The beauty of Balinese dance goes way beyond what meets the eye: it’s a centuries-old tradition that is an integral part of culture, religious belief and social life on this Indonesian island.

Read our guide to enjoying Balinese dance, from its significance to the most popular dances to watch in Bali.

Balinese dance is an ancient dance tradition that is part of the religious and artistic expression among the Balinese people of Bali island, Indonesia. Balinese dance is dynamic, angular and intensely expressive. Balinese dancers express the stories of dance-drama through the bodily gestures including gestures of fingers, hands, head and eyes.

There is a great richness of dance forms and styles in Bali; and particularly notable are those ritualistic dance dramas which involve Rangda, the witch, and the great beast Barong. Most of dances in Bali are connected to Hindu or traditional folk rituals, such as the Sanghyang Dedari sacred dance that invokes benevolent hyang spirits, believed to possess the dancers in a trance state during the performance.

Other Balinese dances are not linked to religious rituals and are created for certain occasions or purposes, such as the Baris or Pendet welcoming dances and Joged dance, that is social dance for entertainment.

In the early 15th century the art culture of Bali changed when artists fled from Java. At this time cultural beliefs of the Balinese and Hindu came together through dance. 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.

Balinese traditional dance culture has a unique history that includes various types of dance. Part of the history includes understanding historical events that inspired many forms of dance practiced in Bali today. Before Bali adopted various forms of dance people identify with the culture today and before the adoption of Hindu religion, people used dance as a way to fend off evil spirits through dance rituals.

Before Hinduism reached Bali, locals from villages had invented dance rituals to fend off the evil spirit. 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.

During the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage convention in 29 November to 4 December 2015 in Windhoek, Namibia, UNESCO recognizes three genres of traditional dance in Bali, Indonesia, as Intangible cultural heritage. The three genres includes Wali (sacred dances), Bebali (semi-sacred dances) and Balih-balihan (dances for entertainment purposes). Balinese dance has been proposed since 2011, and officially recognized in 2015.

Bali’s government, along with several concerned institutions, banned 127 sacred dances from being performed in any form for commercial purposes. The institutions are the Bali branch of the Indonesian Hindu Religious Council, the Bali Customary Village Council, Listibiya, the Bali Cultural Agency and the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) Denpasar. It also stated that there were a number of sacred dances often performed for non-religious purposes, such as Rejang, Sanghyang, Baris Gede and Wayang Lemah. “The phenomenon is worrying and it is a concern for artists, cultural observers, indigenous leaders, religious leaders, stakeholders and all Balinese.”

The statement listed 127 sacred dances, based on research done by ISI Denpasar, Listibiya and the Bali Cultural Agency. It said that the list could expand. Made Bandem said that Listibiya classified three kinds of Balinese dances in 1997, namely Wali and Bebali as sacred dances and Balih Balihan as an entertainment dance. “Dances categorized as Balih Balihan may be performed for entertainment and tourism purposes,” he said.

ISI Denpasar rector I Gede Arya Sugiartha also said that sacred dances performed for commercial purposes made him feel dismayed. “It is important to protect sacred dances from commercialization. They are sources of values that show the disparity of human and god. We want to keep the values alive,” he said.

Bali Governor Wayan Koster, who acted as a witness of the joint decision, warmly welcomed the ban. Wayan said that commercialization of sacred dances could damage the culture inherited from the ancestors. “This protection is needed to strengthen our local culture,” he emphasized. Koster added that since the prohibition is the form of an agreement, not a regulation, no sanctions would be applied. “Living orderly doesn’t mean applying sanctions; [we only need] a mutual understanding, since our concern is to protect Balinese sacred dances.”

Besides all of the controversial about the sacred dance, we think you should learn about the sacred genres of Balinese dance itself. The genres are represented by nine dances, which describes its function and living tradition in Balinese community, they are:

  1. Sacred Dances

Sacred dances, which are also the oldest dances dating back to the 8th-14th centuries, fulfil religious functions such as welcoming and entertaining visiting gods. They also provide a medium for gods to visit, where dancers are believed to be in a trance or possessed by the gods. Sacred dances cannot be shown to tourists in their entirety; instead, tourists can enjoy sacred dances in a modified form. They are only allowed to be performed inside Balinese temples, or pura, during ceremonies.

This sacred dance includes: Rejang dance which is Sacred ceremonial dance by young women in traditional ceremonial dress. Balinese people believe that the person who are dancing through rejang dance must be virgin because they have to have pure soul without any bad intention because this dance is really sacred and just can be perform when we have a very special religion ceremony.

Sanghyang dedari dance which is sacred trance dance to counteract negative supernatural forces. Sanghyang dedari is a dance performed by pre-pubescent girls, similar in some ways to the legong dance. Often the girls are carried on the shoulders of men; trance is associated with this ritual. This dance is only can be dance through the ritual or unless it would be losing the meaning of it. Baris Upacara religious dances conveying heroic spirit danced by even numbers of male dancers. Baris Upacara dance also only performed during “piodalan” time or which meaning a sacred religious ceremony in Bali.

  1. Semi sacred Dances

Semi-sacred dances, although often used for rituals, can be enjoyed by tourists as entertainment. These dances usually have a story-line and characters. Semi-sacred dances originated in the 14th-19th centuries, and are performed in the middle compound of Balinese temples. Many entertainment dances are modified sacred dances and can be performed anywhere, to anyone.

These dances are still rich with symbolism and traditional values. This dance includes: Topeng Sidhakarya/Topeng Pajegan performed by masked dancers to neutralize the evil spirits also this dance often becoming a symbolization that we hoping all of the ceremony went well and we got blessing through it. Gambuh dance drama formerly royal theatrical performance, now accompaniment to ceremonies, by 25-40 dancers. Wayang Wong dance drama Combines dance, epic drama and music.

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. These things make the sacred dance more attractive when you see it in the real life.

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.

With Bali being a culturally-rich island that it is there are no shortages of art. The Balinese excel in all artforms, but no form of art rivals the exquisiteness of Balinese dances. With the tricky hand flourishes and elegant swerving Balinese dances are a sight to behold. Out of the many dances, perhaps the most exclusive are the ritual dances. These dances are hard to get into as they are only reserved for the entertainment of gods and goddesses.

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