Understanding Kecak (Kechak) Fire Dance at Uluwatu Temple: The Traditional Dance Form of Bali

As I took a seat in the overcrowded open auditorium of Uluwatu Temple, a set of 70 bare chest men entered the scene, constantly chanting the sound of Chak Chak. An ignorant me didn’t know what Kecak fire dance was, until I decided to dive into more details but till then I presumed it to be another usual musical dance show, of what we see in Bali otherwise. Foreigners sitting beside me seemed to assume the same thing, as the continuous chant of Chak started irritating them and they chose to leave. But, as the show started I found it different. And as I researched, I found that this traditional dance of Bali indeed has got an interesting origin.

Kecak Fire Dance of Uluwatu Temple in Bali

Kecak or Kechak fire dance of Uluwatu is popularly known as tari kecak  in Indonesia, which is a form of Balinese hindu dance, showcasing a line of story from the mythological text of Ramayana.

A Group of 70 men enters & sit at Uluwatu Temple performing Kecak Fire dance. It starts with the constant chant chak.

What makes Kecak Fire dance of Uluwatu stand out from the rest of traditional dance forms of Bali, is that it is performed on the rhythmic chant of Chak Chak, sung live by the choir of 70 men. While performing Kecak Fire dance of Uluwatu, the performing men wear sarong and sit in a circle, creating space for the protagonists. There is no orchestra or musical instrument involved in Kecak fire dance of Uluwatu. The chant of Chak is considered holy in Balinese tradition

The History of Kecak Fire Dance of Uluwatu

Apparently, Tari Kecak originated from a Balinese ancient ritual called “Sanghyang Dance” in which dancers fall into a trance state to perform. Trance rituals often accompany certain sections of kecak fire dance. At the start of every performance and end, everyone gets blessed by the priest as it is said that with these blessing dancers does not feel any pain from the fire because they are already in a state of trance. Kecak is usually called Cak Dance or Fire Dance, a music drama that was developed in the 1930s in Bali.

Performers of Kecak fire dance at Uluwatu temple
Ravana & Sita performing a section from the Mythological Ramayana in Kecak fire dance at Uluwatu temple

How Ramayana Became a Part of Kecak Fire Dance

Hinduism has an existence in Bali already and a walk through the town will reveal many sculptures that has been made inspired from Ramayana & Mahabharata, clearly indicating that these mythological texts have an impact here

Balinese Female dancers enacts Sita & Ram during Kecak Fire dance at Uluwatu Temple.

Wayan Limbak is the one who created Kecak Fire Dance back in 1930 and popularized it abroad. But, Limbak introduced this traditional dance form without any particular storyline. It was Walter Spies, a German painter and musician, who proposed to evolve Kecak fire dance while he was living in Bali. It is then that he got in touch with Limbak and proposed to introduce Ramayana into Kecak Uluwatu dance, much to the liking of western tourist audiences.

How Kecak Fire Dance is performed: A fight of Good vs Evil

As I shared earlier, Kecak fire dance of Uluwatu is performed by a circle of as many as 70-100 performers wearing sarong and chanting “chak”, while moving their hands. They form a circle in the middle of which is a traditional Balinese coconut oil lamp, chanting the words “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak” continuously, in slow rhythm. Gradually the rhythm speeds up where enters the character from the epic Ramayana. The one hour show of this drama dance apparently show the four events from the mythological text of Ramayana

  • When Sita tells Lord Rama to chase the Golden Deer and get him for her. Rama on her assistance leaves to chase him, when a fake shout is overheard by Sita. Thinking it to be a help call from her husband, Sita instructs her brother in law, Laxman to go help him immediately. Before leaving, Laxman creates a boundary around Sita so that she can remain under protection. This boundary is created by the choir singing, which is interesting to see
  • In the second scene, demon King Ravana enters with a motive to abduct Sita. Failed in his first attempt (due to the boundary which was created by the Laxman), he changes his attire and comes as a thirsty old man and gets successful in his mission to kidnap Sita
  • Garur (the bird Jatayu) comes to the rescue and try to save Sita from King Ravana but gets severely injured and dies
  • The Monkey God- Hanuman enters the scene, where he try to meet Sita to convey Lord Rama message to her.

This is followed by a Fire Dance where it is shown how Hanuman sets the Demon king Ravana kingdom, Lanka, on Fire. Since its creation it has been performed primarily by men, with the very first women’s Kecak group starting in 2006.

Let us Talk about the Performers of Kecak Fire Dance

There are two types of performers here: The one who chants and the characters who play roles of Ramayana. Some of the male chanters have their own tasks during the performance. One individual is responsible for maintaining the beat of the chant by chanting “po-po-po-po”. Another man serves as the leader of the chorus, instructing them to stop or start the chanting by yelling command vocals such as “Diih!”

The dancers who represent the core Ramayana characters are mostly played by the female dancers. You can clearly make that out with the smoothness in the moves. Men play more muscular characters such as Ravan and Hanuman

All in all, it is definitely not a performance to be missed.

Pro Tips

  • Kecak dance performances in Bali usually take place daily in the evening (6 pm) at Balinese Hindu temples such as Uluwatu Temple and Tanah Lot.
  • There are also dance stages used exclusively for kecak performances in Ubud, Garuda Wisnu Kencana, Batu Bulan, Pandawa beach and other places in Bali.
  • The auditorium gets filled up fast, so make sure to come well before the time to grab the best seat

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