Bucket List: Studying Dance in Bali

Bali Dance
© WitthayaP, Bigstock.com.


In the cold of winter, when the days become short and the snow piles up on the curbs, I find myself wanting to be barefoot somewhere warm. The darkness of 4 pm inspires me to dream of sunnier places where fragrant flowers litter the sidewalks.

Last winter, I followed my instinct and checked a bucket item off my list in the process. I flew to Bali, Indonesia, and settled down in Ubud for ten days to take Balinese dance and participate in one of the world’s most popular ecstatic dance events.

Ubud is a mecca for yogis and dance enthusiasts and draws people from all over the world who study, meditate, and talk together. The destination became especially well-known after it was featured in the film Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts.

The Yoga Barn, the largest studio complex in the Ubud area, hosts Balinese dance classes. I walked over from my homestay with a local family to learn traditional hand positions, foot positions, and short choreographies from a professional Balinese dancer.

I’d taken various dance forms throughout my life, but several things set Balinese dance apart from other styles I’d learned. The dance required holding your arms, hands, feet, legs and body at precise and exaggerated angles. Eye movement and facial expressions were codified along with hand gestures and larger body movements.

Traditional Balinese dances tell stories and convey emotion—sometimes many emotions in quick succession. Our teacher showed us how to sweep the hands and feet while we flicked our eyes to the side, and then intensely gazed forward. That really got the audience’s attention, even if the audience was just us in the mirror. Walking in a certain way and tossing imaginary flowers into the air was a sign of welcome.

A few hundred feet from the dance classes, the Yoga Barn hosts a bi-weekly ecstatic dance that is so popular, you have to wait about two hours in line ahead of time to get your place. The waiting, however, becomes part of the experience. Participants hang out on the wooden deck, chatting. Some make space to do acro yoga—partner yoga with acrobatic moves—as they wait in line. At each event, there are 150 tickets for those who are patient enough.

Ecstatic dance is a practice shaped by the dancer. There are no specific rules of movement. Maintaining proper technique—or even any technique­—is not part of the equation. At the bi-weekly Yoga Barn event, the MC reminded us that dancing well was not the point. Forget how good you look, he said. The point is to express what you’re feeling.

Music curated by the DJ swept across the floor, slower at first and then building intensity. Dancers stretched gently, jumped around, shimmied. They rolled like centipedes, reared like cats, stretched their arms as if to grow wings. A few tried incorporating Balinese dance.

The heat of Bali swept through the space, open on all sides and protected from rain by an intricate handcrafted roof. With the myriad of dance styles on display, it was fun to guess what had influenced people’s moves.

I spotted one woman dancing in a particularly recognizable way and asked if she’d taken Rachel Brice’s Eight Elements curriculum—a course I had also happened to take, thousands of miles away in Portland, Oregon. She said yes. I high-fived her.

I took the experiences of ecstatic and Balinese dance back to my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, where there is also an ecstatic dance community. It may be less frenzied, but the upside is, you don’t have to wait in line for two hours. MSN