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The Fire Dance of Bali

Clyde Freeman Herreid

Skeptical Briefs Volume 9.2, June 1999

Darkness approached as we pulled into the tiny parking lot in front of the shed next to the Hindu temple. We climbed out of the taxi that carried us from our motel outside of Ubud, the cultural center of Bali, Indonesia. Our driver shepherded us past the ticket taker and into the shadows ahead. We could see a six-foot wooden candelabrum standing on the floor. Cups of flames from burning paraffin spilled out of the heads of the eight dragons making up the candelabrum. What a wonderful prop, I thought. A fitting setting for the dance I had heard so much about. We were about to see the Kechak Dance where a young man would walk unharmed through fire. It was not merely a theatrical special effect but a real ceremonial exploit, supposedly possible because of the man’s "spiritual” qualities. In fact, the entire evening was to be appreciated from that perspective-awe-inspiring religious ritual for the people of Bali.

The tourists who had come to see this tri-weekly performance solemnly took their places on tiers of wooden benches set up on three sides of the bare dance floor. The fading sunlight and a couple of weakly lit bulbs allowed us to see the front of the temple, serving as a backdrop and an entrance point for the dancers. We settled down to wait. A few of us on the back benches stood in the dim shadows to get a better view, leaning on the bamboo fence running the perimeter.

It quietly started. A few voices began chanting off to the side. One hundred barechested men with black and white checkered sarongs and red sashes silently filed in from the temple to seat themselves in a circle on the bare floor in front of us, the candelabrum their focal point. Kechak had begun. In fractured English, the program read, “Kechak is the most unique balinese dance which is not accompanied by any orchestra/gambelan but by a choir of hundred men. It has its origin in an old ritual dance: ‘Sanghlyang’ or trance dance. Using the dances as a medium, the deities or ancestors convey their wishes, in the 1930’s the old Indian epic ramayana was included into the dance. Briefly the story runs as follows.”

True to the description, we were treated to a few episodes of the epic drama of the Ramayana edited for tourist consumption-it normally lasts for hours-with colorful costumes and many comings and goings of Lord Rama, Queen Sita, Hanuman the monkey god, and the Golden Deer. We were witnesses to a kidnapping, a war between good monkeys and the evil ogre Rahwana, and an escape by Rama assisted by Garuda, the king of the birds. It was a tale no more fanciful than most of our recent television scripts in the USA and a lot more spiritually uplifting. This was accompanied by marvelous chanting and rhythmic swaying of the male chorus. There were moments which any devotee of old B-movies would recognize-men, arms uplifted, chanting around the burning flames. This part of the program ended with Rama and his wife, Sita, happily reunited.

A few moments later, after the candelabrum was cleared and the men had wandered off stage, a women’s chorus began to chant accompanied by a smaller group of men from the temple. This was the Sanghyang Dedari Dance performed by two prepubescent girls dancing to drive evil spirits away from the village. The young virgins were said to be in a trance as they swayed and swooned in the shadows. Skeptic that I am, I noted a lot of peeking going on by the young girls, whose eyes were supposed to be closed throughout. A priest splashing holy water about did not allay my doubts nor did the fact that one of the young misses clearly was interested in smoothing out her sarong when she was reputed to be in a dead faint on the floor.

After the virgins retired with a surprisingly light step for two girls who seconds ago were dragged off the floor in a trance, the climax of the evening was to begin. This was the fire dance-one that tourists always talked about. The Sanghyang Jaran Dance. The program read: “An entranced boy dance on a horse (jaran). Behaving like horse. He dance around a bonfire made from coconut husks. If the sanghyang sung leads him to fire, then he will dance on fire.” That’s what it was supposed to look like.

This is the way I saw it: After the dance of the virgins, the central dirt floor was cleared of flower debris and a dirty tarpaulin. A “stage-hand"-or perhaps more appropriately called a temple assistant-dressed in street clothes, hauled in a large sack of coconut husks and dumped them unceremoniously in the center of the floor, making a three-foot circle about a foot and one-half high. As the spectators watched, he splashed what seemed to be kerosene on the husks, then another assistant dropped a match. Soon, a roaring blaze was lighting the dance floor, the assistants spreading the fire about with bamboo strips and fanning vigorously. This was certainly impressive. A few minutes later, one of the assistants began raking the embers and firebrands into a wider area, about a six-foot diameter circle.

The male and female choruses on either side of the temple front began their counterpunctual chanting. The audience was spellbound. A young man entered the area from the temple. He too wore a sarong sash and was barechested. His feet were bare, a point which spectators quickly noted, because after all he was going to dance on the fire, wasn’t he? Balanced over one shoulder he carried a crude six-foot stick and grass figure which looked vaguely like a horse. He held the shaggy head bobbing in front of him, the tail to the rear. The dance, if one could call it that, consisted of the man shuffling around the arena getting ever closer to the smoldering embers with vigorous chants to encourage him. After a few circuits, he plunged into the center of the firebrands and smoking charcoal bits, kicking them skittering across the dirt floor. A few stopped precariously close to the feet of anxious spectators. The assistants quickly raked the embers back into a pile. Again the dancer shuffled into their midst, sparks flying in all directions among the shadows. This was repeated half a dozen more times, then with little ceremony the horseman wandered close to the spectators lining the first row benches and slumped to the ground, conveniently in a small pool of light thrown by a weak light bulb.

A temple priest who had figured briefly in the earlier dances emerged from the temple once more with water glass in hand. He strode to the feet of the dancer who was seated leaning against his horse on the ground, legs splayed out. The priest cast holy water over the dancer as the chanting stopped. A dazed sickly smile was on the horseman’s face as the priest gestured for nearby spectators to inspect the soles of the dancer’s feet. As a few spectators gave tentative pokes to his dirty soles, a man announced that the evening performance had ended. Soon an enthralled cluster of spectators had gathered about the prone dancer with oohs and ahs and much shaking of wondering heads and sympathetic gestures over another mystery of the Far East.

The secret? As with most great conjuring tricks, the secret is deceptively simple. First, the psychological preparation is important; by reputation, people had heard and expected something wonderful and mysterious to happen-man will dance on fire. The setting is dark, with religious overtones. Chanting and dancing along with incense, costumes, and mythical story completed the preparation.

The building of the fire clearly captivated the audience, raising their expectations as flames reached into the night, casting flickering shadows across the floor. Fire is dangerous and we know it. In fact, some of us glanced upward wondering what would happen if the high bamboo ceiling were to ignite. However, as all firewalkers realize, there are different kinds of fires. Prepared from the loose fibers of coconut, this one was quick and bright, with many sparks. It burned for less that ten minutes (I timed it) before the flames were snuffed out as the glowing coconut husks were raked about. Then, with little delay, our dancing horseman shuffled into their midst, kicking a spectacular showing of sparks across the floor. And here was the key to this maneuver: He didn’t pick up his feet. He simply slid his feet across the dirt floor banging into the loosely heaped glowing husks with his toes. There was no chance of stepping on any of the coals, for they bounced out of the way. The ground was hardly warm to the touch. His shuffling gait did not attract attention, for that was excused as part of the entire dance. He was supposed to be in a trance, and, after all, one doesn't leap around with a clumsy horse over your shoulder. So it was nothing out of the ordinary to see our performer shuffle into the glowing coals-perhaps a little more vigorously than before. He was in more danger of stubbing his toe against the coconut husks than he was of getting burned. I had no inclination to join the throng examining the thick soled soot and ash covered feet of our “exhausted and emotionally drained” horseman. Obviously, I was in the minority. Unfortunately, too often that is the lot of a skeptic.

Clyde Freeman Herreid

Clyde F. Herreid is a CSICOP consultant, magician, biologist, Distinguished Teaching Professor and Academic Director of the University Honors Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260.