Kecak: The Fire Dance of Bali

Fire Dance (1)

The barren arena has just a massive black lamp made of stone that dotted the center. No stage setup, no curtains, no extra lightings, no hint of any backstage music either. The arena of Pura Uluwatu in Bali, Indonesia is more like a mini open-air auditorium.

This is the stage for 50 dancers of the famed Kecak (pronounced as Kechak) Dance, a traditional art form of Bali in Indonesia. One is left wondering what kind of dance performance it would be!

A priest in a white garment walks into light of the solo lamp in the center of the circular place and you know the stage is set. The lighting of the lamp is a signal of commencement of the world-famous Kecak Dance of Bali. That stirs up all in their seats, craning their necks not wanting to miss any sight.

Chants of chak chak chak… faint at first grow stronger within seconds! Half clad men; more than 50 in number, dressed in black and white check patterned sarong, chanting chak chak chak, enter the stage. Slightly mind-boggling, it makes one curious – whatever does it mean?!

The men come in a disciplined rhythmic manner, take up their seats in concentric circles at the edge of this circular place chanting chak chak chak and swaying a bit. One by one the main artists make their entry dancing on their nimble feet. With expressive eyes and gestures with fingers, they convey their roles.

Pura Uluwatu arena in Bali, Indonesia.

Slowly the drama unfolds, the story takes shape and the characters evolve distinctly. The chant gets high-pitched whenever the scene climaxes and soon slows down to a murmur too and the men sway according to the same rhythm. 

If you are aware of the story of the Hindu epic Ramayana, you can name each character easily. No need for any lyrics, hymns, or dialogues. Just the mere rise and fall in pitch of the chant of chak chak gave us the overall effect of the drama including the climax and final closure.

The story, a small part of Ramayana: Rama goes hunting for a golden deer on Sita’s insistence. Lakshman stays back to protect Sita, but again on Sita’s insistence, Lakshman goes out to protect Rama. Meanwhile, Rahwana comes seeking alms in the disguise of a beggar. The moment Sita steps out to give alms, Rahwana carries her away to his kingdom.

Rama takes the help of Hanuman, the Monkey God. The drama is infused with humor with Hanuman’s entry. His tail is set on fire by Rahwana’s men and he keeps jumping around spreading terror; albeit with little humor. The dance takes the name Fire Dance from this scene.

While Kecak Dance can be seen in other parts of Bali too, it is at Uluwatu Temple the experience seems exceptional. With the sun setting in the background, the sun’s final rays created amazing silhouettes, and the torches borne by the artists reflecting their dramatic actions and gestures cast a magical spell! 

Chak chak chak… the sound haunts your mind long after the show is over. So, it meant the chatter of monkeys! A story told by the monkeys with no words or lyrics, just chak chak chak, hence sometimes known by the name Monkey Dance too.

Lord Ram in the Kecak Dance retelling of the Ramayana.

How Ramayana reached Bali

Hinduism reached Indonesia from India in the 1st century. The religion crossed seas from the Indian mainland through traders and Hindu scholars.

Ancient Chinese records of Fa Hien of 414 AD mention two schools of Hinduism in Java. Additionally, Chinese documents from the eighth century refer to the Hindu kingdom of King Sanjaya as Holing, describing it as exceedingly wealthy.

Another widely believed reason for the spread of Hinduism in Indonesia is that Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture. The rulers first adopted the spiritual ideas of both Hinduism and Buddhism and soon the masses too adopted them. Hindu epics are part of the country’s culture. They believe Hindu epics promote values like loyalty, courage, and integrity of characters.

History of Kecak Dance

Kecak Dance was first developed in Bona, Gianyar during the 1930s. For the people of Bali, dance is a medium of expression of cultural values; they use it to convey their folk history and mythological stories. It is an important part of rituals associated with life, cremation, and death. They perform while praying for the prosperity and health of their community.

Kecak Dance is one of the nine popular forms of dances of Bali. The older version was more a kind of trance ritual. Male performers chanted chak-chak in chorus with different rhythms and pitches. Sanghyang Dance, another traditional dance of Bali, has chorus singers and girls dance in trance. It belongs to the broader classification of Wali Dance, a form of the sacred dance of Bali. The present-day Kecak dance version is a mix of Sanghyang dance and the original form of Kecak dance-themed on the mythological story of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

It was the joint effort of an artist named Wayan Limbak and a painter from Germany, Walter Spies, that put Kecak Dance on the world map of dances. Their goal was to put up a performance for the public. 

Interestingly, since the 1930s, Kecak Dance has been performed by only men. It was until 2006 that women too began to perform this dance. Today Kecak Dance is performed not only in temples but also in cultural parks and in international theatres. However, it is most mesmerizing to watch in Pura Uluwatu in the evenings with a dramatic sunset as background!


Indrani Ghose is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India, and is passionate about travel, culture, cuisines, life stories, and bird watching. She blogs at isharethese.com. 

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