Dance in the Bat Cave

I was on the platform, writing a poem. The night hung in inky stillness just beyond the perimeter of the house. All at once a bat skimmed within inches of my head. This, by itself, isn’t unusual. But what followed was. He streaked past, silvery, soundless, lightning-quick. But he didn’t leave. He circled the light hanging over the dining table. He looped through the bedrooms, out the opening above the bathroom wall, back through the front door, over the platform, under the platform, dizzying in his speed. I watched with horrified fascination, huddling crouched behind my computer screen.

Then there were two, flying in tandem, silver streaks, graceful, ghostly in the night. And then a third. They split up, like Blue Angels, performing an air show of astounding precision. Unnerved and outnumbered, I grabbed my notebooks and phone, scurrying to the bedroom where I could shut the door, lower the blind, and watch out of reach. As I was executing my mad dash, one of them passed at knee height, slicing the air in front of me. Heart thumping against my ribs, I bolted into the bedroom, fumbling to pull the door closed behind me. I threw my armload of stuff on the bed en route to the bathroom door and slammed it shut. Adrenalin surging, I sped across the room to the window with no glass. That morning I had methodically wound the rope that lifts the blinds a few extra turns around the post for good measure. I tore at the string for agonizing moments, certain that one of the flighty creatures would streak in and not find it’s way back out. The blind released.

Safe at last, I moved back to the door, opening it a crack. They were still there. I stood, watching the aerial ballet, transfixed. They knew where I was, of course, and they wanted me to know they knew. Their pattern shifted. One by one they skimmed past my nose which was pressed into the observation crack of the door. I don’t know how long it was, 20 minutes…30…but on and on they danced for me until there wasn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that this was a visitation. Someone bolder may have joined them. They seemed to want that. But I am not someone bolder.

Bing image

Bing image

Wouldn’t I love to know what that was about! Maybe my three daughters visited me in spirit last night. Maybe a series of three events will happen. During meditation this morning another thought occurred to me. I was entranced by the beauty of the bats in flight. There was no furry ugliness, no dark threat, just streaks of liquid silver pirouetting in the light. Perhaps fear is like that, posing as a black demon that incapacitates and renders helpless. But maybe, like the bats, there’s a different truth. If we find our way past the illusion, there may be a wild, silvery dance just beyond the fear.

You Want Go Dance?

I was about due for another Ketut Surprise, and yesterday I got it. “You want go dance?” he asked. That was a bold move for Ketut and it posed a serious threat to my perception of our relationship. But I’ve learned not to jump to conclusions.

“Where?” I ask. He tells me Jembawan Street, “You know Jazz Café?” he looks at me, his eyebrows raised, questioning. Now I’m really confused. There are places where local Balinese go and hang out with the tourist crowd but Jazz Café is not one of them. I am about to seek further clarification when he continues. “Ceremony for cemetery.” he says. “Dance many-many.”


According to Ketut there are two cremation sites in Ubud with a road running between them. Evidently the road wreaks havoc with the supernatural, so every six months a ‘balancing’ ceremony must take place to pacify the restless spirits. The ceremonial dances act out the battle between good and evil and bring them symbolically to a draw. Neither side wins, they simply depart peacefully.

He has already been to Jembawan Street to scope out the site. He tells me it starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until 2 a.m. I don’t doubt it. At 7:50 my phone signals an incoming text. “Pergi sekarang?” (Go now?) I shoot back a quick, “OK,” and I’m out the door. The night air is delicious on the back of a motorbike. As we approach, men in black and white checked sarongs are directing traffic. Finding a spot, Ketut parks and we head toward the sound of gamelan.

Suddenly there are people everywhere, close to 500 would be my guess. As usual, I am stunned with the magnitude of the event. A high-tech sound system has been set up at one end of a long structure. Palm decorations that look like fish skeletons with giant fresh marigolds woven into the design hang from the ceiling beams. It’s beautiful. And there are Balinese families everywhere. Babies that have passed their 3-month birthday are held. Until they are 3 months they cannot leave the family compound. Toddlers sit, well behaved and mesmerized. Teens do what teens do, they roam about. I glance around for other foreign folk like myself. I see one. By the time we leave at midnight there are 5. Although this event is in the middle of a familiar street and is an amazing peek into authentic Balinese ritual, the tourists don’t know about it.


The gamelan orchestra is stunning in white uniforms with red and gold head gear. Their music is the foundation of every dance. It is non-stop, sometimes a bright sound, light and tinkly, sometimes a crashing cacophony as the dancers reach the climactic point of the performance.


The Barong comes on first. He seems almost shy. His long body drips with shaggy hair reminiscent of an Afghan Hound. The luxurious tail usually has a bell attached. His face wears a frightening mask with a mouth that opens and shuts making a dreadful clacking noise. It’s hard to know whether to watch the head with it’s snapping jaws or the twitching, hypnotizing tail. I’m told the black beard holds strong magic.


When the evil Rangda makes her appearance the energy ramps up. She is a powerful witch. Every time I see her she is almost completely enveloped by her own dreadlocks. They reach nearly to the floor. The babuten, in a trance state, challenge her with their spiraled kris swords. Naked to the waist and dressed for combat, their sarongs are drawn up between their legs and tucked in back. When Rangda waves her white cloth at them they turn their swords on themselves. For way too long they gyrate wildly, bending forward and backward, trying to pierce their sweat drenched chests with the wicked instruments. Finally, all at once, they fall to the ground. Holy water is rushed onto the stage and they are sprinkled and prayed over. Some have to be carried away.


In Bali there’s a ritual for everything, literally. When a woman is pregnant but won’t reveal the name of the baby’s father, a ceremony ensues. Offerings are made and a surrogate husband is found for her. It may be an animal, a stick figure, or any number of other possibilities depending upon the village. Once these steps have been taken, the matter is settled. The woman is considered married.

We left the dancers at midnight, still going strong. The dancers were going strong…I was exhausted. The combination of four hours of gamelan and the intense battling in the spirit realm is a bit of a drain. “Go home?” Ketut says as we pull away from the curb. “Go home.” I reply, then add, “Thanks for the dance.”

Dancing History, Dancing Memory, Dancing A Prayer

The entrance to the Water Palace was ablaze with light. Instruments of the gamelan glowed golden as they awaited the evening performance.


We had been accosted by a man in a checkerboard sarong as we hurried toward the venue along Jl. Raya. “You see Lagong Dance at Royal Palace? You buy ticket from me. Only 80,000 rupiah.” I told him we were going to the Water Palace to see Gamelan, not the Royal Palace for Legong. “Yes, you go to Water Palace, Gamelan, you buy ticket from me, 80,000 rupiah.” He was walking sideways, ahead of us, earnestly explaining that the price was the same for us whether we bought tickets from him or at the gate. If we bought from him he would get commission.  There are many ways to make a buck in Bali, and that’s about what he made when we gave him our business.

Passing through the gate we strolled a pebbled walkway between two lotus filled pools and found a seat a few feet from the entrance to the palace. The air, heavy and moist, threatened rain. Those seated near us were speculating on the likelihood of that happening when the musicians filed in and took their places. There is a relaxed informality inherent in the Balinese alongside a dignified grace. The woman on the right checked her glasses, decided they were adequately clean, and repositioned them on her face. When all were seated a joyous and resounding instrumental introduction welcomed us to the performance.


Gamelan is distinctly Indonesian. It is meant to be played outdoors. As one writer described it, “The open walls allow for the music to flow out into the community where the rest of the people may enjoy it. Inside closed rooms Balinese gamelan is inaudible and it easily trespasses the threshold of pain.” I have experienced it both ways and wholeheartedly agree that it must be played outdoors.

The instrumental introduction was followed by Puspa Wresti derived from the ceremonial Pendet dance. Young girls with bodies undulating disciplined and slow, shower the stage and the audience with flower petals. The flower offerings purify the temple or theater as a prelude to ceremonies. It is a ritual of welcome inviting the audience, and the spirits, to enjoy the delights of the performance. 


The costumes, makeup, and artistry of the dancers held us entranced.
The movements of their hands and feet, arms and torsos, necks and heads, and even their eyes, were precise and provocative.


The beautiful Bird of Paradise dance, Cendrawasih, followed. The complex choreography is designed to portray the arrogance of this magnificent creature, and the costuming reflects its glorious plummage. This sweet bird moved too quickly for the night setting on my camera to do it justice!


No performance would be complete without the fierce Baris, glorifying the manhood of the triumphant Balinese warrior. The dance depicts the courage of a hero who is going to war. Once again the careful positioning of the feet, the impossible angles of the fingers, and the whites of the eyes tell the story.


After the intense scariness of the Baris, it was time for the children to perform Kelinci, the Rabbit Dance! They came bouncing out all in white satin and floppy ears looking adorable. And they continued to bounce and playfully bat at each other executing their antics in orchestrated unison.


Each performance was more exotic and technically brilliant than the one before. But at the end of the night I had a distinct favorite. The Panji Semirang tells the story of a young princess. When her husband marries another woman, the princess cuts her hair and changes her clothes pretending to be a man. She moves to the forrest with her servants. Granted, the Balinese men are gorgeous, but I don’t think anyone is going to mistake these beauties for handsome gents!


Throughout the evening a light mist hung in the air, but no one noticed. The magic of sumptuous fabrics, intricate movements, and melodious gamelan kept us spellbound. These ancient stories have been danced for centuries, but they are more than mere entertainment. Woven into the artistry is a thread of reverent awe.  The performers are dancing history, and memory, and perhaps even prayer.

Deep Magic

The strangely discordant music of gamelan works in Bali. You can hear it emanating from open pavilions, raucously accompanying cremation processions, or drifting in soft tinkling waves on the humid night air. It is pure essence. It works because it is played in unconfined spaces with few or no walls to trap the cacophony. The cymbals, drums and the metallic keys of xylophones create an unparalleled din that is sucked up by the 100% moisture content of the atmosphere. Thereby muffled, blended, and slightly distilled it becomes dramatic background to weddings, cremations, and traditional ceremonies. It also accompanies the Legong, Barong, and a host of other dances performed by outrageously beautiful Balinese women and fierce, masked men.

But……when taken out of context, inserted into a bone dry climate, captured in a room with four walls and a ceiling, and visited upon ears that are tuned to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and even an occasional Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash, gamelan assaults. It is instant headache. With every cymbal crash each delicate Western nerve ending spasms. Foreheads furrow, brows knit, the polite, politically correct audience sits on its hands to keep from covering its ears. It won’t catch on here. I guarantee.

I love gamelan. Is it an acquired taste? Not really. As I said, it works in Bali. It celebrates the rich abundance of the island. Life there is lived outdoors in the color and heat of nature. Gamelan proclaims in sound, tangled jungles, volcanic peaks, curling breakers, black sand, pounding rain, relentless sun, terraced hillsides, and deep magic. The complexity of ritual supported and enhanced by gamelan music is the heartbeat of the Balinese people.

I have downloaded a gamelan CD to my itunes. When I’m not in Bali something in me craves that sound. When I know I’m alone and won’t disturb the sensitive ears of my Scandinavian roots, I crank up the volume. Lighting a stick of supa-dupa Balinese incense I close my eyes and sink into the mystery. The frigid temps and monochromatic landscapes of my childhood melt away. In moments I have a headache. But in those moments I’ve been strangely replenished, fed, revived. It’s powerful stuff, gamelan…deep magic.

…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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