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Balinese Dance in the Contemporary World: Bringing Agems to Oxford

1100–1230, Saturday 16 April 2016, L4

Putu Geniki Lavinia Natih
University of Oxford

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Putu Natih has been dancing traditional Balinese dance and learning the gamelan since she was 6 years old. She had the chance to join numerous dance groups in Indonesia, including Mr Kompiang Raka’s Sanggar Tari Saraswati in Taman Ismail Marzuki art centre, Jakarta. She has conducted numerous dance workshops, including 3 in the UK for elementary school students in Bedfordshire and Exeter, in 2004 and 2006.

She first joined a Balinese dance group when she was 6 years old, although dancing, music and theatre have been a part of her life, since birth. In his travels through Bali in the 1930s, Covarrubias noted, “next to having good orchestras, a fine group of dancers is an almost organic need for the spiritual and physical life of the community” (Covarrubias & Covarrubias, 1937, p. 216). Such is the role of traditional art, dance and theatre in Bali that what Covarrubias observed nearly 80 years ago, still very much rings true today; “the young men of today are fond of football games, but all other attempts to introduce foreign amusements have failed in Bali” (Covarrubias & Covarrubias, 1937, p. 216). Interestingly this attachment to traditional forms of art can be found both within Balinese communities living in Bali and communities outside Bali. Growing up within a Balinese community in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located within the island of Java, my experiences strengthen this conclusion.

What has sustained this intricate form of art throughout the ages? Covarrubias (1937) points toward the fact that “Balinese dancing is essentially for exhibition: dancing to entertain an audience and for display of skill, a stage of development that belongs to an advanced civilization … in Bali goes hand in hand with the ritual-magic dances characteristic of primitive peoples” (p. 216). This marriage of the “developed” and “primitive”, Covarrubias argues, sustains the relevance of Bali’s traditional and ritual dances. Does this argument however, still hold true today?

This workshop offers an introduction to the intricate dances of Bali. To truly understand the beauty of Bali’s traditional dances and music, the stories behind the dances need to be discussed, the music needs to be heard, and the dance movements need to be understood and demonstrated. The workshop will focus on one central dance, the Legong Kraton Condong dance, a dance which tells the story of a princess, kidnapped by an evil king and a battle won by the forces of good (story from the Malat, Balinese Thousand and One Nights).

Participants can try on simple dance costumes (kains and fans), and have the opportunity to try out basic dance moves (hand gestures, eye movements and fan movements). Participation is not compulsory. While this is not physically demanding and and no serious physical risks to participants are anticipated, participants should be conscious of their own level of physical ability and take part at their own discretion.

It is hoped that this workshop will attract traditional arts enthusiasts within the symposium, thus enabling lively discussion on the role of traditional art, such as Balinese dance and music, in contemporary South East Asia. Learning from the experience of Bali, it is also hoped that our discussions will bring to light ways in which other traditional forms of art can be incorporated and brought to life within the modern world.


1. Introduction to Balinese Dance and Gamelan: a particular focus on the Legong Condong Kraton dance – Short video of anthropological research on the dances and theatre of Bali (Mead & Bateson, 2006), followed by a short video of the Legong Kraton Condong Dance and music performance from Saraswati Dance Group Jakarta (15 minutes).
2. Live demonstrations of dance positions or agems. Workshop attendees will be invited to participate. Eye movements (the famous Balinese nyeledet), hand movements and gestures, movements of the feet and body, will be demonstrated (45 minutes).
3. Brief discussion of the role of traditional dance in the contemporary world (30 minutes).