Balinese dance is a beautiful and ancient art form highly regarded by the Balinese, and so emblematic of Bali itself. It's truly one of the most unique things to do in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali. Young girls who aspire to become dancers start dancing with their hands as young as 4 or 5, and learn the subtle expressions that tell stories through dance, each small gesture of the head, eyes, hands, and fingers telling the story.
There are many different stories told through Balinese dance - from Barong, Baris war dances, Condong, Legong, Cendrawasih, Frog, and Kecak - and several venues around the island to catch a show. Many venues offer a dinner and show package as well.
I spent months researching what to do in Bali including where to see Balinese dance and temple ceremonies, and was getting a little nervous about having the right equipment to get the kind of images I wanted. I loved the warm tones of the photographs I'd seen that didn't use flash, but rather just the natural theater lighting. In some cases, only candlelight is available. So here are my recommendations: where to see Balinese dance, what dances to see, and the right camera equipment to bring.
PHOTO TIP: Many places prohibit the use of flash AND tripods, so getting sharp pictures in very low light can be a real challenge. See 2 Things You Need for Photographing Evening Balinese Dances for shooting in these particular low light circumstances, and two pieces of equipment you definitely need to bring. At some dances like the Kecak dance we attended, the only available light was candlelight and fire, so some photographs have motion blur. But to me, the motion blur adds an interesting element to the Kecak dance, given the hypnotic nature of the dance.
The Frog Dance is a traditional play based on the story of a frog (Prince) who falls in love with a beautiful Princess. After being lost in the woods, the Prince is believed to have transformed into a frog, but one day falls in love with the Princess who wanders into his woods. The Prince proposed to marry her and she agrees, but only if he changes himself back into a human being. With the blessing of the God Wisnu, he turns into a handsome young man again resembling the lost Prince of Jenggala. They marry and lived happily ever after.
Laka Leke Garden Restaurant - Jalan Raya Nyuhkuning, Ubud; See the Frog Dance performed here on Saturdays.
The most graceful and feminine of all Balinese dances, classical Legong enacts several traditional stories, the most common tells the tale of a little bird warning the King of Lasem not to go to war. In Legong, there are generally three young dancers, two Legong dancers accompanied by a third dancer called a tjondong or attendant. She sets the scene, presents the dancers with their fans and later plays the part of a raven.
The Palace, Ubud - I highly recommend seeing Legong at the Palace in Ubud. Not only are the dancers regal and beautiful, but the textures and colors of the Palace are the perfect backdrop for the dance.
Cafe Lotus Ubud, Puru Saren Agung, Ubud's Water Palace - this cafe sits at the front of the lotus pond and amphitheatre of one of Ubud’s Water Palace in the heart of Ubud, just a block away from the Palace. Legong is presented on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Performances begin around 7:30pm.
Kecak is a very moving and tantalizing form of Balinese dance. Up to as many as 100 or more men simulate the orchestration of the gamelan, the haunting Balinese percussion instrument. Their hypnotic 'chak-a-chak' sounds are the only sounds you'll hear throughout most of the dance, which evolved from a ritual trance ceremony. Accompanied by this bizarre music of human instruments, a storyteller typically relates an ancient Balinese story from the Ramayana saga.
Laka Leke Garden Restaurant - Jalan Raya Nyuhkuning, Ubud; the Kecak Dance is performed here on Mondays, with a large, impressive troupe of performers.
Plan to see several dances on your trip to Bali. And get your camera ready!