Kecak Dance in Bali
Kecak (pronounced [ˈketʃaʔ] (“kechak”), alternate spellings: kechak and ketjak), known in Indonesian as tari kecak, is a form of Balinese hindu dance and music drama that was developed in the 1930s in Bali, Indonesia. Since its creation it has been performed primarily by men, with the very first women’s kecak group starting in 2006. The dance is based on the story of the Ramayana and is traditionally performed in temples and villages across Bali.
Also known as the Ramayana monkey chant, the dance is performed by a circle of as many as 150 performers wearing checked cloths around their waists, percussively chanting “chak” and moving their hands and arms. The performance depicts a battle from the Ramayana, in which the monkey-like Vanaras, led by Hanuman, help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance.
History of Kecak Dance
Kecak was originally a trance ritual accompanied by a male chorus. In the 1930s, Walter Spies, a German painter and musician, became deeply interested in the ritual while living in Bali. He adapted it as a drama based on the Hindu Ramayana and including dance, intended for performance before Western tourist audiences.
Walter Spies worked with Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak, who popularized the dance by arranging internationally touring performances by Balinese groups. These tours helped make the kecak internationally known.
This is an example of what James Clifford describes as part of the “modern art-culture system” in which “the West or the central power adopts, transforms, and consumes non-Western or peripheral cultural elements, while making ‘art,’ which was once embedded in the culture as a whole, into a separate entity”. I Wayan Dibia, a performer, choreographer and scholar, suggests, by contrast, that the Balinese were already developing this form when Spies arrived on the island. For example, during the 1920s, Limbak had incorporated baris movements into the cak leader role. “Spies liked this innovation,” and he suggested that Limbak “devise a spectacle based on the Ramayana,” accompanied by cak chorus rather than gamelan, as would have been usual.