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The Legong Dance

As the arcbe type of the delicate and feminine, the legong is the finest of Balinese dances. Connoisseurs discuss the comparative excellence of various legongs as intensely as we discuss our dancers, and I have beard solemn arguments among princes as to whether the group of Bedulu was finer than that of Saba, or the school of Sukawati superior to that of Badung.

The legong is performed at feasts, generally in the late afternoon when the beat of the day has subsided. At the first rumour that there is going to be a legong in the central square or, if it is at a private feast, in the middle of the street, the crowd begins to gather. Women and children come first to secure the best places, crowding around a long, rectangular space left free for the dance. The dancing-space is often decorated with a canopy of palm-leaf streamers or shaded by an awning of black, red, and white cloth, the tail of one of the giant kites. On one end of the " stage " the orchestra entertains the gradually growing crowd with preludes until it is time for the show to begin.

Three little dancers, with an air of infinite boredom, sit on mats in front of the orchestra. They are dressed from bead to foot in silk overlaid with glittering goldleaf and on their heads they wear great helmets of gold ornamented with rows of fresh frangipani blossoms. Enormous ear-plugs of gold, an inch in diameter, pierce their prematurely distended ear-lobes. Their melancholy little faces are heavily powdered, and they wear a white dot (priasan), the mark of beauty in dancers, painted be tween the eyebrows, which are shaved and reshaped with black paint.

The rich costume of the two principal dancers, the legongs, consists of a wrapped skirt, a tight-sleeved vest, from which hangs a long, narrow apron, and yards of strong cloth cut in a narrow strip that binds their torsos mercilessly from the breast to the hips. This is in turn covered by another sash of gilt cloth. The tight, corset-like binding gives line to the dancers' bodies and supports their backs. The costume is completed by a stiff short vest of tooled and gilt leather worn over the shoulders, -a collar set with coloured stones and little mirrors, a silver belt, and scarfs and ornaments of tooled leather hanging from each bip. The little girl who sits between the legongs, the tjondong, their attendant, is dressed in simpler clothes.

When a large enough crowd has assembled, the orchestra begins the dance music and the tjondong gets up lazily and stands in the middle of the dancing-space. Suddenly, at an accent from the orchestra, as if pierced by an electric current, she strikes an intense pose: with her bare feet flat on the ground, her knees flexed, she begins a lively dance, moving briskly, winding in and out of a circle, with an arm rigidly outstretched, fingers tense and trembling, and her eyes staring into space. At each accent of the music the whole body of the tjondong jerks; she stamps her foot, which quivers faster and faster, the vibration spreading to her thigh and up her hips until the entire body shakes so violently that the flowers of her head-dress fly in all directions. The gradually growing spell breaks off unexpectedly and the girl glides with swift side-steps, first to the right, then to the left, swaying from her flexible waist while her arms break into sharp patterns at the wrists and elbows. Without stopping, she picks up two fans that lie on the mat and continues dancing with one in each hand, in an elegant winding stride.

At a cue from the music, the two other girls straighten tip and begin to dance with their bands, neck, and eyes, still kneeling on the mat. Then they rise and dance with the tjondong, forming intricate patterns with six arms and thirty fingers until the musical theme ends. Then the tjondong hands a fan to each of the legongs and retires into the background.

The orchestra plays a more vigorous melody and the legongs dance again, with the open fans fluttering at such a speed that their outline is lost like the wings of a bumming-bird flying suspended in space. The two dancers seem the double image of one,so much alike are their movements, their necks snap from side to side in such perfect accord, synchronized in double time to the flashes of their eyes. The most absolute discipline controls their sharp, accurate movements. Each motion follows the last in perfect rhythmic sequence, technical perfection transformed into beauty and style. At times the music becomes playful and delicate; the two girls come together, bringing their faces close to each other and delicately " rubbing noses " (ngara's) , following this by a flutter of the shoulders, a thrill of pleasure. This represents a love scene, a kiss, done to a special musical theme (pengipuk) .

After a pause the orchestra plays the Lasem theme and the actual play begins. The story is based on an episode from the Malat, the Balinese Thousand and One Nights, in which Princess Rangkesari is stolen by the arrogant King Lasem, her despised suitor, while he is waging war against her father. Rangkesari spurns Lasem's advances even after he promises to give up the war if she will yield to him. He threatens to kill her father, but still she will not submit. Enraged, the king goes to carry out his threat, but during the battle that ensues, a blackbird flies in front of him, a bad omen, and Lasem is killed.

The dancers enact the various characters of the story that everyone in the audience knows by heart. The acting of the legong is abstract pantomime with such stylized action and economy of gesture that it becomes merely a danced interpretation of the literary text, which is recited by a story-teller, who chants the episodes and dialogues while the dance is in progress.

The dancer who plays Lasem enters, followed by Rangkesari (the two legongs) . Lasem, tugging at her skirt, tries to force the princess, but she strikes him with her fan. This is repeated until Lasem grows impatient and, after a struggle, retires enraged. The princess is left alone, wiping her tears with the edge of her apron and slapping her thigh with a fan, a gesture of grief. As the girl kneels., Lasem reappears, angry and defiant, on his way to continue the war against Rangkesari's father; the closed fan becomes a kris which be points threateningly at his imaginary enemy. In the following episode the attendant, the tiondong, puts on her arms a pair of golden wings made of leather, to portray the unlucky crow; she' dances sitting on the ground, fluttering her wings with lightning speed, advancing on her knees with birdlike leaps, and beating the earth with her wings. Lasem besitates for a moment at sigbt of the ominous bird, but goes on with his kris drawn; the bird dashes at him, obstructing his progress and hampering him in the battle. The dramatic end of the epi sode is left to the imagination, and the three little girls end with a relaxed dance of farewell. The performance has lasted well over an hour and at the end the girls appear perfectly calm, unfatigued after their strenuous dance.

From the treatment of the story, conventional dance formulas to represent actions and emotions explained by a story-teller, one could deduce that the legong is an elaboration of the archaic shadow-plays, the,wayang kulit. It hints at an attempt by human beings to perform dramatic stories like those played by marionettes, as is perhaps the case of the Javanese wayang wong - "' human wayang or actors that play in the wayang style. It is interesting to note that while the old records speak of other forms of Balinese theatre, no mention is made of the legong, which may not, after all, be an ancient dance.

A very popular dance that seems related to the legong is the djoged, performed by a girl in a variation of the legong costume and in the traditional legong steps. The dance is considered _erotic by the Balinese because the girl entices the men from the audience by " making eyes " at them during the course of the dance. The man invited must dance with her in postures that represent a love game of approach and refusal (nibing) , in which the man tries to come near enough to the girl's face to catch her perfume and feel the warmth of her skin, the Balinese form of a kiss. As the audience becomes worked up, other men " cut in " and dance with her. I have seen performances of dioged that had an intoxicating effect on the crowd, especially in the more decadent form called gandrung, when it is a boy in girl's clothes who performs. Fights among the men of the audience at gandrung dances are not unheard of, a procedure, which is extremely un-Balinese.

The djoged could easily be a modernized, decadent version of the ancient mating dance still to be found'' in the village of Tenganan, stronghold of native tradition. There, once a year, a dance called abuang is performed in which the unmarried girls of the village appear dressed in their best, wearing gold flower bead-dresses (reminiscent of the paper scallops that decorate the back of the dioged head-dress) and meet bacbelor boys who posture with the girl of their preference in a short dance in which the gestures make one think of a chaste and restrained dioged. Curiously enough, the dioged is forbidden in Tenganan.

But there is still another dance, undeniably of ancient origin, that is even more closely related to the legong: the sanghyang dedari (to be described later), a magic dance in which the little girls dressed in legong costumes go into trance, supposedly to be possessed by the spirits of the heavenly nymphs, to bring luck and magic protection to the village through their performance. The steps of the sanghyang are exactly the same as those of the legong and it is disconcerting and eerie that at no time have the little girls received dance training, and that when in trance they are able to perform the difficult steps that take months and even years of practice for an ordinary legong.

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