The Kecak Dance and the Artifice of Tourism

Bali is a very “touristy” place, and it’s easy to see why people love coming here. There’s something for everyone: mountain hiking, diving, beaches, beautiful stone temples and a vibrant arts and crafts industry. But if you scratch just below the surface it’s an interesting case study of what happens when a place molds itself to the desires of tourists.

For example, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of a kecak dance the other night.

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Sorry for the poor photo quality, the main lighting is a fire in the center.

The kecak involves a chorus of 100 men who sit in three concentric circles accompanying a performance of portions of the classic Ramayana story.Through their voices, body and arm movements, the kecak gives an immediacy and intimacy to the Ramayana that is absent from the more classic performances with a gamelan accompaniment.

Here is a brief video of a daytime kecak performance to give you a better idea:

The Ramayana dancers would then perform in the center of the circle.

Attending a kecak performance is a common activity here, but it’s far from the “traditional” art form that most people think.

In fact, kecak was invented by a German by the name of Walter Spies in the 1930s specifically for performance in front of Western audiences.

And if it seems vaguely familiar to you, it could be because the kecak dance was the basis of the Na’vi dance in the movie Avatar. I found this great video mashup on YouTube of the movie with the real life dancers:

Remember the cool photos of the Nyepi statues I showed you a couple of weeks ago?

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These weren’t even part of the celebrations of Nyepi until the 1980s, and now are featured prominently in tourism advertisements for Bali as an enduring and traditional part of the celebrations.

A lot of people come to a place like Bali seeking an “authentic” or “traditional” experience, forgetting that people are not timeless, and that cultures are constantly changing and adapting. There is a performance element to what is presented to us, the tourists. I’m not saying not to come to Bali, or not to enjoy these performances. I really liked the kecak performance and would recommend it to anyone who asked, and would definitely recommend that anyone coming to Indonesia should at least spend a little time in Bali.

But I also think it’s important to examine our own expectations of what we are seeking through travel and how we can have meaningful intercultural experiences through a more nuanced understanding of both the places we are visiting and our own roles as tourists.

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