Kecak Dance: Origin and Story of Balinese Traditional Performance

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kecak dance

Indonesia Travel Guide – Indonesia’s Bali is one of famous islands on Earth. This small piece of paradise holds diverse attractions that range from picturesque landscape to strong culture. Among the island’s popular attractions, Kecak dance is one that invites domestic and international tourists to witness this captivating Balinese art performance. Besides, this dance symbolizes how local people uphold their culture.

Also referred to as monkey chant dance or fire dance, Kecak becomes one of Bali’s signature dances along with Legong and Barong. Kecak is rather unique as it does not involve any musical instrument. The only sound you can hear is the chanting of the dancers and occasional sound of bells from the protagonist characters. Learn more about the origin and story of Kecak below.

The Origin of Kecak Dance

Kecak performance was created in 1930 by I Wayan Limbak, a Balinese dancer who collaborated with Walter Spies, a German painter and musician. Kecak which was originally a trance ritual began when Spies started to become deeply interested to Balinese ritual. He then adapted the ritual as a drama according to Hindu Ramayana and make some modifications.

Based on some sources, Kecak was inspired by Sanghyang dance, in which the dancer went into a trance. The trance ritual was then adopted by Spies with some modifications in several aspects including depicted characters and story. The famous Kecak was created eventually. Wayan Limbak who was an Indonesian dancer then popularized the dance by way of arranging international touring performance.

Kecak Storyline and Performance

There are some characters depicted in the performance including Ravana, Rama, Sita, Sugriva, Hanuman, and Lakshmana. The story begins when three of the main characters – Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana go to the woods. Sita who is Rama’s wife is then kidnapped and imprisoned by Ravana in his castle. To seek for help, Rama sends his brother, Lakshmana to find Sugriva, the friend of Rama at the same time the king of Monkey Kingdom.

Sugriva sends Hanuman, the commander, to check on Sita in the palace of Ravana. At this point, Rama begins the battle. Ravana wins the battle at the first round, but Hanuman and Sugriva then come to help Rama. Monkey troops also join the battle and present a victory to Sugriva.

Kecak is typically performed by fifty to a hundred of men. Most of the dancers wear checkered sarongs and they are seated in concentric circle with a space in the center which is a place for Balinese coconut oil lamp. Kecak dance is performed for about an hour and is accompanied by a chorus of male dancers with a leader. There is also one soloist, one who intones the high and low notes, as well as a narrator.

When Sugriva wins the battle, the male chorus chants ‘chak!’ repeatedly which represents the sound of monkey. The male dancer gradually speed up the rhythm, close their eyes and raise their hands. The trance ritual generally accompany certain parts such as during the burning of Hanuman. The dancer who plays Hanuman is blessed by a priest who brings them to enter a trance state.

Kecak Today

The popular dance has been modified and developed since the 70s. Some Kecak performances recently use different storylines and take another part of the Ramayana. In addition, extreme modification such as using all-female dancers also makes this traditional dance even richer in variation. Some colossal Kecak performances have been carried out to break the records.

Interesting Things to Know about Kecak

Kecak is a complex art performance consisting of several elements. The colossal dance also involves many people with different task and roles. Here are some interesting things you need to know about the famous fire dance:

  1. Female dancers

Kecak performance typically consists of fifty to one hundred of male dancers. It is quite a surprise that some core characters are performed by female. The core characters such as Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana who have gentle and smooth movement are sometimes performed by female dancers. Meanwhile the muscular characters are only played by men.

  1. Trance ritual

The fire dance involves a trance ritual, particularly during the burning of Hanuman. The dancer who plays Hanuman is blessed by the priest before falling into a trance. During the performance, the dancer performs a fire kicking dance but there is nothing to worry about. The dancer does not feel any pain because he is in a trance state.

  1. Women’s Kecak

Kecak performance is characterized by male dancers. Do you know? Women’s Kecak started to emerge in 2006. This first female group is a result of a modern modification of Kecak performance. Today, Bali has several women’s Kecak groups that perform the story of Ramayana epic.

Where to Watch Kecak Performance

The monkey chant dance is traditionally performed in villages and temples across Bali. Considered as a sacred ritual, Kecak used to be rarely performed. As time goes by, more and more visitors are interested to witness this spectacular traditional dance. For this reason, Kecak is then performed not only during a sacred day but year-long. You can even watch a daily Kecak performance in some temples.

Where to watch Kecak performance? There are several places that offer you amazing fire dance performance. You may visit Tanah Lot or Uluwatu temples in the evening and check out the schedules for Bali Kecak performance. Uluwatu is known as the best spot to watch Kecak.

Or else, you can also head for GWK Cultural Park and Pura Dalem Ubud temple to watch this Balinese traditional dance. If you are in Ubud, Padangtegal Stage can be the best spot to enjoy the performance. However, Kecak performances in Gianyar are considered more sacred and spiritual-oriented compared to other places.

In a nut shell, Kecak dance is one of Balinese dances that find its way to popularity. The dance is inspired by Sanghyang dance which was modified according to Ramayana epic. Kecak performance includes trance ritual that evokes a sacred feeling when watching this dance. If you are interested to witness the impressive traditional dance, head for some locations mentioned above!

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