Dancing is a difficult science, requiring years of physical training and practice. A strong cadre of professional's works in the dance academies of Denpasar, but the vast majority of dancers arise from the community at large.
Every Balinese is a potential artist-a bricklayer or farmer by day may transform into the glittering Rama for the Kecak dance by night. The postures and movements of dance stem from the work the Balinese do: they are just working gracefully and wearing beautiful clothes when they dance!
Men climb coconut trees with prehensile toes, which you also see utilized in some dance steps. When a man carries coconuts or cans on a pole, it is excellent training for male dance roles, giving him rhythm and a breathing sense, enabling him to rise and fall almost imperceptibly in dance.
On the street women carry offerings, jugs of water, piles of bricks on their heads, flicking their eyes in the same way as in dance to greet each other and to watch their step along the path. Carrying everything on their heads gives Balinese women straight backs, a sure, steady step, and extraordinary grace.
Life becomes dance. Children are first exposed to dance long before they can walk. An astounding one-quarter of Bali's children learn to dance, and about as many play a musical instrument.
Prospective dancers are chosen for their attractiveness, physical fitness and coordination, or aptitude for a specific dance. A pupil always learns a particular dance, such as Legong, Baris or Janger, but never dancing in general. Especially sought after because of the suppleness of their limbs are very young children. If a dancer is double-jointed, all the better.
A significant number of movements have to be acquired at a very early age through long and arduous training, and are impossible for the untrained. Little girls for the legong are chosen from four- to five-year-olds, and famous dancers in Bali are reputed to have been able to dance before they learned to walk.
Many girls retire at age 12 or 13, when they are considered full grown and too big and awkward to dance. Teachers, usually unpaid, are generally former dancers of great repute who know every fine detail of certain dances. Some pupils become so expert at such a young age that they begin teaching dance at age fourteen.
Choreographers are frequently also dancing masters themselves. Teachers are often called upon to travel to different communities to impart the finishing touches to a well-trained troupe.
The value of a dancer rests not only on the boy's or girl's talent but also on personality, emotional intensity, and the expressiveness of the face. Dancers must have fire, and it must come from the eyes.
All members of the community-from toothless old crones to Kuta cowboys-are astute dance critics, openly and publicly evaluating a dancer's style, technique, and physical beauty. If a dancer is not pretty - even though she might be a masterful dancer - she is pressured into some other social pursuit.
Except for the sacred temple dances (Rejang, Pendet) which are learned in performance, ceremonial and secular dancing is taught by 'osmosis'.
The master does not analyze or explain individual movements, then string them together from start to finish. Instead, he or she demonstrates for the pupils the whole dance, in its final form. Mirrors-and nowadays video camcorders-are sometimes used.
The teacher then stands behind and guides the movements of her pupils, forming and molding and prodding the dancers' bodies, leading them vigorously by the wrists, adjusting a hand here and a knee there, kneading an improperly tilted shoulder into place.
Soon, by sheer repetition, the student begins to gain confidence and the dance 'enters' him. Years later, famous dancers say they can still feel their teacher's hands on their arms and shoulders.
Positions of hands and fingers are pivotal criteria for judging the quality of a dancer; experts can tell immediately who a dancer's teacher is by the complexity and suppleness of her little finger. Balance is also all-important - rarely do you see a dancer trip or stumble.
Along with training their visual memories, the dancers must also learn the music to the point of being able to sing it. The music guides the dancers; teachers are constantly reminding students Dengar musik ('Listen to the music!').
When the teacher exhausts her knowledge, she finds the student a new master, and another until the child's talents reach their limits.
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