Legong dancer

This beautiful Art Deco statue of a Balinese dancer was made between approximately 1935 and 1950. The dancer is placed on a high plant-shaped base. She dances the Legong with two shields in the shape of bird wings. Her dance costume further consists of a legong headdress, a decorated lamak (breast cloth) and two subeng earrings.

Legong is a refined Balinese dance form characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions. The dance probably originated in the 19th century as royal entertainment. Legend has it that a prince of Sukawati fell ill and had a vivid dream in which two heavenly nymphs danced to gamelan music. When he recovered, he arranged for such dances to be performed in reality. Others believe that the Legong originated with the sanghyang dedari, a ceremony involving voluntary possession of two little girls by beneficent spirits.

Legong Keraton
The most popular legong dance is Legong Keraton (Legong of the Palace). Formerly, the dance was patronized by local kings and held in a residence of the royal family. Dancers were recruited from the aptest and prettiest children. Traditionally, legong dancers were girls who have not yet reached puberty. They began rigorous training from about the age of five. These dancers were regarded highly in the society and usually became wives of royal personages or wealthy merchants. After marriage they would stop dancing. However, in present Bali dancers may be of all ages.

The Legong Keraton is performed by three dancers: a female attendant of the court and two identically dressed legongs who adopt the roles of royal persons. The story derives from the history of East Java in the 12th and 13th centuries. A king finds the maiden Rangkesari lost in the forest. He takes her home and locks her in a house of stone.

Rangkesari’s brother, the prince of Daha, learns of her captivity and threatens war unless she is set free. She begs her captor to avoid war by giving her liberty, but the king prefers to fight. On his way to battle, he is met by a bird of ill omen that predicts his death. In the fight that ensues he is killed. The dance dramatizes the farewells of the king as he departs for the battlefield and his ominous encounter with the bird.

The dancers flow from one identity into the next without disrupting the harmony of the dance. They may enter as the double image of one character, their movements marked by tight synchronization. Then they may split, each enacting a separate role, and come together again. In a love scene in which they rub noses, the king takes leave of Rangkesari. She repels his advances by beating him with her fan, and he departs in anger, soon to perish on the battlefield.

Legong dancers are a popular subject in Balinese woodcarving. This started back in the 1930s when the first dance performances were given for tourists. Many of them also bought a wood carving of a dancer to take home as a souvenir. The most famous dancer of the period was Ni Pollok, who modeled for her husband, the Belgian artist Adrien Le Mayeur de Merprès, and other painters.

1949: Ni Pollok, wife of the Belgian painter Adrien Le Mayeur de Merprès, dances the legong in the garden of their house. Photo: C.J. Taillie/Tropenmuseum

In the video below you can watch the rare footage of a legong dance performance in 1933.

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