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Keeping in Step With Bali Dance

Ten-year-old Safa is dressed in a white T-shirt and blue sarong belted with a wide black sash. She stands in front of her teacher, her long, curly hair tied back with a pink elastic band. When her teacher gives the word, Safa bends her knees and lifts her arms. She twists her fingers and twirls her wrists as she moves up and down, nodding her head, her eyes rolling from left to right.

Safa is performing manuk rawa, a Balinese dance that tells a story about birds living near a swamp. This is the fourth dance that every student learns at Sanggar Saraswati, a Balinese dance school based in Taman Ismail Marzuki, Central Jakarta. The center is run by Bali natives I Gusti Kompiang Raka and his wife, I Gusti Agung Ayu Ratnawati, and was established in 1968. New students have to first learn the pendet, panji semirang and tenun, and perform the basic moves to pass an exam. It is Safa’s second year at the school and she can recall every move, even without music.

About 60 children gather in the front lobby of the cinema here to practice Balinese dances every Friday and Sunday. They are divided into groups, some of which may have to use extra props. For example, students in the pendet group have to bring a silver bokor, the bowl used for offerings to the gods.

Although most students are female, boys can also study Balinese dance. Third graders Arya and Putu Bagus are among the few boys who take classes at the school. Male dancers also wear the black sash, only with a shorter sarong.

“We have new people almost every week,” Ratnawati said, adding that she prefers to teach younger children.

“Usually, it is easier for them to pick up the moves,” she said.

Ratnawati learned Balinese dance when she was in elementary school.

“Back then, every child in Bali had to learn to dance,” she said.

There were no dance centers, but dance was taught in elementary schools. These days, Ratnawati said, Balinese dance is still included in the school curriculum, and there are also many dance centers and competitions across the country that are focused on preserving the cultural art.

“I think the Balinese have a high appreciation of art, including dancing. It’s in their soul,” she said. When she moved to Jakarta with her husband, they opened Sanggar Saraswati to introduce the island’s traditional dances to people outside of Bali.

Ni Luh Sutirthasari, or Sari, another dance instructor, also established a dance school when she moved from Bali to the capital. Sanggar Tirthasari opened in 1970 and provides lessons for traditional dances from Bali, Betawi, East Java, West Java and Sumatra. Sari occasionally teaches modern dance also.

“But no ballet or hip-hop,” she said.

Sari says she likes arjuna wiwaha and subali sugriwa, which are Balinese dances traditionally created for men.

“I like the dances because I like to look tough and strong,” she said.

Sari said Balinese dances were the most difficult to learn.

“With Balinese dance, all of your body parts have to move,” she said. “You have to be able to move your hips while bending your knees, and even your eyes have to move.”

Sari said most Balinese dances were traditionally performed at either pura (Hindu holy places) or palaces, and were a sign of gracious expression to the gods.

“Pendet, for example, is performed at pura during holy rituals,” she said.

Kompiang said there were three kinds of Balinese dances: wali dances are only to be performed at holy places, such as pura; bebali dances are to complement wali dances in holy ceremonies; and balih-balihan are for entertainment purposes.

The development of Balinese dance saw a growth spurt in the 1920s, following a similar increase in demand for gamelan music. In 1952, a dance troupe of young girls from Bali took the world by storm with their sell-out performances on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. Organized by John Coast, an Englishman who had married a Javanese woman, the Peliatan group, as it was known, was responsible for introducing traditional Balinese dance to the world.

Over the following decade, there was an explosion in the number of dance schools being established in Indonesia. Kompiang said he believed that these new schools were responsible for creating a number of the dances being taught in schools today.

Both Sanggar Saraswati and Tirthasari, which hire students and graduates from art institutes in Bali as dance teachers, often receive requests to perform. Four of Tirthasari’s dancers are available for corporate functions and Saraswati students recently performed at an event hosted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

“Usually they want us to perform the pendet dance,” Sari said.

“Maybe they are eager to know what the pendet dance looks like, after everyone protested against the Malaysian ad,” Kompiang added, referring to a recent controversy that saw Indonesians accusing Malaysia, falsely, as it turned out, of claiming the dance as part of its own cultural heritage.

Annisa Allaina, 24, used to practice Balinese dance as a child but gave it up. When she finished school, she realized that dancing was her passion and signed up at two schools, Sanggar Saraswati for Balinese dance and Namarina for ballet.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to learn ballet but my parents wouldn’t let me, because the clothes are revealing,” she said. Annisa is a Muslim and covers her head with a scarf. “But they cannot stop me anymore,” she says. When she practices, she wears her dance uniform over a long-sleeved T-shirt and leggings.

“There’s something about performing Balinese dance on stage,” she said. “I like the clothes and the makeup, it’s so beautiful.”

One recent Sunday, film student Keisha, 22, arrived at Sanggar Saraswati for her first class.

“I used to dance Javanese when I was a child,” Keisha said. Wearing a light blue sarong, she stood behind a group of young girls who had started before her. Keisha moved her head while trying hard to keep her knees bent. Sweat ran down her forehead.

“I thought it would be easier for me because I have practiced Javanese dance before,” Keisha said after the lesson.

“Apparently, this is a lot harder than I thought.”

Sanggar Saraswati
Taman Ismail Marzuki
Jl. Cikini Raya, Menteng,
Central Jakarta
Tel. 021 420 2437

Sanggar Tirthasari
Jl. Tongkol No. 32 Rawamangun,
East Jakarta
Tel. 021 68981362

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