The Twin Mirrors of Bali’s Legong Dance

But Legong has always been more than just a simple advert to draw the easy evening crowds – and it’s been going on for a lot longer than a hundred years.

All Balinese children are exposed to the world of dance long before they can walk. Modern Legong dancers are no exception: picked for their beauty, suppleness – and even better if they look alike – Legong hopefuls will often begin their first dance class soon after the age of five. By fourteen, the girls will be thinking of retiring.

Legong and Taksu, The Inner Spirit

At first, the young students mirror their teacher’s movements from behind. Later, with growing confidence, their guru will move behind them to direct their arms and feet. It’s only when the young dancers’ spirits are seen to have infused with the dance’s movements can the girls move with taksu – the Balinese concept of charisma and spiritual power. And only after memorising the complete Legong repertoire can the young protégées think of practising with a full gamelan orchestra.

Balinese Legong Dance (Ubud, Bali).

The Legong Performance

The stage is set. In the 1930s, legongs would dance at village feasts as the cool of the afternoon sun had set in. A crowd would gather under a palm-leaf canopy as the gamelan orchestra warmed up, and three little dancers – two legongs and their condong (‘chondong’), or young female attendant – would take their places at the front of the orchestra.

Legong dancers are always sumptuously dressed – wrapped from head-to-foot in silk cloth overlaid with gold brocade, and topped with a headdress of ornamental gold leaf dripping with perfumed jepun flowers. Their faces are always heavily made-up: thickly powdered, with a white dot – the priasan, or mark of a beautiful dancer – between their plucked, black-painted eyebrows.

‘Legong: Dance of the Virgins’ (1935).

The Warm Up

The legongs’ attendant, the condong, is always dressed more simply. She stands up lazily and takes centre stage. Quite suddenly, at an accent from the orchestra, it’s as if she’s hit by an electrical current. Her body strikes an intense pose, she starts to quiver, and the electricity shifts from her lightning-fast eyes down to her fingers and back up to the shivering flowers in her headdress. She picks up two hand-fans as a sign that the legongs should join her. Six fleeting eyes and thirty flickering fingers mesmerise the audience until she hands each legong a fan and retires into the background.

Young Balinese dancer, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Young Balinese dancer, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

 

Young Legong dancer practicing in Ubud
Young Legong dancer practicing.

Magic in a Mirror Image

The two legongs now have the floor to themselves. Like the exquisite lines of a flowing drawing, the dancers morph from one character to the next without interruption; sometimes playing the same character in a tight mirror image before separating again to continue the story’s serpentine narrative. Twin fans flutter like the wings of a hummingbird; necks snap from side to side in perfect synchronisation as their eyes flash and trip to the mechanical pulsing of the gamelan. It is pure, unconfined, abstract pantomime at its best: the young dancers’ spirits lost, for the moment, in another time.

Legong dance is pure, unconfined, abstract pantomime at its best.

Mature Legong dancers 'rubbing noses'
Mature Legong dancers ‘rubbing noses’ during a Legong performance in Ubud.

Old Legong, New Legong

Legong was never danced widely across Bali, with the most famous Legong schools found in Ubud’s Peliatan village and nearby Saba and Binoh. The dance has its feet planted firmly in the past: scholars believe that Legong first appeared as an entity in the 19th century after it split from the sacred trance-dance of Sanghyang Dedari performed by two benignly-possessed pre-pubescent girls. The newer Legong dance is secular – not religious – and was initially performed as entertainment for Balinese nobility before being opened up to the wider Balinese public.

And it has evolved again. Now, the lengthy tales of kings and ravens are abbreviated and condensed to appease a different concentration span – and to fit into the tight tourist schedule. Older women of 18 or 30 are also taking on the role. Having danced the Legong as children, they are now teachers in their own right who lend the dance a new beauty and maturity – as well as ensuring that the Legong is passed firmly to the next generation.

The Legong dance, like all Balinese performance, has always moved and flowed with the times. But like all dance on Bali it is also, in essence, nothing more than a transient, fleeting, selfless offering to the Gods – the gift of a young soul to the unseen.

Glossary

  • legong – young, normally pre-pubescent dancer featuring in the Legong dance
  • condong – young female attendant to the two Legong dancers
  • gamelan – A traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia, typically involving numerous bronze percussion instruments
  • guru – teacher
  • priasan – white dot on a dancer’s forehead denoting beauty
  • taksu – Balinese concept of charisma and inner spirit
  • niskala – Balinese concept of ‘the unseen’