Legong isn’t just a tradition on Bali: it’s an institution. Since the first sightseers arrived on the island in the 1920s, Legong has become the public face of this tiny South-East Asian outpost – a visual emblem that has long promoted Bali’s Hindu culture to millions of eager visitors.
But Legong has always been more than just a simple advert to draw the easy evening crowds – and it’s been going on for a lot longer than a hundred years.
All Balinese children are exposed to the world of dance long before they can walk. Modern Legong dancers are no exception: picked for their beauty, suppleness – and even better if they look alike – Legong hopefuls will often begin their first dance class soon after the age of five. By fourteen, the girls will be thinking of retiring.
Legong and Taksu, The Inner Spirit
At first, the young students mirror their teacher’s movements from behind. Later, with growing confidence, their guru will move behind them to direct their arms and feet. It’s only when the young dancers’ spirits are seen to have infused with the dance’s movements can the girls move with taksu – the Balinese concept of charisma and spiritual power. And only after memorising the complete Legong repertoire can the young protégées think of practising with a full gamelan orchestra.
The Spirit of Balinese Dance
A dancer in the West is pressured to express their ‘inner self’ and their personality to the full. The Balinese dancer, on the other hand, would like to move as far away from the ego as possible – letting the taksu, or the spirit they are playing, to talk and dance for them. Like Balinese painting, it is not about the artist or the finished item – but about the act of submission to a higher being, of self-offering, of briefly being at one with the niskala – the things we cannot see.
The Legong Performance
The stage is set. In the 1930s, legongs would dance at village feasts as the cool of the afternoon sun had set in. A crowd would gather under a palm-leaf canopy as the gamelan orchestra warmed up, and three little dancers – two legongs and their condong (‘chondong’), or young female attendant – would take their places at the front of the orchestra.
Legong dancers are always sumptuously dressed – wrapped from head-to-foot in silk cloth overlaid with gold brocade, and topped with a headdress of ornamental gold leaf dripping with perfumed jepun flowers. Their faces are always heavily made-up: thickly powdered, with a white dot – the priasan, or mark of a beautiful dancer – between their plucked, black-painted eyebrows.
‘Legong: Dance of the Virgins’ (1935)
1930s Bali saw a steep rise in Western tourism – with the island’s sultry image of ‘paradise’ promoted by photographs of bare-breasted Balinese maidens – and by exploitation films such as Legong: Dance of the Virgins. Shot on location by the Marquis Henry de la Falaise, it featured a love-triangle between two topless adolescent market girls and their barely older suitor. To the thrill of New York’s backrow ‘nudie-cutie’ fans, Legong: Dance of the Virgins shimmied past US censors – as the copious skin on show was National Geographic brown, not prudish pink. The Legong dance in the title only accounts for 2 ½ minutes of the film’s entire running-time of just over an hour…
The Warm Up
The legongs’ attendant, the condong, is always dressed more simply. She stands up lazily and takes centre stage. Quite suddenly, at an accent from the orchestra, it’s as if she’s hit by an electrical current. Her body strikes an intense pose, she starts to quiver, and the electricity shifts from her lightning-fast eyes down to her fingers and back up to the shivering flowers in her headdress. She picks up two hand-fans as a sign that the legongs should join her. Six fleeting eyes and thirty flickering fingers mesmerise the audience until she hands each legong a fan and retires into the background.
Magic in a Mirror Image
The two legongs now have the floor to themselves. Like the exquisite lines of a flowing drawing, the dancers morph from one character to the next without interruption; sometimes playing the same character in a tight mirror image before separating again to continue the story’s serpentine narrative. Twin fans flutter like the wings of a hummingbird; necks snap from side to side in perfect synchronisation as their eyes flash and trip to the mechanical pulsing of the gamelan. It is pure, unconfined, abstract pantomime at its best: the young dancers’ spirits lost, for the moment, in another time. Legong dance is pure, unconfined, abstract pantomime at its best.
Where to Watch Legong Dance on Bali
Although you’ll catch brief performances of Legong in many of the island’s 5-star hotels, Ubud continues to be the centre of Legong on Bali. Regular performances by a healthy number of village troupes ensure a dance every evening of the week.
The most polished performances are at Ubud Palace (‘Puri Ubud’) and on Monkey Forest Road at the Bale Banjar Ubud Kelod. Get there an hour early to make sure you get a front-row seat, cover up with mosquito lotion, sit back and enjoy the dance of a lifetime. All evening performances in Ubud last for 1 ½ hours, and cost between Rp.80,000 and Rp.100,000.
Old Legong, New Legong
Legong was never danced widely across Bali, with the most famous Legong schools found in Ubud’s Peliatan village and nearby Saba and Binoh. The dance has its feet planted firmly in the past: scholars believe that Legong first appeared as an entity in the 19th century after it split from the sacred trance-dance of Sanghyang Dedari performed by two benignly-possessed pre-pubescent girls. The newer Legong dance is secular – not religious – and was initially performed as entertainment for Balinese nobility before being opened up to the wider Balinese public.
And it has evolved again. Now, the lengthy tales of kings and ravens are abbreviated and condensed to appease a different concentration span – and to fit into the tight tourist schedule. Older women of 18 or 30 are also taking on the role. Having danced the Legong as children, they are now teachers in their own right who lend the dance a new beauty and maturity – as well as ensuring that the Legong is passed firmly to the next generation.
The Legong dance, like all Balinese performance, has always moved and flowed with the times. But like all dance on Bali it is also, in essence, nothing more than a transient, fleeting, selfless offering to the Gods – the gift of a young soul to the unseen.
- legong – young, normally pre-pubescent dancer featuring in the Legong dance
- condong – young female attendant to the two Legong dancers
- gamelan – A traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia, typically involving numerous bronze percussion instruments
- guru – teacher
- priasan – white dot on a dancer’s forehead denoting beauty
- taksu – Balinese concept of charisma and inner spirit
- niskala – Balinese concept of ‘the unseen’