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LEARNING TRADITIONAL BALINESE DANCE IN UBUD

I have always been in love with the uniqueness of the Balinese culture. You simply can’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world and not even in other parts of Indonesia.

Even more fascinating is the fact that this Hindu island exists in the middle of a country that has the largest Muslim population in the world. Pardon my ignorance, but coming from Malaysia where all Malays are Muslims and where most Hindus are of Indian descent, I was amazed to see Hindus that looked like me (Malay). In my country, it’s taboo for any Malay or Malay-looking person to practice anything other than Islam.

Traditional Balinese Dances

Religions aside, I was also particularly attracted to the traditional Balinese dances. There are many different varieties, the most popular ones being:

  • Kecak dance – the one you often see at Uluwatu temple, performed by 50-60 shirtless men and involves fire. Adapted from the Ramayana, this dance is a trance ritual that originated in the 1930s.
  • Pendet dance – a welcoming dance, often performed by several female dancers to welcome tourists or important guests. This is probably what you will see most often when there is any traditional dance performance.
  • Barong dance – a UNESCO-recognized dance involving a man in a giant lion costume. Depicting the never-ending fight between good and evil, this dance is said to have originated in the pre-Hindu times.
  • Legong kraton dance – a dance that was previously only performed for religious ceremonies in palaces. It  is derived from the story of a lost maiden being held captive by a king.
Kecak Dance of Bali, the Popular Fire Dance Performed for Tourists
Credit: Holidify

My personal favorite is Tari Puspanjali, but in general, I like all Balinese dances that are performed by female dancers. The first time I saw one was on YouTube, and I immediately fell in love with their movements that were so graceful (look at their fingers!) and yet so strong. Their facial expressions were haunting — eyes open wide and a smile that looked both sweet and menacing at the same time, as if suggesting that hey, I may seem nice but don’t mess around!

 

Then, when I was in Bali, I saw it performed live a couple of times — first in Jimbaran when I was having a sunset dinner on the beach and the second time in front of a shopping mall in Seminyak. The performers were mostly schoolgirls, barely past puberty, and I thought if they could do it, then surely I could too. So, on my third visit to Bali, I decided to take a private dance lesson in Ubud.

Where to Learn Balinese Dance in Ubud

Ubud is often known as the cultural hub of Bali. Home to royal palaces and ancient temples, it is also the playground of some of the world’s most prominent artisans and art collectors. At almost every corner, you will see art galleries, studios, and local craft shops selling antiques, woodcarving, jewelry, textile, and paintings.

So, it is not surprising for Ubud to be one of the best spots to learn Balinese dance. Here is a list of places that offer traditional dance classes in Ubud:

The owner of the hotel where I stayed at showed to me where the dance schools were on the map. There were about three of them that were close enough to our place. I selected the nearest one, which was on Jalan Kajeng (the street paved with mosaic art tiles). It was called Semara Rateh and this was how it looked like from the outside:

Semara Rateh Dance and Gamelan School Ubud
Okay, I just realized you can’t really see how the place looks like in this picture. But it has a tall wooden gate.

How Much is It?

Different schools charge different rates, and not many advertise them on their websites. You have to call to inquire, but expect to pay around Rp100,000 – Rp200,000 for a basic one-hour lesson. Some schools offer full-day packages with lunch, makeup, and costume rental included. This can cost up to USD20.

Do You Need to Have Prior Dance Experience?

No. These classes don’t require you to perform any complicated or acrobatic move. However, they do involve a lot of squatting. So you might want to work on your half-squats and full-squats before you go. If you’re unable to stand up from a squatting position without having to press on your knees, or if all your joints creak every time you try to squat, it might be a little embarrassing (speaking from experience).

Traditional Balinese dance class in Ubud
That was about as low as I could go.

What to Wear

Wear something comfortable that does not restrict movement. T-shirts, tank tops, or tube tops would be fine. Most Balinese dancers wear costumes that resemble tube dresses anyway, so you don’t really have to worry about covering those shoulders.

Image result for balinese dancer
Credit: iStock

For the bottom part, wear a sarong. Or bring it with you so you can wear it over your leggings or (loose) pants during the class. Don’t wear jeans! The schools usually provide sarongs too if you don’t have any.

The Class

As soon as I arrived at the school, I was introduced to my dance teacher, Ayu. She was about my age but looked way younger. Ayu was thrilled to find out I was Malaysian as she had once worked with Malaysia’s famous Odissi dancer, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim.

I was then given a sarong, which Ayu helped drape around my jeans (not a good choice of pants for this activity, I know).

Learning Balinese traditional dance in Ubud
With my dance teacher, Ayu.

Then, Ayu took me to the dance studio. It didn’t have mirrors on the wall like a studio normally would. So, she had to face me while demonstrating the dance moves and I had to try to mirror her.

Ayu assumed that I was an experienced dancer looking to add another dance into my repertoire. I should have warned her that that couldn’t be further from the truth, and that in fact I had two left feet. Maybe they were both right feet, because I couldn’t really tell left from right.

Fortunately for me, she was a very patient teacher. She broke the lesson into manageable chunks so that I was able to follow at my own pace. Despite my total lack of coordination and dancing skills, I managed to learn the 2-minute dance routine (yes, it took me a whole hour to learn a 2-minute dance routine). 

 
The class took only one hour but my legs and arms were sore like I had been slogging off at the gym for days. Ayu did it all so effortlessly, while I had to constantly be reminded to bend my legs more, more, more, and more.

The Final Performance

At the end of the session, I did the routine on my own without my teacher dancing along. So, here you go — enjoy the show, but please excuse my stiffness. I had just climbed Mount Batur the day before, and my jeans were tight (excuses, excuses…)

 

Do you love dancing? What do you think of traditional Balinese dance? Comment below.

Posted in Indonesia

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