Ubud’s Story of Dance

Barong DanceDance is a major part of the cultural attraction of Ubud. The most famous are the Barong, Kecak, Fire, and Legong.  Performances for each of them are held regularly throughout Ubud and no visit would be complete without an introduction to stories behind these traditional dances.

The Barong dance is a reenactment of good versus evil and depending on where it is performed the degree of violence is adjusted. Basically it is the story of Rangda, the mother of the King of Bali in the tenth century. She was condemned by her husband because of her practice of black magic.

She longed for her son and went about summoning all the evil spirits to bring him to her.

Barong is required to protect the son and so begins the battle of good versus evil.

Rangda casts a spell that makes Barong’s soldiers want to kill themselves by pointing their poisoned keris (knives) into their own stomachs and chests. Barong, in turn, casts a spell that makes their bodies resistant to the dagger.

The battle rages on in perpetuity however the dance ends with good restoring balance; this, as we all know, is temporary.

I have seen this dance performed where people get injured however this is usually in a local setting and not during tourist performances. It is said that if Rangda’s spell is too strong, a weak soldier would not be able to resist it, even with the help of Barong.

He would likely end up hurting himself with his own keris. This I have seen.

The masks of Barong and Rangda are considered sacred items, and before they are brought out, a priest must be present to offer blessings by sprinkling them with holy water taken from Mount Agung.  Offerings must be presented.

Years ago my first experience to the Fire Dance was at a small village called Boma about half an hour outside of Ubud. It didn’t seem like anyone really knew what to expect however if they were expecting a performance that would leave an impression, they got it.

In the center of the floor a mound of dry coconut husks were set alight.  An immense amount of heat was generated and over the next few minutes the husks would be reduced to glowing embers.

It is at this point that the dancer appears.

It is immediately apparent by his demeanor that he is in an altered state. His eyes are distant and appear hollow, his movements are fluid and hypnotic, and his head (adorned with a traditional mask) jerks back and forth in contradiction to his body.

He is fully consumed by a trance and remains that way throughout the evening.

It is only when the shaman enters, holy water is administered, and the dancer is subdued do you, as an audience member, appreciate the full impact of what you have witnessed.

Walking through fire is not unique to the Balinese culture; neither is dancing in it.  When you see it close up though, feel the heat, see the smoldering feet, watch the flying embers, do you refrain from thinking that this is just another trick involving fast footwork that anyone could do.

It’s not!

The Kecak is usually performed in tandem with the Fire dance but it’s only commonality is that it too involves no female dances.

Traditionally the Kecak is made up of 100 men sitting in a ring formation chanting.  The Kecak Dance tells the Indian story of Ramayana.  Rama, a warrior and rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is exiled with his wife Sita to a faraway desert.  There, an evil king spies Sita, falls in love with her, and sends a golden deer to lure Rama away.  Sita is captured, and Rama rounds up his armies to defeat those of the evil king and rescue her.

The Kecak is a really interesting experience and to get a glimpse I have embedded a You Tube link so that you can appreciate it.

The Legong dance is a story from the history of East Java in the 12th and 13th centuries.  A king finds the maiden Rangkesari lost in the forest. He takes her home and locks her in a house of stone. Rangkesari’s brother, the Prince, learns of her captivity and threatens war unless she is set free.

Rangkesari begs her captor to avoid war by giving her freedom, but the king prefers to fight. On his way to battle, he is met by a bird that predicts his death. In the battle that is exactly what happens. The dance dramatizes the farewell of the King as he departs for the battlefield and his ominous encounter with the bird.

The dancers dazzle.

Bound from head to foot in gold brocade, it is a wonder the Legongs can move with such grace and poise. The dancers flow from one identity into the next without disrupting the harmony of the dance.

They may enter as the double image of one character, their movements marked by tight synchronization. Then they may split, each enacting a separate role, and come together again. In a love scene in which they rub noses, for example, the King takes leave of Rangkesari. She repels his advances by beating him with her fan, and he departs in anger, soon to perish on the battlefield.

During a visit to Bali, and in particular Ubud, these dances can be watched at several venues on differing nights. These performances make for a perfect night out on the town in Ubud.

For photos of Indonesia click here.

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13 thoughts on “Ubud’s Story of Dance

  1. I enjoyed seeing the Kecak, Legong and Barong dances when I was in Bali. I think Legong with all its its angular, rhythmic movements of hands, feet and head, shrugging shoulders, twisting hands, fingers and toes is mesmerising to watch. The facial expressions and stunning eyes in particular draw me in.

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  2. Such an insightful post. I did not know about the Kecak dance. It’s based on Ramayana, It’s an epic story from our religious books and have learned about it from our childhood. I never knew there were dance forms to present it.
    The Legong dance’s story is also very captivating. I was lost in the story and wanted to know the story in detail really.

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  3. I always like learning about the stories and reasons behind different religion and culture’s rituals as well as dances… As the world gets more and more modernized, many customs are slowly disappearing… so it’s nice to see such performances maintained!

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  4. A really interesting introduction to the Ubad story of dance, I have never seen anything quite like it and never considered travelling to Bali, clearly I will have to reconsider my travel plans. Thanks for the insight very a informative piece.

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  5. wow, the video of the Kecak is fascinating and not what I expected at all. The chanting and the movements are beautiful. Do you know if people are usually able to view the Kecak in action or is it strictly meant for those who are involved in it?

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    1. That’s a great video. Clearly not one I shot. As for watching the Kecak it can be viewed throughout Bali and is specific to Bali. The best ones I have seen have been in the smaller towns around Ubud. There is one village called Bona which used to perform it in conjunction with a Fire Dance performance.

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