The Focused Intensity of Bali’s Young

Sometimes pictures are so much better than words!

Today was a big day at Dewi’s school. It was the end-of-the-year dance program. When you look at the photos below, keep in mind that Dewi is 5 and her classmates are pre-schoolers and Kindergarteners. None of them is over 6 years old. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I compared the accomplishments of these babies, with the things children in the West do at that age…hmmmm. And we are not talking a ritzy, private institution here. This is an example of a standard education in an average, Balinese school.

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Long before a single foot meets the stage, the kids are at the salon for hair and makeup.  That takes an hour or two. Then the young performers are dressed in the brilliant costumes typical of each dance.  If they are first in the program, it’s soon over. But some of these children had to wait an additional three hours while dance after dance was performed by other classmates. Dewi’s was the last, the Kecak…a grand finale. What I’m getting at is the dedication, patience, and serious attention five and six-year-olds are able to muster when it comes to these time honored traditions.

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While their faces show the depth of concentration required to remember the sequences of the dances, their hands and feet execute complex moves.

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While some dance, others patiently wait. Here is lovely Tisna (on the right) with her friend.

P1030742Tisna’s mother is a professional Balinese dance artist and has travelled internationally with her group. She can be seen nightly at the Ubud Palace. Tisna is following in her mothers complicated footsteps.

No school program would be complete without awards. Dewi has modestly accepted her prize for being the most CONFIDENT. Funny, none of us were terribly surprised by that one!

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This darling is fascinated…not by the dancing…but by me…a light-haired white woman who has invaded her world. When I ignored her, she reached a pudgy pointer finger out to touch my face. When I looked at her, she jumped into her mother’s lap.

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And no matter where you go, doting parents are all the same. They’re taking pictures. Notice there’s not an old-fashioned camera in the bunch! They’re all on their iphones!

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Tiny Dancer

Does Dewi have an 18 year old sister!?! Grabbing my camera, I make no pretense of a polite, “May I please…!” I dash across the lawn my finger clicking shots as I go. Barely acknowledging the presence of her mother and grandfather, who are watching her in stunned silence, I ask the tiny dancer to pose. She cooperates with the poise and practiced perfection of a seasoned veteran.

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This child is five years old. She is learning the traditional Balinese dances and this is her first full regalia performance. She has already spent hours with makeup and hair, and as soon as I have the courtesy to go home, they will be off.

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Her mom tells me that Dewi sat absolutely still through it all. This child who is perpetual motion embodied, sat still? For hours? I try to visualize a Dewi at rest and it’s a stretch. But as I ask for pose after pose, she complies without protest. Here is a star in the making, a true lover of the art of dance.

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Extracting a promise that I will be invited to any such future events, I grudgingly let them go. The next day I’m given a blow-by-blow of the evening’s wild success. Dewi shows me photos on her mother’s camera. Her hands form the precise mudras that accompany complex footwork. She twirls and her beaded scarf blurs in the photo. She is a vision! And she’s only five…years…old…!!!

…and a cast of thousands…!

“You want go gamelan festival in Kintamani?” Ketut asks in his understated way. Yes is always the right answer when he asks that kind of question. “When?” I say. “Tomorrow,” he answers. And once again I do what I have told myself never, ever to do. I assume I know what a gamelan festival is.

We leave for Kintamani at 9 a.m. It’s a glorious day for a motorbike ride. After a side trip into a small village to meet more of Ketut’s huge family, we arrive at the shores of magnificent Lake Batur. My assumptions begin to falter. There are so many people, teeming masses, and they are streaming through an entrance to an area with tents and a monster stage. The chairs are covered in white satin with big red bows. There are hundreds of chairs.

White satin chairs and an enormous stage

Ketut goes to park the motorbike and tells me he will find me later. I don’t know where to begin. There is a man surrounded by people. I wiggle my way through the tightly packed bodies to see what has them enthralled. An artist is recreating the view in front of him, but not in oil paint or acrylics. He’s sculpting the scene out of fruit!

The fruit sculpture shows the crater atop Mt. Batur, an active volcano on the shores of Lake Batur.

I leave the fascinating display and wander more deeply into the festival area. There is a bank of long tables where women are creating the towering fruit offerings. I stroll behind them. Someone told me recently that the action behind the scenes is often equally as interesting. That is definitely the case here.

Two women in white kebayas are creating their offering

About this time I learn that what is happening here is not JUST a festival. It’s a competition. The offering towers created by the women from each village will be judged.

Affixing the crown to the top of the offering. Many hands make light work!

There is also a cooking competition. That explains the other long row of tables with gas burners, pots, pans, and produce waiting. Later I learn the full extent of the two-day affair. Tomorrow there will be a dog show (I didn’t know that the Kintamani dog is world famous) a mountain climbing race, and a regatta on the lake.

These beautiful aproned ladies are ready for the cooking competition

The crowd is doubling every minute and a voice booms over the loudspeaker. The masses begin moving toward the stage. I quickly see that all the white satin chairs are full. I begin to circle, seeking a vantage point for my 5’2″ stature. The Balinese are not large people. The ones in front of me, however, are a good head taller than I am. I can see nothing. I hear the music approaching and a thunderous cheer erupts that rattles my ear drums. Something really good must be happening! I strain on tip-toe to catch sight of something…anything. Suddenly the woman beside me grabs my arm. “Where you from?” she growls, scowling. Oh no. What did I do. I squeak out a timid, “America…” She has not released my arm. “America?” she repeats, then grips me even more tightly. The next minute I am being propelled through the crowd. The human tank to whom I’m attached shoves bodies to the left and right all the while exclaiming loudly something about America. I desperately want to disappear. However, a path miraculously opens before us. She deposits me front and center then vanishes. If I ever see that angel again I will kiss her feet. The whole parade passes directly in front of me and it is jaw-dropping spectacular.

The costumes, the colors, the percussive gamelan music, all generate an energy of wild exuberance from the spectators

Every move is choreographed. The hands, the feet, the head, the eyes, all work together in dramatic exaggeration for ultimate effect.

You should have seen him dance!

This performer is holding a giant fan. Look at his fingers! Ketut tells me that this is the group from his village. They take 3rd place in the overall competition. Personally, I think they were the best…but I may be a tad prejudiced.

This venerable gentleman has no doubt seen many festivals.

The Balinese have a way of splendidly layering color and pattern upon color and pattern upon….

I wonder if the children watching ever have nightmares? Some of these dudes are scary!

Even the instruments display artful creativity.

The musicians add more glamor and delight.

The hand movements of the drummers are studied and precise.

The cymbals are the backbone of gamelan parades. To Western ears the sound can seem harsh and chaotic. But the purpose is to generate energy and spur the performers on to even more heroic feats. I have come to love it.

At the forefront of each group a stunning woman carries a sign that identifies the village represented by the group.

I didn’t have to coax too hard to get these gorgeous men to pose for a photo.

I could post endless pictures. And I could go on and on about the evening entertainment that featured famous personalities from Indonesian TV programming. There were professional dancers and singers. The comedians had me howling even though I didn’t understand a word. It was a smorgasbord for the senses beyond anything I have previously experienced. Why did I think I knew what a gamelan festival was?

It is long after dark when I climb on the motorbike behind Ketut for the hour and a half ride home. I want to let him know how amazing it was, how much I appreciate him for telling me about it and hauling my presumptuous carcass all the way to Kintamani to see it. Great globs of gratitude want to spill out and make him understand how indebted I am to him and to his people for sharing the riches of their culture. I search the meager archives of Indonesian words and phrases I’ve learned so far and finally settle for something that, loosely translated, says “Thank you so much for beautiful day.” I shout it in broken spurts as we streak through the night. He turns his helmeted head toward me. The wind whistles past, “Waaat?” he yells. The spell is broken. I can’t control my laughter. When I am finally able to speak I tap his shoulder. He turns his head. “THANK YOU!” I holler in his ear. It is enough.

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