For many visitors to Bali, one of its most memorable charms are its sinuous, superlatively graceful dances. Almost everyone who visits Bali watches at least one dance performance; a few decide to go one step further and learn to perform these exquisite dances themselves.
For those who dare, there are plenty of ways to go about learning Balinese dancing. Most visitors don’t realize their good fortune, but Bali is one of the few places in South East Asia where it is easy for a visitor to learn an Asian cultural art. The island is unique in many ways, but especially in the way it treats the art of dance. In most South East Asian countries, traditional dancing is the exclusive prerogative of the royal courts; in Bali however, dancing belongs to the common man, performed in every village and town for the gods, for entertainment and for simple pleasure.
Bali is also remarkable for being fiercely proud of its rich culture and artistic traditions, actively working to preserve and promote them. Combined together, these two attributes means that curious visitors have plenty of choice in how and where they would like to learn this captivating art.
Where To Learn Balinese Dancing
One of the easiest ways to learn Balinese dancing is too stay at the right place; quite a few hotels and resorts in Bali offer courses in traditional Balinese dancing, as well as other cultural activities. This is particularly true for hotels deeper inland and away from the beaches, where exploring cultural attractions overtakes partying as the most popular tourist activity. For example, guests staying at the Nikko Bali Resort & Spa, or the Matahari Beach Resort & Spa at Pemuteran village in the north, can easily take part in activities organized by the hotel.
Balinese dance classes are usually group sessions, though most hotels are happy to arrange private sessions for interested guests. Most of the dances are suitable for all age groups. There’s no equipment, and usually no fee, required — guests can just turn up and take part! The exercises tend to be entertainingly immersing experiences as trained instructors, who are almost always performers in a local dance troupe, will patiently lead giggling honeymooners, good-natured elders and mischievous children through the elegant moves. The lessons are usually accompanied by a gamelan orchestra troupe and often guests will be decked in sarong, headdress and sash, to really get into the spirit of things. There are also dinner performances specially for hotel guests, which the new learners can join in!
Most of the hotel courses are basically an introduction to Balinese dance; if you are seriously interested in Balinese dance and music, you can contact the Yayasan PolosSeni (Foundation for Pure Art) in Peliatan near Ubud, where dance classes can be arranged for a reasonable price.
There are also numerous village and town schools, where the locals themselves go to delve into their own artistic heritage; these can be excellent places to learn, especially as you’ll tend to be drawn into the real life and colour of the local community as well. For those really interested in studying at these establishments, it would be best to enquire among the hotel staff for some idea of which schools to approach. Some schools are basically communal in approach, while others are known for particular dances, so depending on which dance you’re interested in, there may be a particular school you’d be aiming for.
There are dozens of dances in Bali, each with its own history and traditions. Some of the more common ones – the ones visitors are more likely to be taught – are the joget, or the legong, or the gambuh. If you’re interested however, you can also ask the instructor for some basic teaching in the rarer dances, such as dances of the epic dramas, the topeng or the wayang wong. Some of these dances can be learnt in a day, and others take months of practice to really perfect, but even a day course can be a fascinating experience.
Watching A Balinese Dance
Once you’ve tried some of the moves, you might like to see the real thing performed as it should be. If you stay near the tourist areas such as Ubud, you can go to a dance performance almost every night. Most of these performances have been tailored to suit Western tastes (and attention spans — some traditional dances can last for hours on end).
For a far more unusual experience, visitors can make the trek to Tenganan, a secluded and fiercely independent village, famed as a stronghold of pre-Hindu tradition, where contact with visitors is still regulated to protect their way of life. Here, many of the ancient dances are still performed, not as tourist curiosities, but as a vital part of their traditions. Some of the most exotic and rarest dance performances (even by Bali standards) are held here at various times of the year, so check around the tour operators for more info.
If you’re rather not go too out of the way, no fear though – on almost any given day, there is a temple festival happening somewhere in Bali and if you get a chance to see a performance at a temple festival, don’t miss it! For the polite and unobtrusive, the Balinese are happy to welcome into the celebration, and these temple performances can be far more moving and beautiful than the dances put on for the tourist shows. Best of all, if you’re really lucky and time your visit just right, you spend your days in Denpasar, watching some of the island’s best traditional dance performances for the annual Bali Arts Festival, particularly as the various schools of dance compete to put on the best show.