Balinese dancers blow Disney princesses out of the water — and I’m not just talking about the Island of the God’s own Indian Ocean. It’s any body of water. No question. I didn’t even have to look at the reaction of my three-year-old daughter Kasey, who before the Legong dance performance began, was partial to the blonde contingency of Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella.
My own eyes confirmed that Balinese dancers reigned supreme as we watched them flex their fingers backward, snap their fans, jerk their heads to the side and slide their bare feet at 90 degree angles across the stage in slow-mo unison — not to mention, the Balinese “princesses” displayed more gold than the Magic Kingdom’s reserves.
The striking sound of the gamelan, a collection of Indonesian percussion instruments, amped up the dramatic presentation. It sounded a bit like an ensemble consisting of a hard core heavy metal xylophone, steel drum and reedy flute. The xylophone, or metallophone, when struck by the musicians’ mallets, prompted the hairs to rise on the back of my neck.
Meanwhile, the dancers’ movements transfixed Kasey and my five-year-old son, Eddie, in addition to securing a second wind for them. Even Kurt, my husband who wasn’t always as exuberant about all the cultural activities I dragged him to see, sat ramrod straight with focus. At the very least, the dancers distracted us from the heinous humidity that still hovered in the stagnant August evening air.
It was our second night in Bali and this had been high on our, or rather my, list of things to do. “We HAVE to see the dancing,” I told Kurt earlier that morning when I retrieved the Legong brochure from the heaping pile of tourist literature I had grabbed the day before from the airport. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
I had to see the dancers since it would be a sort of tribute to my Grandma Madelyn and my grandparents’ house that I loved to visit as a child. While she was terrified of flying and had never traveled beyond North America, my grandma adorned her walls with fans and Asian knick knacks. A golden shellacked tree, bonsai size, with tiny gold fans that dangled from its branches sat on a small shuttered shelving unit in the hallway. Madelyn also had positioned a mini porcelain statue of a Chinese woman fanning herself under the branches of the fan tree.
Jade dragons from China and elephant teapots that looked like they came straight from colonial Burma kept my sister and me endlessly entertained. Also in the hallway, she hung small, framed illustrations depicting dancers from “Siam” posing in their golden-spired headdresses and hyperextending their hands with their Guinness Book of World Records worthy fingernails.
Not limiting her international flair to just shelves and walls, Madelyn also wore flowing “muumuus,” as she called them, in vibrant colors and accessorized them with exotic beads, bangles and earrings. Her fancy tops, which came from her trips with my grandpa Bud to Guatemala and Mexico, often showcased intricately embroidered trims or designs.
It was at my Grandma Madelyn and Grandpa Bud’s house that I pored through National Geographic magazines and began dreaming of riding atop elephants and seeing dancers with foot-long fingernails.
So sitting in the Puri Saren Agung or Ubud Palace and seeing the Balinese dancers emerge from an ancient-ish doorway flexing their fingers (with, sigh, normal sized nails) dressed in their cobalt blue, emerald green and fuchsia sarongs with metallic embossed magenta fabric sashes, gold foil-like layered breast plates and headdresses with flowers and tassels dangling from the pagoda-esque curled sides, briefly transported me to the hallway of my grandma’s house.
But soon the present and the Legong dancing led way to the Ramayana dance, which featured many characters, including a man also ornately bedecked in gold. “The Big Guy,” as he would become known to our family, had a booming laugh that both scared and fascinated the kids. Soon a monkey prince and a colorful bird (that we confused for a dragon) appeared on stage.
Although I had faithfully carried the Legong brochure along, I hadn’t read the actual story of either dance. Finally reading the synopsis when were we back at the hotel, I discovered that it was much better not knowing the complicated stories and then trying to explain the narratives to Eddie and Kasey. Despite having confusing premises, both dances incorporated loads of exciting conflict (kidnapping of a princess, impersonation of a priest, dramatic rescue attempt by a bird, destruction of a garden, war with demonic soldiers and everyday deception by most of the characters.)
To be honest, the dancing and music so captivated and riveted us during the entire performance that the story details seemed very secondary.
After the event, I felt triumphant. My whole family seemed engaged and excited having seen the performance. “Did you like it?” I asked Kurt, still needing confirmation and positive reinforcement.
“Yeah, it was awesome. I’m glad we came to see this,” he said and put a sweaty arm around me as we walked out of the Ubud Palace with the kids in tow.
“Yep. Who knows when we’ll ever see something that spectacular again.”
Apparently, it would be two nights later.
Seafood and sunsets seemed all the more spectacular in Bali. We were enjoying both during a banquet on the beach at Jimbaran, a fairly touristy fishing village near our new Bali base at Sanur. As I retrieved some tender lobster meat out of a recently crushed claw, my ears tightened and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Gamelan music jarred all the tourists on the beach to attention.
Eddie and Kasey, who had been building sandcastles with locals nearby, came bounding over to us. “Mamma, the princesses and the Big Guy,” Kase announced. It appeared that the restaurant providing the banquet also offered dancing.
Kasey grabbed my hand, and pulled me away from the spectacular seafood to the restaurant at the edge of the sand. Eddie and Kurt followed. Again, we saw beautiful dancers, a monkey and bird — no big guy, however.
Unlike the event at the Ubud Palace, this performance was more low key, free and the dancers were accessible after the performance. We could approach the heavily made up “princesses,” who were actually much younger than they looked. The princesses appeared to be a bit bored when I came up to them. Their features, eyes heavy with black eyeliner and lips precisely defined with fuchsia lipstick, seemed almost harsh. However, when when they looked down and saw a shy three year old behind me, their expressions completely changed. Both girls softened and reached out to bring Kasey closer to them.
After our encounter with the princesses, we went back to the beach to see if any food was left. Most of it had been cleared or picked over. I looked over at Kasey, who could not stop smiling, and I nudged Kurt. “A once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet the princesses.”
I had barely finished the statement when the hairs on my neck instantly went up again. Gamelan. The restaurant next door offered the same entertainment option with a different dance troupe.
The final night in Bali, we ate nasi goreng, Indonesia’s national dish and our “happy meal,” one last time at an open-air restaurant. The quiet restaurant was not crowded, and that suited us. After all, Bali stimulates the senses nearly 24 hours a day — especially since roosters rouse around 4 am. The only sounds were quiet laughter from the table down from us and a chorus of frogs that seemed to be directly under our chairs.
Then it sounded. The metallophone. Only this time, it came from speakers. Soon, entering from a brick facade that was decorated with two lackluster lanterns and what appeared to be two giant lifesavers, three dancers moved along a stage with worn looking AstroTurf. The surface didn’t matter, however, since the dancers still had the ever fluid moves — ever fluid moves that glided toward our table.
It never got old to see locals fawn over my kids. I assumed that was why the dancers came closer to us. Kase beamed and Eddie moved toward further toward the other end of the table.
However, as one of the dancers hyperextended her fingers, I realized she was also reaching out to take my hand. Another dancer came over, and they both nodded, indicating for me to get up. Gulp. Well, they didn’t know what they were in for since my only dance moves were the 80s fixed-leg-tree-stump-snap-the-fingers dance or the side-to-side-bending-pogo-stick. If alcohol was involved, I could offer interpretive dancing for any song to which I knew lyrics.
Dragging Kasey up on stage with me seemed like a great plan since her two-year-old incoordination would look cute no matter what. Overwhelmed by bright lights and attention from the small crowd, Kase clung to my leg and hid her face. When it was clear the dancers thought that was adorable and not at all a reason to go back and sit down, I scooped Kasey up and began to turn my feet at rigid 90-degree angles. The dancers closed in, and I lifted my free arm, making a slithering motion with it.
Fortunately, two other tourists who had no rhythm had been brought up on stage. In a sort of robot hula hybrid, I rotated around the stage, trying to throw in some hyperextensions while Kasey rested on my hip.
Kurt, going crazy with the camera, was cheering from the sidelines. Meanwhile, Eddie tried to show me his newly captured frogs while shouting, “Mom look!”
The dancers laughed and soon the music mercifully stopped. Then one of the dancers with the most impressive headdress, resembling a golden garden atop her head, bolted through the doorway of the brick facade. I tried to leave the stage but another dancer, wearing a more flimsy headband crown combo secured to her hair, gently stopped me from going.
Momentarily, the ornately headdressed dancer returned with what looked like a roll of wrapping paper. All three dancers picked an edge and unrolled what turned out to be a plastic sign for the restaurant — “Welcome to La Penjor” it said with a silhouette of Tanah Lot, one of the sacred seaside temples in Bali. Looking around with Kasey still molded to my hip, I wondered how the other tourists had managed to get off stage undetected. The dancers beckoned me to grab on to the edge of the sign and help them present it to the audience.
Turning Kasey toward the crowd, I told her to wave. She looked at me and whispered, “Mamma,”
“We’re with the Princesses.”
Indeed we were and I couldn’t help but think my grandma Madelyn would be clapping the loudest. And I noted that it was, of course, a once-in-a -lifetime experience.