Trance dancing into a knife

The Balinese know a thing or two about the power of music and movement. Where else in the world can an orchestra of beating drummers’ incite men to stab themselves with traditional knives or even cause a prison riot.

The music that brings on the hypnotic state is grounded in nature. The Kacak dance – or fire dance – is a monkey chant that dramatizes a section of the Hindu epic story the Ramayana, in which the great monkey God Hanuman marshals his troops and attacks an evil king.

Interlocking rhythms of chanting and Balinese orchestral music repeating over and over push the dancers into a trance. Strong influences of this mystical ritual can be heard in the works of western musical gods such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Balinese trance dance holds an important position in the pantheon of Balinese ceremonies and is a way of recognising ancient heritage and its significant place in modern Balinese lives from the villages of the mountains to the Kuta coast.

In fact the Kacak dance, which is among the island’s ‘must do’ cultural performance, was created in the 1930s when a famous Balinese dancer was encouraged by German artist Walter Spies, who lived in Bali, to adapt the traditional hypnotic chanting into a form that was visitor friendly. It was an immediate hit given that many Balinese ceremonies, particularly those that have the power to trigger a trance, can be performed for eight to several hours.

For serious exploration of the trace dance culture, invest in a visit to an Odalan – or temple ceremony. These usually last for three days where locals honour the Gods that rule over the temple by giving opulent offerings and showing massive performances of music, dance and gamelan. Spirits are invited from their resting place on Mount Agung to enjoy the festival.

While only priests and villagers are allowed inside the sanctum of the temple, visitors can watch the colours and beautiful displays from the sideline. Be sure to wear a sarong with a sash around the waist, which will honour the locals and show respect.

At about three hours into the ceremony expect some extraordinary drama with both men and women falling into deep trances and moving around with faces that transcend anything earthly awake. Young men – and never women – may drive dull edged ceremonial kris knives into their chests and slowing rotate the blade while singing and moaning. Others may shriek and roar.

Don’t expect these abstract reveries to be offered at the classic tourist venues such the daily sunset Kacak dance at Uluwatu temple or in the artist venues of spiritual Ubud. These raptures are the real deal among the Balinese and are reserved for intrepid travellers who are willing to spend time in out of the way villages to drink from the cultural cup of Bali.

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