Dances of Bali: Get Awestruck by the Culture of Balinese Dance

The tradition of dances in Bali goes far beyond you can imagine. It incorporates ancient Hindu traditions with drama, portrayed in the form of dance and music. The culturally rich Indonesian island of Bali has many different dance forms, some elegant and solemn, others being extremely bold. Most of these forms involve graceful hand, legs and finger movements, eyes wide open or some even martial art techniques. Dances like Wali, Bebali and the Barong Dance are intrinsic to Balinese culture and constitute an important part of life for most Balinese people. Read on to learn more about these fascinating dance forms!
Dances in Bali are Graceful, Colourful and Expressive
Balinese Dances are Diverse, Expressive, Colourful and an Integral part of its Culture (Source)

All in all, they're meant you give you a holistic understanding of the culture of Bali. Read on to know more about the world of dance in Bali.


Traditional Dances in Bali

Balinese dances are separated into three broad categories namely: Sacred dance (Wali), Semi-sacred dance (Bebali) and Entertainment dance (Balih-Balihan).

1. Wali - Sacred Dances of Bali

Balinese Dancers Performing Sanghyang, a Sacred Dance of Bali
Sacred Dances of Bali, such as the Sanghyang, are Performed at Religious Ceremonies in Bali (Source)

The sacred dances of Bali can be dated back to the 8th-14th centuries, when dances were performed at religious functions in temple ceremonies. These dances are performed by well trained dancers, only allowed in the inner sanctum of the temple and not to be shown to tourists. These act as a religious symbol, presented to the Gods as an intangible offering, where the dancers are said to be in trance or possessed by the Gods.

2. Bebali - Semi-Sacred Dances of Bali

Balinese Dancer Performing Gambuh, a Semi-Sacred Dance in Bali
Gambuh is a Semi-Sacred Dance of Bali, Historically Performed at the Royal Court (Source)

Mostly performed during rituals, the origin of these Balinese dances can be dated back to 14th-19th centuries. These often have a story and characters playing out a drama in the form of a dance. Although open for tourists to watch as part of the entertainment, semi-sacred dances still retain their traditional values. These can again, be found in the temple compounds.

3. Balih-Balihan - Entertainment Dances of Bali

Balinese Dancers Performing a Traditional Dance of Bali
The Entertainment Dances of Bali, or Balih-Balihan, are the Dances Performed for Tourists (Source)

The entertainment dances of Bali are specifically performed for tourist entertainment purposes. They usually revolve around a storyline which could be a contemporary romance or a mythological tale, the latter being the more popular one among tourists since it portrays traditional Hindu culture. You can find these across multiple venues in Bali, not being restricted to temples.


Balinese Dances Recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage

There are many popular dance forms in Bali, however, some among the others are recognised as forms of 'intangible cultural heritage' of Bali by UNESCO.

4. Barong Dance - Balinese Dance Involving the Giant Lion

Barong Dance of Bali
Barong Dance (Source)

According to Balinese mythology, Barong is the known as 'King of Spirits' or the 'Lord of the Forest' or the 'Magical Protector' of villages of Bali. The Barong Dance in Bali depicts the never ending fight between good, portrayed by Barong dressed in a huge Lion costume, and evil, portrayed by the demonic witch Rangda.

5. Legong Dance - Balinese Dance Drama with Expressive Movements and Face

Balinese Dancers Performing Legong Dance
Legong Dance (Source)

The Balinese Dance Legong is derived from the story of when a king finds a lost maiden Rangkesari and holds her captive. It involves sophisticated movements of fingers and feet, and intimate facial expressions performed by very well trained dancers.

6. Kecak Dance - The Balinese Fire Dance

Kecak Dance of Bali, the Popular Fire Dance Performed for Tourists
Kecak Dance, the Fire Dance of Bali (Source)

Popularly known as the Fire Dance among tourists, the Balinese Dance Kecak is a trance ritual adapted from Ramayana. Performed primarily by men who dance and also sing acapella, this dance originated as a form of entertainment in the 1930s. The performers are usually shirtless, with only one piece of cloth on their waist.

7. Joged Dance - Balinese Dance to Celebrate Harvest and Important Occasions

Balinese Dancer Performing
The Joged Dance in Bali is Performed on Joyous Occasions, Especially during the Harvest (Source)

This Balinese dance form is usually performed in social events, especially during harvest. The performers always invite the audience to join them during the dance. The dance is accompanied with a soulful music made with bamboo.

8. Topeng Dance - The Mask Dance of Bali

Topeng Dance, the Balinese Mask Dance
The Topeng Dance in Bali is Popularly Called the Mask Dance (Source)

Popularly known as the 'Mask Dance', the Topeng Dance in Bali involves performers wearing paper or wooden masks. It is usually performed during large temple ceremonies and are dramas that tell stories of human experiences early kingdoms.


Balinese Dance Dramas

Barong, a Dance Drama in Balo
Dance Dramas in Bali are a form of Entertainment, and are very Common (Source)

Because of the narrative nature of dance in Bali, it is closely linked to the region's theatre traditions. They are dubbed 'dance-dramas'. There's often an overlap between classifications of certain traditions as merely dance or theatre, such as barong, gambuh and topeng discussed before. In fact, the same word 'sesolahan' is used for both art forms. There is no word for a dancer or actor in the local language; they are dubbed 'tukang' or 'people who beautify'. When they perform, they are said to possess a special energy called 'taksu'.

9. Wayang Wong - Balinese Dance Drama Narrating Ramayana

Wayang Wong, a Balinese Dance Drama Performed at Ubud
Wayang Wong is a Balinese Dance Drama that Performs Scenes from the Ramayana (Source)

The Wayang Wong was a dance drama that originated in Java, but quickly spread all across Indonesia, now an integral part of the cultures of various islanders. In Bali, this dance-drama draws inspiration from various themes and tales from the famous Hindu epics Mahabharata or Ramayana. It is usually performed in Bali along with the Kecak Dancers, adding to the vibrance and energy of the performance. 

10. Arja - Balinese Dance Opera

Performance of Arja in Bali
Arja is a form of Dance-Opera in Bali (Source)

This is a dance-opera form of theatre originating in Bali. It draws upon classic texts and popular stories, incorporating dance, dialogues and vocals. This was once an inaccessible art form as it solely used Balinese dialogues and because of this, only locals could understand. In recent years, the art form has evolved to meet modern tastes, such as introducing contemporary stories from regions such as China and the Middle East; shortening the length of the exceedingly long performance; and using non-Balinese dialogues. Arja performances typically include romantic intrigue and comedy. The men wear split robes while the women wear wrap-around skirts, while their headdresses depict their character's social standing ? characters wearing crown-like headdresses were royal characters or high-status individuals while others would wear simple headdresses, some even made from cloth.

Balinese Dance Costumes and Masks

Dance in Bali involves Colourful and Vibrant Costumes
The Costumes used in Balinese Dances are an Integral Part of the Performance (Source)

Dance in Bali is not only about the body movements, but is enhanced a great deal due to the bright, colorful and elegant costumes of the performers. Depicting kings, queens, warriors, gods, animals and other heavenly creatures, combined with some gorgeously done make up, these costumes can make or break the performance. Depending on the dance, there are various types of costumes. The women and men both usually wear a gold sabuk, which is a sash for the upper body, and a kain, which is a cloth for the lower body. Many women also prefer to wear a jacket inside the sabuk to cover their arms as sign of respect. Besides this, there are many other ornaments like a crown, belt, wrist and arm belt, and other accessories.

Balinese Dance Masks Used in the Topeng Dance
The Masks used in Dances in Bali are Sacred and Cultural Representations that Complete the Performance (Source)

Balinese masks might seem to you as just an extra piece of costume, but it has a much deeper sacred meaning in their culture. During traditional dance performances in temples, the dancers are a representation of the deities or messenger of the Gods. Therefore, before generally putting on a mask, the dancers have to go through a sacred ritual first. During entertainment dances, the masks represent certain characters that the dancers are playing, and is important for giving a true sense of the culture to the audience. Topeng Dance, popularly known as the 'Mask Dance' especially includes the use of a wide variety of masks. One or more dancers can be seen wearing masks, often depicting ancient mythical kings or heroes.

History of Dance in Bali

Dancers in Bali from the 1950s
Dance Came into Balinese Culture since the 8th Century (Source)

Before Hinduism reached Bali, locals from villages had invented dance rituals to fend off the evil spirit. In 15th century, when artists from Java fled and arrived at Bali, they changed the entire art and culture scene. From 15th to 19th century during the Balinese Kingdom era, many Balinese dances were invented, especially ones that were tied to Hindu beliefs. Part of these dances also includes an understanding of the Balinese history, Hindu mythology epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, so as to convey a story through a dance. Since early 1900s, these dances became a huge and important source of entertainment for the tourists who visited Bali. Hence, many temples and other venues started hosting dance shows or festivals. Today, you can visit Bali any time of the year and be sure to catch at least one dance performance.

Balinese Dance Performances and Classes

Balinese Dance at Ubud Palace
The Ubud Palace is one of the Most Popular Destinations for Tourists to Watch Balinese Dance Performances (Source)

Everyday of the year there are multiple Balinese dance performances taking place at multiple venues across the island, most being in the cultural centre of Bali, Ubud. Ubud Palace, Ubud Water Palace, Padangtegal, Bale Banjar Ubud, Pura Dalem Ubud, Arma Museum, Monkey Forest and Ubud Main Road are the most popular venues in Ubud, where Balinese dance forms like Legong, Topeng, Kecak and Barong are commonly performed. Other popular venues are Uluwatu temple, Batubulan village and Bentuyung village where Barong, Jegog and the Kecak dance can be commonly enjoyed. Most of these dances are usually performed in the evenings, at around 7:00 PM, except for Batubulan village, where performances take place at 9:30 AM in the mornings.

Balinese Dancer
You can opt to Learn Balinese Dance at the Bali Culture Centre in Ubud,
Among other Institutions (Source)

Not only can you enjoy watching these performances as tourist audience, but there are also options for dance classes while you're in Bali. You can head to Bali Culture Centre in Ubud or other such centres anywhere across Bali, and sign up for traditional Balinese dance classes with trained dancers.

The culture of dance in Bali never fails to impress one. Their body movements, costumes, facial expressions, make-up, masks, ornaments, props, and most importantly, the stories and characters they portray via their dance, watching all of this live can transport you to a mythological time.

This post was published by Meha Dedhia

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