Dancing in Bali:
A Personal Experience of Life and Art

by

Andrea Deagon

 

When I returned to the United States after living in New Zealand for three years, I arranged a three week stopover in Bali.  I spent most of my time there in Ubud, Bali's artistic center, where I could see one or two dance performances a day.  Some of the dances I saw were performed in temples, as part of religious celebrations, and foreigners were only allowed to attend for the first part of the ceremony.  Others were performed for paying audiences in special outdoor theaters.  Others, mainly dramatic stories from the Mahabarata, played to mixed audiences: paying tourists sat in chairs in front, while Balinese children crowded in the back.  Tourism had changed the way dance was presented, but it was clearly still an integral part of Balinese life.

Every day I woke at dawn, which was only reasonable, since the "hotel" I was staying in had no electricity, and the equatorial days were just 12 hours long.  About every other day I walked an hour to the tiny village of Mas for a dance lesson with Ida Bagus Anom, a teacher recommended to me by another American who had studied dance in Bali.  In his younger years Anom had toured the world with the prestigious Peliatan dance ensemble.  Now he ran a shop where he and his assistants mass-produced masks for the tourist market. 

My dance lessons took place in Anom's art studio, a long wooden room with rush-mat walls and floors, hung with both traditional and innovative masks.  For an hour's lesson (at the cost to me of $3), Anom drilled me in the fundamentals of Balinese dance.  At our first meeting he had said he preferred not to follow the common practice of teaching an untutored westerner a full traditional dance.  He preferred to start me with the basics of the Balinese style.  I agreed.  I felt that trying to learn a complex choreography would be like trying to learn Swan Lake in your first week of ballet class.  What I wanted to learn was a new way of moving, maybe a new way of understanding dance. 

He started me with the Balinese equivalent of plies: starting from a turned-out position, knees deeply bent, with elbows, shoulders and fingertips lifted, walk forward by lifting first one heel, then the other, toward the crook of the opposite knee -- no head bobbing, no swaying back and forth, no hip movement -- a very difficult move to perform correctly.  (It was especially difficult in 100 heat at 98% humidity, though the heat did keep my muscles from cramping up!)  The  proper technique for hand gestures was far beyond me.  Balinese dancers begin from childhood training to allow them to hold their fingers bent backward from the palm at almost a 90 angle.  You can't learn to do this in three weeks unless you're born with that flexibility.  But I did begin to develop a sense of the physical energy and dramatic concentration that go into Balinese dance.

Over the next two weeks I learned a number of walking steps, accents, and hand and arm movements, that are part of two traditional men's dances: the Baris, a dance that represents the warrior preparing to go into battle, and the Jauk, the dance of a demon walking through the forest.  Both are improvisational dances in which the dancer leads the gamelan, a 15-20 member percussion orchestra.  The Baris can also be performed by a woman portraying the male warrior -- many Balinese dances allow women to play male roles and vice-versa.

The Baris was my favorite of the dances I saw performed in Bali.  In it, a single dancer comes onto the stage, dressed in a warrior's costume. His dance is aggressive but at the same time focused and internal: within his body, he plays out all of the moods of warfare, from the intimidation of his opponent, to his own moments of crisis and introspection.  His movements are proud, dynamic, intense, with martial energy that reminded me of karate exhibitions.  But here the dance was the thing -- the art was in service of portraying the complexities of the warrior mind in ways that words, or actual military exercises, could never quite do.  I was pleased that this was the dance Anom wanted me to work on.

Anom and I were a good match as teacher and student.  I had expected that I would have to learn mostly by observing, but Anom was very articulate, explaining steps carefully and calling out specific corrections as I worked.  His English dance vocabulary was the result of working with Western dancers, but his teaching abilities reflect the rigorous Balinese training of dancers.  Dance teaching is important in Balinese society, where many people are or have been accomplished dancers at the semi-professional or amateur level.  At the professional level, a very high degree of technique and interpretation is expected, and these levels are reached by dancers working without technological support, often without even mirrors.  The art of Balinese dance is as developed as that of Western ballet, so I should not have been surprised to find a teacher who could articulate technical and energy-oriented corrections very precisely.

For his part, Anom was pleased with my ability to imitate the quality of a movement, even given the necessary limits of my technique.  My previous training in ballet, modern, African and of course, Middle Eastern dance had given me an awareness of body energy that helped me understand an approximately recreate the appropriate energy for Balinese dance. 

That energy closely entwined with the Balinese landscape.  Bali's weather is hot, and even in the "dry" season, rainy and humid.  Bali is densely populated.  Its landscape appears to have been tamed by centuries of farming: rice paddies unfold across the countryside, and dirt roads, smoothed by generations of walkers, stretch between the paddies, sometimes trailing away into muddy footpaths.  But this tameness is revealed as an illusion when you encounter one of the deep river gorges that split the countryside, often marked from a distance by a long gash of palm trees.  Distance, in Bali, is hard for the  foreigner to calculate.  Something about the air makes even what is far away spring up in clear detail.  The vegetation is lush, flowers are everywhere, and in the frequent dances and religious festivals, flowers deck both offerings and costumes.

The dance emerges from this world, history-rich and burgeoning with life.  The dancer is strengthened by contact with the ground, even in her most graceful traveling moves.  Dance energy, focused in the center of the body, branches up the sides of the torso and spirals around the arms and legs.  It's an almost floral energy: the angles of the body (fingers curled back; feet pointed only through the ball, with toes curled up; the angles of elbows and knees) and the circular back-and-forth angling of the dance, invoke the richness and power of Bali's flowers and trees.  The whole dance is enlivened by a keen awareness of the spirit world.

In my lessons, I wasn't learning only a set of steps, or a new way to hold my body -- though this is what I was working on, and what Anom was drilling me on.  I was also learning a new way of understanding the act of dancing.  I was seeing a world in which myth, society, worship, work, the landscape, and the capabilities of the human body, all combined into a dance expression that went beyond the personal and into the timeless, the universal, the spiritual.  When a Baris dancer performs, he is not expressing only his responses to war.  He is expressing the eternal warrior spirit as it finds expression through him, at that moment.  I was beginning to feel close to these eternal forces.

Anom knew that my primary interest was Middle Eastern dance; I had shown him a little of what I did in our first lesson.  (This may have been one reason he focused on masculine dances with me -- to counterbalance the feminine movements of Arabic dance.)  In a conversation we had a few lessons into my study, he told me, "You'll never be a Balinese dancer -- but what you find here will let you grow in your own dance."  It wasn't a criticism, just a statement of fact--unless I embraced the whole culture of Bali, and studied for years, I would never really understand its dance.  But what I learned from even a brief period of immersion in the dance and focused study with a master did deepen my artistry in my own dancing.

If I had to point to one way in which Balinese dance enriched my Middle Eastern dancing, I would say it was in the spiritual realm.  Balinese dance gave me a deeper perspective on the connection between dance, pleasure and entertainment, and the sacred.  A Balinese religious festival involves dances that are pure theater as well as trance dances and dances which show deep truths about human nature and the world we live in.  Seeing Balinese dance in all of these aspects has enabled my to resolve these different directions in my own dancing.  To this day I love dance that is theatrical and entertaining, but I will always be most moved by the dancers who show me something more -- whose exploration or joy is expressive of spirituality and the vital forces of life.  And I will always try to bring that expressiveness into my own dancing.

My experience in Bali had a profound impact on my dancing, though not in any materially obvious way.  I have not put Balinese movements into my dance, or used gamelan music, or done any obvious interweaving of Arabic and Balinese traditions, perhaps because I did not become enough at home in Balinese music and movement for this sort of fusion to be a natural expression of my own spirit.  But for years I wore the cheap sarongs I bought to wear to my Balinese dance lessons.  When I got them, the little cotton rectangles seemed pretty flimsy; they were sold mainly as tourist items, though they were also often bought by Balinese people to burn as funeral offerings.  The ones I got faded from their original bright colors, became completely threadbare, and it was not until they actually ripped into tatters that I was able to give them up as dancewear.  They had taken on a symbolic importance to me, representing an insight that still finds new expression in my dancing: that dance reflects the whole of life, from weather to landscape to history and the human heart, and that the dance is a powerful manifestation of the life force we all share.

Originally published in Habibi.

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