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The Kecak Dance: A Fiery Display of Balinese Culture

A performance like no other, the Kecak dance is a wondrous portrayal of Balinese culture. Utilising fire and tradition amid the gloriously vibrant backdrop of the sun going down, the performance can be enjoyed all over Bali in open spaces, where the true magnitude of this powerful dance comes to life.

The performance is highly atmospheric and moving, featuring approximately 50-60 dancers sitting cross-legged in a circle. With an absence of instruments, songs or words, the performers chant a simple “chak chak chak” in a dazzling circular display of dance and musical drama, with a central dramatic narrative weaved throughout. As night falls, the fire torches are ignited within the centre of the circle, as the tempo and majesty of the performance comes to a crescendo.

The History of the Kecak Dance

The Kecak dance of today gets its roots from the traditional sacred Balinese dance of Sanghyang, an important religious dance based on the concept that an unseen force, known as a hyang (translating to god, goddess, deified being or divinity), enters the body and puts the performer into a trance-like state. The Sanghyang dance has been performed through a number of varying narratives and concepts, including Sanghyang Dedari and Sanghyang Jaran — all of which focus on the reverence of gods or deceased ancestors in some spiritual and sacred way.

In the 1930s, the Kecak dance was born. It is said that Balinese dancer, Wayan Limbak, worked with German painter Walter Spies—both of whom became deeply interested in the Sanghyang ritual, and so formed a version of the dance that incorporated the Hindu epic Ramayana Saga and elements of sacred Balinese dances. They took their creation on an international tour that helped make the Kecak dance as well known as it is today.

Where to see the Kecak dance in Bali

The best setting to enjoy the Kecak fire dance is at Uluwatu Temple. Here, the mesmerising performance comes to life amid the backdrop of the setting sun. The temple is perched high on a cliff facing the sea, making the setting a truly unbeatable and atmospheric one to experience this unique dance. Viewers are required to wear a sarong as dress code to enter the temple, which is provided before entry. It is required to pay the entrance fee to the temple of IDR 30.000 and IDR 150.000 for the Kecak dance ticket. It’s recommended to get to the amphitheatre in good time to catch the best seats. 

The Kecak dance in Uluwatu is one of the most popular places to see the fire dance, but other Balinese Hindu temples also offer frequent performances — it can be seen at Tanah Lot and various dance stages that host performances, from Ubud to the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park located in Ungasan.

The performance

Most often accompanied by the sound of the sea, the performers enter the stage wearing chequered Balinese sarongs in a united chorus of “chak, chak chak”s. The performers settle into a circle as the orchestra of voices continues on, led by a soloist who controls the tempo, volume and vocal range of the group. With the absence of musical instruments, the men lead the highs and lows of the performance often incorporating different sounds into the ‘chaks’ to signify different characters as they enter and leave the scenes.

The performance of the epic Ramayana Saga begins with dancers joining the stage playing the characters of the story; Rama, Shinta (Sita), Lakshmana, Rahwana (Ravana), Hanoman (Hanuman), Sugriwa (Sugriva) and other characters. 

The narrative begins with the depiction of prince Rama’s 14-year exile to the jungle of Dandaka with his wife Shinta and brother Lakshmana. Shinta is then abducted by King Rahwana, who graces the stage, dressed in black, red and gold. Rama sends Lakhsmana to find his friend Sugriwa, the King of the monkey kingdom, who then sends his white monkey, named Hanoman, to seek out Shinta at Rahwana’s palace. Hanoman brings a joyousness to the performance, prancing around the area and jumping up and down the steps amid the audience. 

A dramatic scene ensues when Hanoman finds himself captured by Rahwana’s troops and placed into the encircling fire, planning to burn him alive. Managing to escape, the white monkey burns Rahwana’s palace instead and a battle begins between the two sides. Sugriwa, Hanoman and Rama work together, along with the rest of the monkey warriors to defeat the evil Rahwana.

The performers’ chants reach their climax as the dance comes to an end.

An array of unique features

The surreal and powerful performance of the Kecak fire dance, full of varying tempos and jolting hand gestures mixed with fluid movements and commanding facial expressions is a truly gratifying cultural experience to witness in Bali. A feast for the senses, the Kecak dance brims with a plethora of unique and hypnotising elements. 


In a trance


The ‘trance’ element of the Kecak dance is a particularly enchanting aspect of the performance. Originating from the Sanghyang sacred Balinese dance, the specific variant seen through the Kecak dance takes influence from the Sanghyang Dedari (a dance performed by young girls) and the Sanghyang Jaran (a dance performed by men in a trance-like state behaving like horses and dancing in the fire). These elements from the sacred Sanghyang dances portray to the audience the belief that the performers are possessed by spirits and divine beings — aspects that influence the Kecak dance.


Colourful costumes


The costumes worn by the performers of the Kecak dance in Bali vary for the purpose of the characters portrayed. For the majority of the men who sit in circular formation that form the human vocals of the performance, the attire consists of a sarong and a black and white cloth wrapped around the waist, with the rest of their bodies often decorated with body paint. 

The key characters of the Kecak dance that play out the Ramayana Saga wear vibrant and colourful costumes that allow the audience to identify each performer as the drama unfolds. Ornate costumes, face makeup and intricate crowns and headdresses complemented by a colour palette of golds, reds and greens allow the characters of the performance to make a true statement and stand out amid the fiery backdrop.

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