey Dance

Kecak was performed for the first time in 1930 as an entertaining pastime dance among Balinese males. At that time, Kecak were only played in small celebrations such as during the harvest month or village anniversary. The development of drama in Bali, especially Sendratari, brought a changed to this dance. Kecak and Janger dances started to enter Sendratari’s scene which mostly performs classical stories such as Ramayana and Mahabratha. It is now usually performed regularly at Tanah Lot (in the Tabanan district) and Batubulan (Gianyar district). Kecak dance is also performed in many national and international events held in Bali.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The kecak (cak) is based on the ancient dance chorus tradition. Men seated at the dead of night in circles around a large oil lamp chant the syllables “cak-kecak-cak” with immense strength and astounding rhythmic precision. The fast abdominal breathing and the bursting vocal of this gamelan svara or “voice orchestra” lead easily to hyperventilation and trance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“It is generally believed that Walter Spies combined this archaic ritual tradition with a scene from the Ramayana, where Rama, Sita, and Ravana appear in the midst of the suggestive chorus to enact the scene where Sita is abducted. At present, kecak is frequently performed in many villages, but the shows are mostly intended for tourists. Since the 1970s several new versions of kecak have been created. One of them is the all-female kecak, which had its premiere at the Bali Arts Festival, in 2004. [Ibid]

Baris, Balinese Warrior Dance

The name of Baris was taken from Balinese word Bebaris which means groups of soldiers. This dance describes Balinese soldiers in the warring arena. The dancers hold weapons, such as: Tumbak (spear), Keris (dagger), etc. for supporting their soldier characters. Baris dance is performed by 8-40 male dancers. According to the different weapons, clothes and accessories, Baris has variations, such as Baris Tumbak, Baris Panah, Baris Tamiyang, Baris Bedil, Baris Jangkang, etc. This dance is often performed in many social events in Bali. Baris Gede is only performed in ceremonies. This dance is performed by a boy (before puberty). Baris Gede belongs to sacred dance and has purposes like Rejang. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “One of the main groups of wali dances is the dignified and ceremonial baris gede, performed by men. It is an ancient war dance, performed by a group arrayed in line, usually with six to sixty dancers. The main emphasis is on co-ordinated group action, sometimes creating the impression of a stylised battle with movements limited to simple steps and leg movements. Baris dances are known to have been performed as early as the 16th century. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The dancers, who can be regarded as the bodyguard of deities visiting the temple, wear pyramidical headdresses decorated with triangular pieces of mother-of-pearl, and in their hands they hold sacred weapons that are heirlooms. The various genres of baris are classified according to the types of weapons used. There is also a modern, completely secular variant of the dance. The secular baris is a virtuoso solo in which the dancer portrays the emotions of a warrior departing for the battlefield. The technique is a combination of the sacred baris and various elements of Balinese classical male dance. Fast, jerking movements, tensed arm gestures, and expressive eye movements are used to convey the warrior’s rapidly changing moods, ranging from courage to fear and from doubt to determination. This form of the baris is usually included in dance performances staged for tourists.” **

Sanghyang (Balinese Trance Dances)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Bali is famous for its many traditions of trance rituals, where one or several dancers fall into a trance by means of incense, music, chants, prayers, and sometimes drugs. The trance is an altered state of consciousness, and sometimes the audience can also come into contact with the spirit world and be possessed by gods, animistic spirits, or even animal spirits. Trance rituals are not limited to Bali alone. Almost everywhere in Asia, trance, in one form or another, is an integral part of indigenous ritual theatre. In view of its small size, there are exceptionally many kinds of trance rituals in Bali. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki**]

“Sanghyang (sang: Lord; hyang: God) is a genre of trance dances generally performed in remote villages, although occasional tourist performances can also be seen. It comprises several forms, and local variants abound in many villages. In most types of sanghyang the men become possessed by animal spirits. In sanghyang jaran the men are transformed into horses, in sanghyang lelipi they are changed into snakes, and in sanghyang celeng they are possessed by the spirits of pigs. The performances have the purpose of ritual purification; for example, men in the pig trance “eat dirt”, at least symbolically, and thus aid in the purification of their community. Trance rituals often become hectic events, where the village priests and their attendants control unpredictable action to avoid injuries. After the performance the priests sprinkle the participants with holy water, thus helping them regain normal consciousness. **

Sanghyang dance is an inherited form from pre-Hindu culture which is still preserved in some places in Bali. This dance is believed to be potent of curing illnesses. The dancer has the ability to communicate with divine natural powers; performed by male and female trance dancers. This dance is accompanied by a song called Gending Shangyang, and in Sukawati this dance is also accompanied by the traditional Balinese instruments. Gending Sanghyang is believed to summon the powers of nature. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

There are three steps in this dance, called Nusdus, Masolah, and Ngelinggihang. Nusdus is the first step in Sanghynag dance. In this step, the dancer’s soul is cleared by using holy smoke so they can communicate with the powers of nature. The second step is called Masolah. This step is when the powers have entered the dancer’s body. The dancer will move naturally in trance. The closing step is called Ngelinggihang. In this step, the natural powers have left the dancer’s body and the priest sprinkles holy water on the dancer. There are six types of Sanghyang dances, they are: Sanghyang Dedari, Sanghyang Deling, Sanghyang Bojog, Sanghyang Sampat, Sanghyang Celeng, and Sanghyang Jaran. [Ibid]

“There are also other Balinese trance rituals, some of which have been combined with less sacred forms of dance-drama. Among the most famous of these is the self-stabbing kris dance related to the Barong-Rangda performances. Trance rituals have also evolved into purely commercial performances. **

Sanhyang Dedari (Balinese Trance Dance)

The most famous Balinese trance dance—“sanghyang dedari”— is performed by prepubescent girls in a lot of make up. Versions of it are performed for tourists. In the most authentic forms of the dance, only young eight year old girls who are believed to be particularly receptive to the gods are allowed to perform. They are reportedly untrained in the dances intricate movements and are taken through motions by spirits who give the dance its name.

The girls represent Star Maidens. In one version of the dance two girls dance in perfect unison with their eyes shut. To go into a trance a girl is more or less hypnotized by a chanting priest who jiggles two puppets on a string in front of her eyes. After her eyes shut she picks up a fan and a stick and starts gliding and twirling to the sound of chants, flutes and drums. About eight girls take part in the dance. When the music quickens they stand on the shoulders of men that come forward out of the audience. They continue their dance without the men supporting them with their hands. During the climax of the dance the girls dance through a bed of smoldering coconut shells from which they emerge unhurt. The priest then makes a loud noise and the girls break out of the trance. [Source: Donna Grosvenor, National Geographic, November 1969]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The most famous and, without doubt, the most beautiful form of sanghyang is the sanghyang dedari (dedari: fairy), performed by pre-adolescent girls. The performers are usually temple servants of some kind, sometimes relatives of the priests, but without actual dance training. The girls are induced into a trance, after which they begin to perform an intricate dance partly based on various ancient animal movements. They are then lifted onto the shoulders of men, who move rapidly, while the girls continue their dance without any support. Finally, the girls dance on glowing coals, and are later brought back to normal consciousness. The young performers are believed to be possessed by celestial nymphs. The almost feverish vocabulary of movement of the sanghyang dedari has influenced other dance forms such as the classical legong. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki**]

Legong, Dance of the Maidens

Legong is a classic dance performed by two girls employing similar dresses and movements. It is somewhat similar to the “sanghyang dedari” trances and said to be derived from them. Legong features dancers in extremely tight silk and gold costumes. Their eyebrows are plucked and repainted and their hair is decorated with frangipani blossoms. The Legong Kraton (“Legend of the Palace”) features two girls and an attendant and tells the story of a king who takes a maiden named Rangkesari captive. Ignoring pleas to let her go the king choses to go to war to keep her. Much of the dance takes place after the king departs. Pairs of legong maidens dance separately after performing mirror images of one another.

Legong dance is a form of classical entertainment and welcoming dance. The name was taken from the word “leg” meaning “beautiful movements” and “gong” meaning “melodious sound” from the traditional Balinese music instruments. The dance is one of the most difficult dances to learn because it has very complex movements and the dancer should have sensitivity to Gong sounds. Legong dancers are accompanied by special gamelan music called Gamelan Semar Pagulingan. Gamelan Semar Pagulingan is smaller than the other traditional instruments and has specific sounds. The development of Legong dance made way to some new dances which have the same basic movements plus different variations of movement, such as: Andir/ Nandir (district of Tabanan) or Sahyang Legong (Ketewel village located in the district of Gianyar). The famous one is Legong Keraton. This dance is often performed to greet special guests who come to Bali. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Legong is probably the best-known form of contemporary Balinese dance theatre. It is worthy of this reputation, as this form of dance-drama, performed by mostly three girls, represents the classical standard of Balinese female dance. Legong was created at the turn of the eighteenth century by combining elements from older traditions such as gambuh and the sanghyang dedari trance dance with its many ancient animal movements. Early in its development a variant of legong was performed by young boys, but it was rechoreographed for girls by royal command. The pre-adolescent girls were chosen from nearby villages, and they served as legong dancers until puberty. Present-day tourist shows, however, mainly employ adult dancers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Legong dancers begin their training in early childhood. The demanding technique is taught by moving and twisting the girls’ arms, necks, and body until “the dance enters their innermost being”, that is, they learn it. Many villages have their own legong traditions, and at present the style is used not only for performing The Adventures of Prince Panji but for other tales as well. **

Legong Dance Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The standard plot of legong is based on a cycle of East Javanese tales relating to the adventures of the legendary Prince Panji. Legong is, however, an implicitly abstracted form of dance theatre, and the various events are vaguely alluded to. It usually concentrates on only a fragment of the whole tale, where the King of Lasem has kidnapped Princess Rangka Sari, who has fallen in love with Prince Panji. The king tries to win the heart of the beautiful princess, but she does not respond to his advances. The princess demands that the king beat Panji in battle. The unhappy king goes off to the battlefield, but on his way he meets a crow, the bird of ill omen. The king arrogantly strikes the bird with his fan and thus seals his fate in the coming battle with Panji. [Source: Dr. Jukka O.Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“One of the dancers plays the princess, another has the role of the king, and a third plays both a servant and the bird. All three dancers wear the same standard costume in which the waist and back are enclosed tightly in a long belt of fabric with a long skirt covering the legs. The material of the costumes is typically gold- embroidered dark green or violet fabric, originally derived from court dress. The dancers also have a wide collar of gilt leather and headgear of the same material, which is decorated with fresh flowers. They usually have fans in their hands, and the dancer in the role of the bird has gilt wings. In the original court performances the dancers wore gold ornaments and headgear with jewels. **

“A legong performance traditionally begins with a complex introductory dance, followed by the drama proper and an abstract epilogue dance. The movements are fast, sometimes creating geometric floor patterns, and the characters communicate with rapid movements and expressions, ending at times in precise unison. The overall mood is almost feverish. The dancers do not speak or sing themselves, and the lines are presented by singers among the orchestra. **

“Legong is accompanied by an exceptionally old type of sweet-sounding gamelan. The dance is based on gambuh, but the special features of costume, the tightly wound waist and the narrow lower part, create a different aesthetic for the dance. The legs are bent forward with the torso also leaning forward. Delicate movements of the head and tensed arms are characteristic of legong. An aesthetic concept of tropical insects and animals may account for the way in which the dancers’ fingers tremble like antennae when they are not handling their fans. The technique also involves the expressive eye movements, typical of Balinese dance but rare elsewhere in South-East Asia.” **

Rejang and Pendant and Other Female Group Dances

The original Pendet dance is performed by 4-5 young girls (before their puberty) in temple yards. Pendet dancers bring flowers in small Bokor (silver bowls for keeping flowers in a ceremony). They spread the flowers around the temple. This dance is a symbol of welcoming God in some ritual ceremonies in Bali. Pendet actually has simple dance movements. These movements are the basic dance movements of Balinese dance. Pendet has undergone later development with variations and now is not only performed in ritual ceremonies but also in some social events. Pendet since has been known as a welcoming dance. Belibis is another welcoming dance. It is performed by 5 or more girls in beautiful costumes. The movements are adopted from swan movements, thus it is also known as the Swan dance.[Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Another sacred dance for welcoming God in ritual ceremonies is Rejang. Like Pendet, Rejang is also strictly performed by females. The number of Rejang dancers is more than Pendet, over 10 dancers. Rejang dancers make long lines which surrounds the temple. The leader brings holy water called Tirtha which is spread around for purifying the temple. Depending on the cloth used by the dancer, Rejang can be divided into: Rejang Oyopadi, Rejang Galuh, and Rejang Dewa. Rejang can only be found performing in some ritual ceremonies in Bali.

Rejang is a sacred wali dance, Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Its choreography is based on simple line formations, and it is performed in daytime usually by a group of forty to sixty non-professional dancers. The rejang is a relatively simple dance, although its slow movements evoke a dignified feeling of beauty. The gabor is another female group dance, a graceful offering-ritual usually performed by professionals, and it is thus natural that its movements do not greatly differ from classical dance. A secular variant of the gabor has become established as a general welcoming dance which is usually performed as an opening number in tourist shows or in receiving honoured guests. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Barong, Rangda, and Calonarang

The “Barong “and “Rangda” dance symbolizes the fight between good and evil. Barong, the good one, is represented by two men in a costume with a carved brilliantly-colored wooden mask. He is half dog and half lion and large and powerful and dances around in playful but clumsy manner. Rangda, the evil one, is a witch with large canine teeth and bulging eyes and wears a necklace of human entrails. She is purposeful and focused and is said to feed on young children. The dance is performed to gamelan music, with the supporters of Barong attacking with their magic kris daggers and the rangda fighting back by using her magic to put the attackers in a trance. Sometimes the fights end in a draw. In most fights the rangda retreats in defeat.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Two mythical beings are ever-present in Bali. They can be seen in travel advertisements and postcards, and their colourful masks are sold everywhere as souvenirs. They are Barong, resembling a lion with its long mane, and the witch Rangda with matted hair and large tusks. Both are invested with a strong aura of magic. Old, authentic Barong and Rangda masks with holy inscriptions, consecrated in temple rituals, are kept in village temples, where they are revered as patron spirits. The mythology of Barong and Rangda is complex and anything but unequivocal. They often have leading roles in village events and drama performances, of which the best known is the Calonarang, based on an East Javanese legend. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Barong looks like a big puppet and is moved by one or two people. It is said the barong was born by mixing Balinese and Chinese culture around the 11th century. The shape is not too different from the Chinese Barong Sai (the lion used in the Chinese lion dance). The Balinese Barong mostly takes animal shapes, such as: Barong Ket (lion), Barong Macan (tiger), Barong or Bangkung (pig). The Barong dance is symbol of the balancing positive and negative powers called Rwa Bhineda and looks like a drama but without dialogue. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Barong, The Protector of the Village

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The term barong can refer to a mythological animal mask in general. In practice, however, it usually means Barong, a mythical animal figure known to all Balinese. Inside its hairy body are two male dancers, whose movements and steps must be completely co-ordinated to perform its fast turns and leaps. The forward dancer supports and moves the head and jaws. The decorative, slightly Chinese-influenced Barong mask is stylistically related to the old wayang wong masks. The Barong mask has bulging eyes, large ears, and a headdress of gilt leather and shining pieces of mirror, and large ears. Similarly, the upright tall and the ornaments of the hairy body, made of the same material, glimmer along with the Barong’s movements. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“The Barong figure is believed to have its roots in the ancient Chinese lion dance, which is still performed at New Year celebrations everywhere in the Chinese world. The lion dance was also previously common on many islands in Indonesia. Later, the Balinese lion figure acquired its own features, and became a creature combining various elements in a way typical only of Bali. Barong is not actually a lion, but a composite of various animals. The Barong types are named according to the dominating animal figure: Barong Asu combines the features of a dog and a lion, while Barong Machan resembles a tiger, the Barong Lembu has the shape of a cow, and the Barong Bankali has the features of a wild boar. **

“Grossly simplified, Barong is usually described as a manifestation of virtue. It is, however, too capricious and unpredictable to be interpreted unequivocally as such. Nevertheless, Barong is revered as the protector of villages, and its outfit and mask are regarded as sacred. During festivities, the Barong figure is carried around the village to the accompaniment of music. Each banjar or village council has at least one Barong mask and outfit of its own. **

“The Barong figures are given human and identifiable traits. The history of many Barongs is known, particularly those regarded as exceptionally magical, and their reputation has spread throughout the island. On some occasions Barong is taken to a neighbouring village to meet his lover, and grand gatherings of many Barongs occasionally take place. In practice, the Barong processions, games, and gatherings are also a way for young men and women from neighbouring villages to become acquainted with one other. **

“Along with the various types of processions, specific forms of drama have evolved around Barong. Possibly the oldest of these is the hereditary Barong Kedingkling, a form of sacred dance-drama developed in the eighteenth century to ward off an epidemic. In this drama Barong appears together with monkey characters borrowed from the Ramayana. The performance lasts all day, beginning in the village temple and dispersing later throughout the village. The monkeys accompanying Barong are permitted various forms of mischief, such as pilfering food and well-meant teasing. Many villages have their own versions of this tradition. Barong is also a central figure in the Calonarang drama, and modern, non-ritual Barong dramas have been developed mainly for tourist shows.” **

Rangda, The Queen of Black Magic

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Rangda is the other main mythological figure of the Balinese. Its symbolic significance is also complex and hard to interpret. It is often regarded as the incarnation of “evil”, but in fact the mask of this ferocious witch is revered in the village temples as a patron and a protector against evil. The mask has a horrifying appearance with its aggressive bulging eyes, long tusks, and red tongue extending down to the waist. Rangda is related to the Durga goddess of India, a ferocious emanation of the spouse of Shiva, the creator and destroyer, a kind of personification of holy wrath. Rangda is basically a manifestation of rage and destruction, and in performances many deities and supernatural beings often suddenly appear in the frightening shape of Rangda when experiencing such extreme moods. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Rangda, however, completely lacks the jocularity and good nature of Barong. She is dangerous and destructive, possessing the power of making her opponents fall into a trance. The actor of the Rangda character may often fall into a trance himself while performing. The magical powers and destructiveness of Rangda place many requirements on the performer, who is often a respected individual in his community. Rangda’s movements deliberately contradict all the ideals of Balinese classical dance. She often stands simply with her legs apart, trembling spasmodically, extending her hands, and shaking her long fingernails in readiness to attack her enemies. Like Barong, Rangda appears at village festivities, but she may also participate in large gatherings of Barongs and Rangdas as well as in many kinds of rituals and dramas.” **

Calonarang, The Battle between Good and Evil

Calonarang is a dance-drama about a battle between a priest and his student against a queen, who has evil powers, and her soldiers. The priest changes himself into a Barong Ket to battle against the queen who changes herself into a Rangda. Some characters in Barong dances use masks. These masks are believed to have spirits and usually get an offering by the dancer before the show starts. You will see dancers in trance in this dance, especially when the students of the Barong attack Rangda by their unsheathed keris. The amazing fact is that the dancers do not bear marks and are unwounded. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The Calonarang is probably one of the best-known forms of drama, in which Barong and Rangda play central roles. It is an ancient East Javanese text in the Kawi language, and was originally influenced by Indian tantric teachings. It tells of a Javanese princess who controlled her spouse, a weak Balinese king, by means of black magic. In Bali the text was first converted into drama form in the 1890s, and it soon established its position as a central form of drama. According to Balinese custom, this new dance-drama employed existing histrionic conventions. The various scenes of the original Calonarang drama are performed in the village temple and in various parts of the village, at road crossings, and in the cemetery. The two latter sites, like the seashore, are regarded by the Balinese as the most unholy and magically dangerous places in their environment. For the Balinese, black magic – the central theme of the Calonarang drama – is living reality, and some communities on the island still practise it. The Calonarang is a form of theatre laden with magical meaning, and was originally meant to ward off an epidemic. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

The plot goes: “Calonarang, the widow of Girah (played by a male priest in trance), a practitioner of black magic possessing two very powerful books, is furious because no one dares to marry her daughter. To avenge this wrong, the widow intends to destroy the kingdom with an epidemic brought about by black magic. She directs her pupils in a magic ritual. Young maidens with flowing hair and white costumes perform a strange dance, a kind of negative version of Balinese classical dance. News of the widow’s intentions has spread throughout the island, and the king decides to send his prime minister to fight the widow. The king instructs his minister, who then goes on with his retinue to meet the witch. The magical rite directed by the widow is approaching its climax when the prime minister arrives at the scene. The widow now appears in the shape of the furious Rangda, refusing to bow to the minister’s demands. A battle is inevitable. Rangda falls into a trance and incites everyone to attack her. **

“The performance often reaches its culmination in the famous self-stabbing dance, where the villagers, incited to a blind rage, attack Rangda, who casts a spell over them with her white magic scarf. Finally, the villagers begin to stab themselves with their wavy-bladed kris daggers, as Rangda has the power to make people turn against themselves. This kris dance or onying was originally an independent form of trance ritual, but at present it is almost always performed at the end of a Calonarang or Barong performance. The village priests control the proceedings, moving the exhausted participants to the most sacred courtyard of the temple where they are revived with incense and holy water and brought back to consciousness. **

“Calonarang includes long comic scenes, where clowns, speaking in the vernacular, comment on the proceedings, entertaining the audience with their obscene humour. The Akademi Seni Tari Indonesia has created a shortened version of the Calonarang, from which the ritual elements have been excluded. The energetic and flamboyant characters of Barong and Rangda have particularly appealed to Western audiences. In the 1940s hotels began to stage shortened Barong and Rangda spectacles, which were the predecessors of the present tourist shows.” **

Mekare-Karean and Other Male War Dances

Makare-karean is also known as Pandan War. It is a combination between dance and ritual. It is performed in Tenganan village only (a traditional village in district of Karangasem) during the village temple anniversary. This old tradition has the purpose for invoking bravery among male youth of Tenganan and respecting the temple God. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Mekare-karean is performed by male dancers using thorny pandanu leaves and rattan shields as their main gear. Before performing, the dancers undergo some ritual to ensure they will be all right during the show. The show is started by the groups of young men surrounding the dance arena where an older man as an umpire is ready. Then, two young men, who bring the thorny leafs and rattan shields, take stance in the arena. Next, they attack one another. There is no winner or loser in this battle. The umpire will stop the action when the one’s body has bled. This process is continued until all dancers have got the chance. Even though they bleed, they never feel hurt. They will be healed by traditional medicine made from turmeric. The medicine is usually prepared by the females. If you want to see this dance, you must go to Tenganan village around the months of June-July.

Gebug Ende is from the district of Karangasem. This dance is performed by 2-16 male dancers. Every dancer wields a shield, made from rattan, called Ende and a rattan stick. They dance while hitting the Ende (shields) of the other dancer by rattan sticks. Gebug Ende means ‘hitting the Ende’. The dance is quite unique as it has certain rules that have to be followed by the participants. Led by a referee, this dance starts with two dancers, while the rest sit in a circle, cracking jokes and singing, while waiting their turns. The jury decides which of the two contestants loses the game and has to leave the stage. Then they will call the next men to the stage. This continues until all have had a turn. Sometimes the fight becomes very fierce and the dancers get thrown off the stage from the blows of the rattan sticks. Bruises and wounds are common. A long time ago, Gebug Ende was performed to call for rain. Now this dance has become a very unique entertainment not only for locals, but also foreigners.

Balinese Couple and Bamboo Gamelan Dances

Ghopala has the purpose of thanking God for a good harvest. It is usually performed by 5 or more couples in the harvesting month. The male dancers will take place first and after some minutes followed by female dancers. Ghopala dance movements are very unique, relaxed, and funny. At this time Ghopala has become one of the favorite entertainment dances in Bali and is often performed in social events. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Janger dance is an entertainment dance performed by the Balinese youth. It tightens relationship among them. Janger is performed by couples in social events, such as: wedding parties, celebrations of harvest, etc. Dancers not only dance but also sing. It is accompanied by melodious music instruments called Batel / Tetamburan which makes for a very merry scene. Every place in Bali has their own style of the dance which makes it different among them.

The name is taken from the bamboo instrument which accompanies the dance called Jegog. Jegog comes from district of Jembrana. Jegog is performed by a female dancer and accompanied by the sounds of a Jegog (a bamboo instrument). The beautiful movement and melodious instruments make this dance performed not only in social events around Jembrana, but also in other places in Bali, such as Denpasar, Klungkung, and Gianyar.

Joged is among the favorites, where one or more female dancers are accompanied by bamboo instruments. Unlike Jegog which is performed by female dancers from the beginning until the end of the performance, joged dancers usually invite male audiences as their partner even they are not dancers. Do not be worried when you are chosen by the dancer because you have not to be an expert to accompany their moves.

Mresi is another dance which comes from the Tenganan village. This dance is performed by male dancers who have not married yet. Mresi dance is believed to help the dancer find his soul mate. The dancer brings Keris (dagger) as symbol of courage and power. Mresi is accompanied by special instruments called Gamelan Selonding. The combination of dance movements, Keris, and sounds of Gamelan Selonding make this dance look masculine.

Relatively New Balinese Dances

Oleg Tambulilingan is an entertainment dance created by Balinese artist Mario in 1952. This dance is one of the couple dances which have very beautiful movements. Oleg Tambulilingan was inspired by a couple of bumblebees flirting in a flower garden. Tambulilingan means bumblebee in English. The show is started with a female dancer in beautiful costume entering the stage. After several minutes, the male dancer enters. This dance has a long duration and is accompanied by melodious sounds of the Gamelan. Oleg Tambulilingan is often performed in formal events in Bali. [Source: Bali Tourism Board]

Puspanjali was created in 1989 by two Balinese dancers; Swasthi Wijaya and I Nyoman Windha. Puspanjali is one of the welcoming dances which has dynamic and beautiful movements. The name Puspanjali was taken from the word Puspa meaning flower and Anjali meaning respecting or greeting. Thus, Puspanjali means ‘greeting with flowers’. This dance is performed by 5-7 female dancers. The dancers bring flowers in Bokor or flower garlands which will be given to the guests in the end of the dance sequence. If you are invited in some events in Bali you may be able to see this dance.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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