Kecak fire dance or Kecak dance, known as Tari Kecak in Indonesia, is a widely popular Balinese dance. It is often performed to enthrall tourists and travellers, more than the Balinese people themselves. Tourists call it the Kecak ‘monkey chant’. Come with me as I take you into the world of ‘chak chak Kechak chak’
My first tryst with Tari Kecak
A few months back, I had the opportunity to watch a live performance of this Kecak fire dance. This was in an open auditorium setting during my trip to the paradise island of Bali. Post that, I have been reading a lot about Balinese culture and its similarities with ancient Indian culture. Although, as a history and culture enthusiast, I did know about the Indian Hinduism connect of Bali and Indonesia at large, during my reading about the Chola and Pallava dynasties of south-India. But, watching a live Kecak performance was an entirely different experience.
Come with me, as I take you on a cultural trip to Bali and explore the history, performance, and significance of the Kecak fire dance apart from talking about the various other Balinese dances. After all, the Kecak dance comes highly recommended while planning a Bali itinerary. And, it is based on the Hindu epic -Ramayana, that is a sacred text from India.
Read my post on planning a 7-day Bali itinerary
In the Indonesian Hindu island of Bali, art and music are intertwined with Hinduism as much as it is in India. And, these are an intrinsic part of everyday Balinese. This could very well be attributed to the influence of Hinduism and the importance of Balinese Dewa Siwa ( Lord Shiva), one of the trinity of supreme gods. Lord Shiva is accorded with the title of Nataraja – the creator of dance as well as the universe.
Balinese dances could be divided into three genres, based on their functionality in the Balinese Hindu society. Music, costume, theme, and dancers play a prominent role in each of these Balinese dances. The Balih Balihan dance costumes are much more flamboyant than the rest of the two.
You may also want to read about the Kathakali – an ancient dance form of India
- Wali dances – Wali is considered the sacred dance and is done to welcome deities and ancestors, apart from purifying the temple where it is performed. The Rejang dance and Sanhgyang Dedari fall under Wali dances.
- Bebali dances – A mixture of sacredness and entertainment engulfs the Bebali dances. Many of the historical Balinese plays fall in this genre of dance. The famed Gambuh dance is an example of Bebali.
- Balih Balihan dances – These are the ones that are widely popular with the tourists and travellers visiting Bali. Balih Balihan is solely for entertainment purpose and the contemporary Kecak dance, Legong, Janger, and Topeng fall under this category. Ramayana based dance drama comes under Balih Balihan genre.
Kecak Fire Dance – The dance of trance
Widely captured photographs of the Kecak fire dance performance at Uluwatu temple, against a setting sun, is synonymous with this trance and fire dance. And, of course, this trance dance is associated with the hypnotic sound of ‘chak chak chak’ that lingers in the ears much longer than intended, because of which the Tari Kecak is also termed the Kecak ‘monkey chant’.
A smaller version of the hypnotic swaying male chorus of Kecak was part of the spiritual Sanghyang dance for many centuries. They were part of the chorus singers while the girls danced in trance during the Sanghyang dance. Of course, in its original version, it is said that the Kecak troupe did make use of an ensemble of musical instruments- the gamelan.
However, the dance evolved and what is now performed is the contemporary form of Kecak, and an amalagamation of Kecak, Ramayana and Sanghyang dances. Although, the modern-day Kecak has its origins in the ancient Balinese dance of the category Wali, under which the Sanghyang dance falls.
Sanghyang is a revered Balinese trance dance in which an unseen agency or force ( called Hyang in Balinese) supposedly enters a human body when the person is in trance. The dancer thus acts as the catalyst who conveys the messages and wishes of the devotees to deities or ancestors. Sanghyang is considered the original trance dance of Bali.
Based on how the possessed person acts, the gender and the number of people possessed, the Sanghyang could be classified again into many kinds. For ease, I shall restrict myself to discussing Sanghyang Dedari and SanghyangJaran that have been combined with the ancient Kecak chorus to give rise to the contemporary Bali Kecak dance.
Sanghyang Dedari – trance dance
The Sanghyang Dedari dance in its original form is performed only by young girls (maidens) in a state of trance by lighting incense sticks, amidst a soothing chorus by a group of village women. A priest ( Pemangku in Balinese) blesses them and is there throughout their performance.
Sanghyang stands for a ‘revered spirit’ and ‘dedari‘ for angels in Balinese.
The dance costume consists of a wrapped Prada ( traditional Balinese technique of dusting gold powder in leaf patterns or other motifs) belt around the upper body, with a Prada skirt, and a white belt wrapped around the torso. The colour yellow dominates the dance costume, thus symbolizing purity and sacredness.
Sanghyang Jaran – dance on fire
Unlike the Sanghyang Dedari, only boys can participate in a Sanghyang Jaran dance. It is also performed in a state of trance, in which the boys sit and move around on jarans(horses) made of coconut leaves. The boys first dance around the bonfire made from coconut husks and are subsequently led into the fire in a state of trance and music, where they perform the fire dance.
These horses or jarans resemble the Kuda Lumping of the Java island, that in turn seems to have the Poikkal Kuthirai Aatam of TamilNadu in India. After all, India has shared trade and culture with the Indonesian islands for over a thousand years now!
History of Kecak dance
Considered a contemporary dance drama of all the Balinese dances put-together, Kecak in its present form was only conceived in the early 1930s.
In 1931, Walter Spies, a German curator, painter, and musician was serving as a technical advisor. This was for Island of the Demons, a German-made film about a Bali village threatened with destruction by Rangda, the witch. He with the help of his Balinese assistant and Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak conceived the idea of expanding the kecak chorus and combining it with an important plot from the Ramayana. The result was the modern-day Kecak dance.
Over the years, Kecak performance gained popularity among tourists as ‘monkey chant’, and, slowly sequences from (trance dance)Sanghyang Dedari and Sanghyang Jaran (fire and trance dance) were incorporated to give shape to the fire and trance dance of Bali Kecak dance that now stretched to an hour pf performances!
Now, it is considered a unique Balinese dance wherein episodes from the Hindu epic Ramayana are depicted through a dance-drama.
What happens in a Kecak fire and trance dance?
In a Kecak fire dance, a group of hundred plus men in number, sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle around a tall earthen lamp. They chant rhythmically and continuously ‘cak cak kecak cak cak’ pronounced as ‘chak chak kechak chak chak’ all through the performance that lasts close to 45-60mins and the sounds denote the army of monkeys from the Ramayana.
Kecak dance costume
These men who chant rhythmically wear Poleng(a black and white checkered cloth that signifies ‘guardianship’) wrapped around their waist, and, are bare-chested for the rest of the performance.
The Ramayana dance drama performers wear elegant as well as flamboyant costumes, depending on the character they are playing and so do the Sanghyang Dedaari dancers.
Kecak fire dance performers
So, are these men the only performers in the Kecak dance? Well, no. As I had earlier said, the Bali Kecak dance is a contemporary version and if I may term, a medley of at least three dances. Hence, there are many characters or performers in this dance-drama apart from the 100 plus men who act like the ‘monkeys in a battle field’.
The characters of Indonesian Ramayana — Rama (protagonist), Sita( wife of Rama), Laksamana( brother of Rama), Rahwana (another king and antagonist), Maricha ( prime minister of Rahwana), Hanoman ( the monkey god, who is depicted in white), Trijata ( Rahwana’s niece), Meganada (Rahwana’s son), Garuda and Sugriwa (king of monkeys) make their appearance.
Do all the Kecak dances follow the same storyline?
The number of acts and the episodes of a Kecak dance may wary, depending on the location at which you are watching the Kecak performance. However, more or less they encompass the above-mentioned characters. And, in a Kecak dance, there is no use of musical instruments or gamelan. The only music to accompany the performers is the beats of men in Poleng, who hit their palm on their chests, their thighs, or clap, in a rhythm accompanied by shouting and chanting. These men move in unison with their hands stretched out, pulled in during the performance, rest on the other person, and sway from left to right. They are led by a priest who is dressed in a white cloth.
Understanding a Kecak dance performance
Usually, the Kecak dance performance starts with lighting a lamp by the priest, and the 100 men entering the arena by chanting a hypnotic tune. Then they sit in concentric circles around the lamp. Two people preside over this chorus and act as spoke and conductors of this choir. The rest of the Kecak dance flows in the following sequence.
- The army of monkey chanters starts with the hissing and swaying for some time, which then leads to the various acts of Ramayana being performed.
- Often, there are five to six acts to convey the Ramayana episodes, which culminate in the victory of Rama over Rahwana.
- This is followed by the Sanghyang Dedari
- And, a Kecak dance performance usually ends with the fire dance of Sanghyang Jaran.
However, all through the performance, the one constant is the rhythmic sound of ‘cak cak cak’ that is coordinated by one or two people in the Kecak troupe.
I have depicted the sequences in the infographic below
Kecak dance story
I watched a Kecak dance drama in action, at the ‘Sahadewa — Tari Kecak and Sanghyang Stage Changra Budaya’ in Batubulan. This started at around 6:30 pm in the evening and stretched for an hour.
The Ramayana performance was divided into 5 acts, followed by the Sanghyang Dedari and Sanghyang Jaran dance at the end. Let me briefly give you the prelude associated with the Ramayana, so that you can understand the five acts that were performed. This prelude is based on Ramayana of Indonesia and not the original Ramayana of India.
Prelude – Ramayana
Prince Rama, the legal heir to the throne of Ayodhya is exiled from the Kingdom due to an evil trick by his step-mother Kaikeyi. His father King Dasaratha remains helpless. Accompanied by his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshmana, they live in exile for 14 years, in the forests of Dandaka.
While in vanavasa ( exile in the forest), Ravana (Rahwana) the King of Lanka, is supposed to have lusted after Sita. Smitten by her beauty, he plots the abduction of Sita, with the help of his Prime Minister Marica (Maricha). Maricha transforms into a golden deer using his power of magic and lures Rama and Lakshmana away from their dwelling in the forest. Thus, making sure that Sita is alone at home.
Using this opportunity, Rahwana kidnaps Sita away to his palace in Lanka (Alengka), present Sri Lanka. She is held captive in the gardens of Rahwana’s palace. Meanwhile, Rama and Lakshmana set out in the forests in search of Sita, where they meet Sugriva (King of the monkeys), Hanuman( strongest of the monkeys) and their monkey clan. How the monkey clan helps in finding the whereabouts of Sita, building a bridge to Sri Lanka ( which is called the Ram Setu), and how Rama triumphs over Rahwana and his army in a battle forms the rest of the story of Ramayana.
Acts of Kecak dance performance at Batu Bulan
The acts in this Bali dance Kecak that we watched, were in the following order of episodes from the Ramayana.
Act 1: Rama, Sita, and the golden deer — The trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are introduced. When a golden deer appears, Sita requests Rama to capture the golden deer. Rama leaves her under Laskshmana’s protection. However, upon hearing a cry for help, Sita assumes it to be of Rama, and, orders Lakshmana to go into the forests to help her husband.
Act 2: The kidnapping of Sita by Rahwana
Act 3: Conversations of Sita, Trijata, and Hanoman — Hanuman(Hanoman) appears in Rahwana’s palace garden, when Sita and Trijata (Rahwana’s niece) are in a conversation. He informs Sita about him being Rama’s envoy, by showing her Rama’s finger-ring. In turn, Sita entrusts Hanoman with her hairpin to be taken to Rama with a message that she is waiting for him to come and rescue her.
Act 4: Rama, Meganada, and Garuda — Depicts the battle scene between Rama and Meganada(Rahwana’s son), wherein Garuda ( the eagle) comes to the rescue of Rama
Act 5: Rama, Sugriva, and Meganada — The final battle that culminates in the victory of Rama.
I am not further elucidating the Ramayana acts here as they may differ from one performance to another depending on where you are watching a Kecak performance. However, I would suggest that you get hold of the pamphlet or a brochure that is often circulated at the performance venue to understand the flow of a Kecak performance. Else, the hissing and the constant sound ‘chak chak chak’ may actually make one dizzy and you may lose interest midway!
Read about Ayutthaya in Thailand, that is inspired by the Ayodhya of India, the birthplace of Lord Rama — the protagonist of Ramayana.
Where to watch a Kecak fire dance?
- The Kecak dance is performed every evening at the Uluwatu temple, Tanah Lot, in Ubud, as well as at BatuBulan in Bali.
- We watched an hour-long performance at : Sahadewa — Tari Kecak and Sanghyang Stage Changra Budaya, Jalan SMKI No.25 , Batubulan , Gianyar -80582, Bali.
- Also, you may like to watch sitting in the comforts of your home right here now on our YouTube channel:)
Kecak fire dance video
Hope you enjoyed reading about the Kecak fire dance of Bali and also gained insight into what goes into a Kecak performance. Do let me know your thoughts on this write-up around Kecak dance and also if you have been an audience to this performance.
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