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Click for larger view.Balinese dances tell a story. The stories are like fairy tales, but with Hindu gods playing a role. The cast of characters generally includes a prince, a princess, animals and mythical creatures. There's always magic; a magical forest, or perhaps water with magical powers.

Though I've attended many Balinese performances over the years, I was only recently struck by a profound difference between the endings of western fairy tales and those of Balinese stories. While western fairy tales end "happily ever after," Balinese stories end another way.

I had just attended a performance of the Kembang Cekepung (Frog Dance), and decided to reread the description of the dance. At the end of the last act, the program states that the prince and princess "got married and lived together harmoniously." Though this might seem to be nothing more than a casual rewording of "happily ever after," I can assure you that there's nothing casual about Balinese culture. The wording is deliberate, and it gives the dance more depth than most fairy tales. Let's face it, "lived together harmoniously" is a good deal more grounded in reality than is "happily ever after."

While pragmatism may seem a bit at odds with the emphasis on magic that one finds throughout Balinese dance, and, in fact, throughout Balinese culture, the concept of harmony plays a very big role in all aspects of Balinese life.

The Balinese people are constantly working to find a balance between a variety of opposing forces: good versus evil; the seen versus the unseen. Harmony is the answer to the seemingly conflicting concepts of magic and reality.

Everything in Bali is layered. The first layer is what you see at first. It may be something as innocent as the ending to a story. But, beneath that layer, you'll find that the wording used to end the story speaks volumes about Balinese culture.

Diane Embree
December 26, 2004

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