Balinese Dances

Balinese Dances


Very few Balinese dances do not have religious significance. The subject matter is usually the opposition between the noble and the ignoble, the refined and the coarse or as they say in Indonesian the halus and the kasar. The opposition of these forces then leads to conflict or war. Dances are frequently based on the epics.

For the Balinese you are never too young to learn to dance. From the age of four, young girls are learning the legong dance. There are about two dozen dance schools in Denpasar.

Ramayana and Mahabarata

These two very famous epic poems are loved and well known all over Asia and inspire dances, puppet performances, paintings, sculpture, carvings and literature. The epics were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated into Kawi. They flourished in the courts of East Java between the 11th and 15th centuries. The kings liked them because they enshrined and explained the authority of god-kings.

Both are extremely long.

The Mahabarata

Composed around the 10th century, the Mahabarata, which is 18 books, is one of the longest poems ever written, with about 90,000 couplets. It is about seven times the length of Homer’s Iliad or three times the length of the Old and New Testaments combined. It is about the battles between two related families, the Pandawas and the Korawas, for the control of the kingdom of Nastina. It culminates in a great war, the Bratayuda, in which the five Pandawa brothers confront their first cousins, the 100 Korawa brothers. After 18 days’ fighting and thousands of deaths, the Pandawas succeed. The stories form a large part of the repertoire of shadow puppet performances: wayang kulit.

The Ramayana

A Hindu sage, Valmiki, wrote the Ramayana in the 3rd or 4th century BC. It has about 24,000 couplets.

Rama, an incarnation of Wisnu, is robbed by his father’s second wife of his rightful position as heir to the throne of the kingdom of Kosala in India and is banished to the forest of Dandaka for 14 years. His beautiful and faithful wife, Sita, and his younger brother, Laksmana, accompany him. While in the forest, Sarpakenaka, sister to the demon king, Rawana, discovers them and is determined to seduce Rama and Laksmana. Although she wears a disguise, Laksmana senses her and cuts off her nose and ears. She, outraged, flees to her brother’s palace in Alengka to complain.

Rawana seeks Rama, Sita and Laksmana in the forest and falls in love with Sita and decides to capture her. He orders his minister, Marica, to change himself into a golden deer and to entice Sita. It works and Sita, wanting the deer as a pet, pleads with Rama to capture it. He goes into the forest to search for it, asking his brother to protect Sita. Rama’s arrow kills the deer, which resumes its demon shape of Marica before dying and calls for help by imitating Rama’s voice. Laksmana hears this and Sita tells him to help.

Rawana disguising himself as a priest seizes the chance and carries Sita off to his palace. Rama and Laksmana return and cannot find her, but they discover an old friend, Jatayu, the king of birds, who tried to rescue Sita from Rawana, but failed and had his wings cut off. As he dies, he tells Rama of the kidnapping.

Rama gets help from the monkey army of Sugriwa, one of the monkey kings, and the services of Hanuman, the outstanding white monkey, by helping Sugriwa get his lover, Dewi Tara, back from his brother, Subali.

Meanwhile Sita has been resisting Rawana’s advances. He decides to fool her into thinking Rama is dead by bringing her a severed head. She does not believe him. Hanuman arrives at the palace to check it out, disguised as a fly. Hanuman finds Sita, transforms himself back to normal and explains he has come at Rama’s request. Sita believes, however, that it is a trick and it is Rawana in disguise. Hanuman shows her Rama’s ring and she is then convinced. Sita gives Hanuman a letter and a hair clip for Rama.

On the way out Hanuman purposely gets caught, so as to ascertain Rawana’s strength. He taunts Rawana, who attacks him and ties him up. Hanuman tells them he can only be destroyed by fire. Hanuman grabs the torch and burns the palace, but carefully ensuring that Sita’s apartment is safe. He returns to the forest and shows Rama the letter and hair clip.

Rawana sends Sukarana to spy on Rama’s camp at Alengka. He disguises himself as a monkey, but is discovered. Rama lets him go and he returns and tells Rawana everything he has seen.

Rama then sends Hangada, the red monkey, to Rawana to persuade him to return Sita and avoid bloodshed. Rawana tries to kill him, whereupon Rama’s army appears and a huge battle ensues. Rama and Rawana direct the battle and Rama wins. Laksmana defeats Rawana’s giant brother, Kumbhakarna.

Rama and Sita return to India and Rama is enthroned, but he suspects his wife of adultery and puts her to a trial by fire. She is proved innocent, but he still banishes her.


The Balinese do not watch dances as intently as Westerners. The story does not trouble them. They know it already. The audience does not mind at which point the story is taken up, nor at which point it ends.

The clowns give necessary information about the main characters, in a series of witticisms, and improvised comments. Whereas Westerners look for a story, the Balinese are absorbed in the rhythm.

The dancers

The individuality of the dancer is not important. He or she is admired for technique. The dance movements are within a narrow frame. The beauty lies in this. It is not emotional, but formal and detached, and carefully worked out. The gestures and movements are traditional, reserved and understated.

The gestures in Indian dancing tell a story, but not in Bali. They are purely abstract, although a few have dramatic meanings. Shading the eyes with the hand indicates weeping. First and second fingers pointing at the end of a stiffly extended arm is a gesture of anger or denunciation.

Eyes move quickly from side to side to stress the rhythms and accents. Faces are like masks.

They make dramatic entrances. Special melodies are played. The entrance is delayed as much as possible. If there is a curtain, the only hint of the dancer is his voice or the twitching fold of the cloth. When the curtains are finally parted, the dancer remains framed in the entrance. The dancer advances slowly.

The dance known as Kebyar, which means a sudden release of emotions, resulted in individuality in dance. The composition was free. The dancer sits in a square surrounded by musicians. He dances from the waist up. The story is not important.

Dance classification

Dances are staged in temples to entertain visiting deities and deified ancestors. The holiest dances are performed in the holiest part of the temple. Dances can be classified as follows:


These are the holiest: Pendet, Rejang and Baris Gede, which tend to be group dances of Old Indonesian origin, danced in a row or circle, with no plot. They take place in the inner sanctum, the jeroan, of the temple. They are addressed only to the gods.


These are less holy: Colon Arang, Topeng Pajegan, Gambuh and Wayang Wong, They take place in the middle courtyard of the temple. These dances have two audiences, the gods and humans.


These are the most secular: Legong, Arja, Topeng Panca and Kebyar. Literally it means “things to watch” and they take place outside the temple gates or in the courtyard. These are performed for humans only and do not concern the gods. Usually the only language spoken is Balinese.


This is the welcome dance, performed in the holiest inner part of the temple, by women, who welcome the visiting spirits and present offerings to them.


This is an ancient, processional, group dance, very simple and elegant, danced by women in the inner temple to entertain the visiting spirits.

Baris Gede

This inner temple dance is by men, dressed as warriors, with triangular helmets, covered in pointed shells. They carry spears and go through warlike movements and battles. They protect the visiting spirits.

Topeng Pajegan

This masked dance takes place in the inner courtyard of the temple, always on the first day of a ceremony. It is a male dance where one dancer plays all the parts in an entire story, changing masks as the characters change, in other words a one-man show. It is also danced in family compounds at important rituals, such as marriages, tooth-filings and cremations.


This narrative dance is at least 400 years old and the story concerns Panji, a prince, and his adventures with Candra, who becomes his bride. Old-fashioned musical instruments are used.

Wayang Wong

This is a sacred masked dance-drama. Wayang Wong means “shadow men” and the movements resemble the jerky movements of the shadow puppets. Its origins are not known, but it is thought to have been devised in the 17th or 18th century by the palace in Klungkung.

The story comes from the Ramayana and involves the Rama’s defeat of the demon king, Rawana, and rescue of his wife, Sita, with the help of the army of monkeys. Many of the characters speak Kawi, which is translated into Balinese by four clowns.

It is not performed often, usually only during the anniversary ceremony of the village temple, Pura Desa. It is restricted to around 19 villages, including Batuan, Mas and Pujung.


This very famous, graceful dance is danced by three young girls and is quintessentially Balinese. The first to appear is a servant, then the other two girls, dressed identically. The story is hard to follow as the girls change roles in an almost imperceptible way.

The Ramayana Ballet

This was created in Bali in 1965. The story is taken from the Ramayana. Rama, the hero, helped by the white monkey king, Hanuman, and his army, defeats the wicked Rawana and rescues Sita. The gamelan is lively with quick changes of tempo, mirrored by the dancers’ movements.


This is Balinese opera or more accurately musical comedy. The dancers sing in Balinese and dance at the same time. Women often play the leading men, especially refined types. Men play some of the coarser female roles. The stories are drawn from the Mahabarata, Javanese romances, Chinese tales and other sources. Sentimental situations are developed. It is like a comedy of manners. The costumes are sumptuous.

Topeng Panca

This masked dance, invented at the end of the 19th century, by topeng dancers in the court of Badung, now Denpasar, is played in the outer courtyard by a group of four or five men. Panca means five. Many different masks may be used, ranging from kings to clowns and even deformed people. It is faster than Topeng Pajegan. There is a gamelan orchestra. Entrances are full of drama and expectation.


Barongs come in many forms, but the most common is like a Chinese lion, the Barong Ket. Its origins are obscure. The barong is not a god. It is on a level with animals, a servant of Siwa. A village takes care of its barong and gives it offerings and in return it takes care of the village by scaring away demons with its dance.

It is mostly seen in dances and processions. Two men are inside, one operates the lower movable jaw and wooden head with its beard of human hair, and the other holds up the back and arched tail. The beard is the most powerful part. The hairy hide is covered with small mirrors and decorations. Barongs protect villages from the harmful influences of dead souls and demons.

If the masks of several Barongs come from the same tree, they are considered to be brothers and they often visit each other during ceremonies. The Barong will attend the odalans of the temple where the tree from which its mask was carved grew.

Rangda is the Queen of the witches, has a long tongue, pendulous breasts, long fingernails, and a magic white cloth which she waves. She is not a goddess, but is powerful and threatening. She is not all evil, however, just as the Barong is not all good. The Balinese never have extremes.

There is a battle. The Barong’s followers try to attack Rangda. Through her magic they turn their daggers, krises, against themselves, but through his magic, they do not stab themselves to death and fall into trance. The dance-drama often ends at this point, where neither good nor evil triumphs, which is the balance that the Balinese strive for.

Colon Arang

The name means “the candidate witch” and is a version of the Barong-Rangda story. It is played at night in the villages and belongs the bebali class and ends up in the cemetery. It is a 12th century Javanese tale, which lost importance with the spread of Islam. It regained popularity in 19th century Bali, especially at the palace of Gianyar.

The primary masked character is Rangda or Colon Arang, the Queen of Witches and goddess of death, to whom Pura Dalem in each village is dedicated. The dance may be performed on the anniversary of the temple, which is timed for the full moon. It is also often performed if there has been an outbreak of disease or just for pleasure. Durga is the female incarnation of the destructive aspect of Siwa. Death and rebirth are intertwined in this manifestation of God.

The story concerns Colon Arang, a widowed witch, who lived during the reign of king Erlangga in East Java. No one would marry her daughter, Ratna Manggali, for fear of her mother. In revenge Colon Arang went to the graveyard with her apprentices, danced and made offerings of corpses and appealed to Durga to be allowed to devastate king Erlangga’s kingdom of Daha. Durga agreed and terrible plagues and epidemics broke out.

Siwa advised Erlangga to enlist the help of the sage Empu Baradah, who sent his son Bahula to marry Ratna Manggali. He took Colon Arang’s book of spells, showed it to Empu Baradah, who memorized it and could thereby reverse the spells. He confronted Colon Arang and in a battle killed her, then brought her back to life in order to purify her soul. She was then laid to rest.

King Erlangga thanked the sage and the kingdom prospered so much, that when he decided to retire and become a hermit, it was large enough for his two sons to succeed him with a kingdom each.

The tale has been told by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in The King, the Witch and the Priest.


This is a very exciting dance, frequently photographed, and the best-known dance in Bali. It is the Monkey Dance, created by the Balinese, with suggestions from Walter Spies and Katharane Mershon for Baron von Plessen’s film Island of Demons in 1931. It was one of the first attempts to capture the romance of Bali and transmit it abroad. In May 2002 one member of the original kecak group of Walter Spies, 90 year old I Wayan Limbak, was still alive.

It is based on the Sanghyang, an old exorcism trance dance. About 100-150 bare-chested men, wearing black-checkered poleng sarongs, sit in concentric circles around an oil lamp. There is no gamelan orchestra. They chant and chatter and sway like monkeys, arms splayed out, chanting chak-chak-chak. The pitch and rhythm varies, whilst inside the circle, scenes from the Ramayana are danced.

In the 1900s a Javanese dancer and choreographer, Sardono Kusumo, came to Ubud and took the dance to new heights, making it more dynamic with a lot of movement. He introduced coconut torches and simplified the story. He also added the nonsensical sounds chuk and thak.

It can be seen throughout Bali. There is an especially good performance on Friday evenings in the Pura Dalem Temple, Ubud, next to Murni’s shop, Kunang-Kunang ll.

Oleg Tambulilingan

The great dancer, Mario, from Tabanan, created this dance in 1951 for the Peliatan gamelan’s world tour described in John Coast’s book Dancing out of Bali. Englishman John Coast mounted this spectacularly successful tour against all the odds at a difficult time in Indonesia’s history. The dance portrays two bumblebees in courtship.

Frog Dance

This was created for tourists from an old story. A princess marries a frog.


See schedule of dance performances in the Ubud area.