In Bali, dances on earth are seen as means to appease Gods and protect villages from famine, epidemics, and other misfortunes. Dancers, as such, perform a sacred role in bridging the gap between the earth and the spiritual world. The aesthetic quality in Balinese dance, in this view, is primarily perceived as an expression of religious reciprocation — that is, to please and gratify the Gods through dance so that they may, in turn, bless the people. Dancing, as an integral part of Balinese culture however, cannot only be seen as a form of religious expression, but also as an activity that entails cultural and even socioeconomic functions — especially for women, the leading performers of this sacred art in the highly hierarchal and conservative society of Bali.
Oka Rusmini’s Earth Dance depicts these implications of Balinese dance as a cultural activity that fulfills the personal, spiritual, and social desires of the performing women. Examining the lives of three prominent dancers – Luh Sekar, Ida Ayu Telaga, and Luh Kambren – in the story enables us to look at the role of dancing as means for Balinese women to achieve their divergent aspirations toward upward social mobility, pursuit of love, and lifetime devotion for the craft. It can also be noted, in the story, how these women differ in their ways of mastering the art through taksu, the holy inspiration from the Gods, which can be acquired as a result of intense devotion, as a form of gift from the pragina, or as a natural endowment from the gods themselves.
Aside from being a highly revered art form, dance for these Balinese women also means reverence in the community; the joyful dance joged, for instance, is a social activity that gathers and demands participation from both men and women regardless of social status. As such, for a commoner like Luh Sekar, whose family has been doomed by misfortune, mastery of Balinese dance does not only signify beauty and reverence but also represents an opportunity for upward social mobility of her class. Being a good dancer means attracting attention from men belonging to a Brahmin family who can deliver her from adversity and poverty. Knowing this, Luh Sekar achieved her aim through rigid practice and intense devotion for the Gods to give her taksu so she could one day attract attention of a Brahmana man.
On the other hand, Luh Sekar’s brahmana daughter, Ida Ayu Telaga embraces dancing to generate attention from her occasional dance partner, the commoner Wayan Sasmitha. Telaga receives the taksu from her renowned dance teacher Luh Kambren. For this, she gains the natural ability to dance and eventually learns to master the craft. However, due to her mother’s constant insistence to practice and perform, the dance itself becomes a repetitive activity, if only not only to see Wayan in these performances. Dancing, for Telaga, means breaking down the caste barrier and pursuing love – ending thus her ties with her family, giving up her social privilege as Brahmana, and formally accepting her commoner status through a patiwangin ritual.
But among these women, it was Luh Kambren, Telaga’s dance teacher, who best imbibed the craft. Despite being a commoner, Luh Kambren is said to have been “born to tend to the spirit of the dance” as she directly inherited taksu from the Gods. Dancing liberated and raised her status as a woman: on one hand, it empowered her to decline a marriage proposal from a King; while on the other hand, her life ends tragically, since being “married to her dances” means being subjected her to poverty and commercialization. As it was said, Bali existed in Luh Kambren’s body: worn-out, abused, commercialized, and fearful of foreign abuse.