by Gabriela Aleman

The playful laugh is over as her body falls into the starting position. Knees bent, spine erect, elbows up and back, she aligns her biceps perfectly with her shoulders. Face exquisitely balanced to show no emotion, she begins by extending her right arm out and she stops, hip popped to the opposite side, left heel rapidly tapping the floor. Her fingers are bent backward impossibly as her ring fingers vibrate side to side like metronomes, keeping time to the imaginary music. Twisting her wrists she flares her hands, her neck dipping to the side and then back again she stops. Here she looks me dead on as her right hand twitches to the side, yanking her eyes and neck like a puppet on a string, but she snaps them back instantly.

Traditional Balinese dancing. Image via Balinesedance.org.

Traditional Balinese dancing. Image via Balinesedance.org.

Balinese dancing is about posture, about fluidity and precision, but most importantly it’s about the eyes. Here the eyes are not the window to the soul; she gives nothing away. She is fearless and in control, her movements punctuated by a kick of the ankle or a twirl of the wrists, perfectly synchronized. She hears the dinging music in her head; she feels the shiny clothing on her skin; and she makes me feel as if I’m experiencing it, too. Her eyes tell whichever story she wishes to convey, but they have always been her shield and her dagger, ready to defend and disarm at a moment’s glance. She breaks the trance and laughs knowingly.

Leony, a girl my age that works at the school I teach at, exposed me to my first Balinese dancing experience. We were bonding over a discussion of things we like to do and she mentioned dancing. I asked her excitedly if she could show me and she did, shyly at first, and then with more confidence until she laughed and broke from the dance, thinking that I’d had enough. Except, it was the complete opposite: I can’t seem to get enough.

Balinese dancing is so different from every other type of dance form I’ve experienced, not to mention how challenging it is. Every Saturday a teacher comes to the school and gives a three hour long lesson to the younger girls from the village. Two of my volunteer friends and I always make a point to join in; even though we’re embarrassingly terrible at it, we love learning and interacting with the girls, in addition to providing a few laughs here and there every time a ten year old girl corrects us.

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It was during one of these Saturday classes that the teacher, Made, approached us and asked if we would be willing to go to her house and let her dress us up in traditional Balinese clothing. My friends and I looked at each other in bewilderment and agreed. Why would she want to do that with us? We decided it was better not to question it.

Two weeks later I found myself sitting in a chair while Made painted my face with waves of color. I was twirled into my traditional Balinese dress by her daughter and friends and after an hour and a half, the three of us looked ready to perform. My complexion actually resembles that of a Balinese woman, but it was a different story for my two friends who are Swedish and German; they looked a bit comical with their long black hair and drawn hairline, but regardless they looked beautiful.

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We took hundreds of pictures doing different poses, laughing, and dancing. We were dressed up in the traditional dress for the Tari Pendet, and get this: every single Balinese dance has a different dress, headpiece, and style of makeup that corresponds to it. We couldn’t believe our luck and the generosity of this woman for what she did for us.

Leony, who came with us and acted as our photographer, explained that the desire to dress us up came from a sense of pride; Balinese people are overjoyed when foreigners show interest or excitement in their culture. She explained that the teacher thought highly of us for joining her class every Saturday, regardless of skill level. Our interest in something so fundamental to her and other Balinese people was enough.

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I thought about this for a while, still amazed and shocked that such an opportunity arose for us. It’s the first time any volunteers from the school have been able to do such a thing. I thought about how easy and natural it is for me to be excited about the culture. Balinese culture is fascinating, and I try to show my interest as often as possible, whether it’s attending ceremonies and praying or joining in during dance classes. People all around the world consider Bali a paradise for its beaches and yoga; I consider it paradise because of the locals and its culture. It makes me sad to think about what people miss when they come here for holiday, but I couldn’t be more grateful to be experiencing Bali the way I am. This, I believe, is truly how one should experience a country.