Guardians of the Sacred Legong Dance: Bali

A dozen beautiful girls danced together in the courtyard of Payogan Agung Temple in Ketewel village, Sukawati, near Ubud in Gianyar in early October. The dancers were dressed in gold with crown-like headdresses adorned with fresh flowers. Other girls wearing similar costumes sat patiently in a corner of the temple waiting for their turn to perform.

Ni Kadek Dewi Puspayanti and the other girls are members of a legong troupe that was not formed to entertain tourists or dance enthusiasts but to serve in life cycle rites, ceremonies and celebrations. The troupe was rehearsing for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Payogan Agung Temple celebration.

“The legong Ketewel dance is only performed during ceremonies and celebrations at major temples and in villagers’ private homes,” said Jero Mangku Ketut Widia, a caretaker at Payogan Temple.

Legong Ketewel is said to have been created by I Dewa Agung Anom Karna, a member of the royal family of the Sukawati Kingdom in Gianyar, after a period of mediation in the temple. He said he was inspired by the angels in heaven.

Jero Mangku said it was believed that the dance was created to honor Ratu Dedari or Tu Dari (the Queen of the Angels). The people of Ketewel believe performing the dance keeps them safe by warding off evil spirits, epidemics and disasters.

“I can vividly remember when the Ketewel villagers suffered from a mysterious disease in the late 1940s,” the religious leader said.
The villagers’ solution was to stage the legong dance.

“I knew of a doctor who had the skills to cure the sick, but we still believed in the healing power of the dance,” he said. Legong Ketewel is usually staged every six months according to the Balinese calendar when people observe the Pagerwesi holiday, one of the most important celebrations in Bali in addition to Galungan and Nyepi or the Day of Silence.

Since Legong is a sacred dance, not all girls are eligible to be dancers. Most dancers are pre-teen girls who have not yet started menstruating.

“Once we have our first period, we have to quit the troupe,” said Komang Wikantini, 13. Komang was a prominent legong dancer who started her career when she was 8.

Komang and other former legong dancers are currently active in training youngsters and assisting legong dancers back stage. Legong dancers are also prohibited from consuming beef and pork.

“According to Hindu beliefs, the cow is a sacred animal and the carriage of Shiva, the destroyer,” said Jero Mangku Widia. “Meat symbolizes material things that can take away from the sacredness of the dance itself,” he added.

Legong dancers must also refrain from consuming sour or cold food and beverages. “This is important to strengthen their teeth,” he said. During a legong performance, a dancer must wear a wooden mask that they hold in place with their teeth. “If their teeth are decaying they cannot hold the mask properly,” he said.

Every year, no less than 30 children audition to be legong dancers. Kadek Dewi Puspayanti was one of the 12 dancers selected this year.

“I am very proud to be a legong dancer. This is really an honor for me and my family,” Puspayanti said.”My parents and grandparents told me I would become a healthy and beautiful girl when I was chosen to be a legong dancer.”

During a legong performance, only two dancers are allowed to perform. The rest of the group has to pray before the show and help their friends prepare for the performance.

At the Payong Agung Temple celebration the troupe had been rehearsing for, Puspayanti teamed up with 9-year-old Ni Wayan Bianka Aristania.

Ni Luh Anna, one of the trainers, said the dance allowed children to live up to their potential.”They have to be physically strong as well as extremely patient,” she said.

Accompanied by gamelan music from the Sekaa Gong Semara Pengulingan Indra Parwati, Puspayanti and Wayan Bianka staged the rare legong Ketewel. The two girls seemed to be in another world. The sweet smell of incense mixed with the fragrance of jasmine and frangipani flowers drifted through the temple courtyard.

According to dance expert I Wayan Dibya from the Denpasar Institute of the Arts, the legong Ketewel dance has contributed to the creation of more contemporary legong dances. “In l811, legong Ketewel was modified into what we called modern legong,” he said recently, adding that in the development process, some movements had been added and others eliminated. “Legong is a rich and very elaborate dance that requires a high level of skill.

Only a few dancers can fully master legong, so we are facing a shortage of qualified legong dancers,” Dibya said. Dancer, choreographer and politician Guruh Sukarnoputra said recently he was concerned by the recent development of the dance form.

“The dance is only fit to be perormed before tourists, It has lost its originality,” Guruh said.

But both Dibya and Guruh are happy to see the children of Ketewel are still taking an interest in the dance.”They are the last guardians of the rare and sacred legong Ketewel dance,” Dibya said.

Komang Erviani