Pendet, the dance that
rocks the cradle

All embracing: The Pendet is a Balinese dance intended to dissolve barriers, although in the past week it has led to international conflict. JP/Lukman SB
All embracing: The Pendet is a Balinese dance intended to dissolve barriers, although in the past week it has led to international conflict. JP/Lukman SB

The Pendet is meant to be the dance that embraces. It is supposed to vanquish any barriers, cultural or otherwise, that lie between the host and the guest. This week, however, the Pendet became the very thing that triggered the creation of such barriers.

The Balinese have responded to the use of the Pendet in a TV spot for the Discovery Channel’s special series Enigmatic Malaysia with a mixed sense of anger and disbelief. The spot’s use of the ad implicitly claims that the dance is part of Malaysia’s cultural heritage.

Following a flurry of street protests, emergency meetings between local government officials and cultural historians, and rising demands that the government take a firmer diplomatic stance on the matter, both the Discovery Channel and the Malaysian firm that paid for the TV spots have reportedly offered their apologies to the Indonesian government.

It was also reported that the spots were pulled from Discovery Channel.

For the Balinese, there has never been any doubt that the dance belongs to this island. The word pendet itself has its root in the local language.

Balinese scholar I Ketut Sumarta says the word pendet shares the same roots as pendak and pundut, which respectively mean “to welcome a respected person” and “to carry a sacred object”.

“Pendet basically means to welcome. This word gave birth to mamendet, the act of welcoming,”
he says.

In ancient times, both pendet and pendak were reserved to illustrate the act of welcoming royalty or
benign deities.

Professor Dr. I Made Bandem, one of the most respected authorities on Balinese arts, adds the word is actually used to refer to a sacred temple dance.

“It was and still is a devotional dance, performed by both male and female dancers, including the temple’s priests,” he says.

“In this sacred form of the Pendet dance, the performers carry in their hands various ritual paraphernalia, including flower offerings and burning incense.”

The sacred dance is performed to welcome the gods and deities as they descend from their heavenly abode to the earthly site of the ritual.

Bandem, who penned the enduring Kaja and Kelod: Balinese Dance in Transition and the seminal Encyclopedia of Balinese Dance, says the Pendet differs from the other sacred temple dance of Rejang.

“The Rejang is performed by an all-female cast, mostly young girls, and the performers carry nothing in their hands,” he says.

“It’s an expression of purity, a host of angelic beings accompanied the gods and deities during their temporary stay in the temple.”

Noted Balinese choreographer Professor Dr. I Wayan Dibia points out the Pendet was the source of inspiration for two Balinese maestros, the late I Wayan Rindi and Ni Ketut Reneng, in creating the contemporary Pendet in the 1950s.

Rindi was an accomplished dancer from Lebah hamlet in East Denpasar, while Reneng was a well-known dancer from Kedaton hamlet.

During that period, the tourism industry boom had just begun and hotels in Denpasar and Sanur were organizing traditional dances and musical performances on a regular basis.

“Back then, both Rindi and Reneng realized they needed a new piece to perform at the opening of such shows,” Dibia says.

“And that’s how the contemporary Pendet was born.”

Their Pendet was performed by four female dancers, each carrying a shallow bowl filled with flower petals. The seven-minute performance begins with the dancers entering the stage, bowing and clasping their hands in a traditional sign of respect to the guests before starting the dance. At the end of the performance, they circle the stage while showering the guests with flower petals.

“The main difference between the sacred Pendet and the contemporary one lies in the sign of respect,” Dibia explains.

“In the sacred Pendet, the dancers clasp their hands above their heads, as a sign of respect to a divine being, while in the contemporary dance they clasp their hand in front of their chests — a sign of respect toward fellow humans.”

Arini Alit, 67, a senior dancer, remembers well her first Pendet performance in 1955 at an event in
the Rivolli movie theater in West Denpasar. She was just 6 years old at that time.

The Pendet’s golden age was in 1962, when then president Sukarno requested the dance be performed at the opening of the 4th Asian Games in Jakarta. Rindi and another Bali maestro, I Wayan Berata, prepared the mass performance.

At the opening of the sporting event, more than 3,000 Balinese girls performed the Pendet before 1,460 athletes from 16 countries. Sukarno’s face beamed with joy and pride, Arini recalls.

“I was there, in the first row, and behind me were rows upon rows of Balinese girls, all dancing for our president and our country,” she says.

“It was a jubilant moment for me.”

“Rindi and Berata recruited female students from across the island to join the performance,” Dibia adds.

“After months of rigorous rehearsals, they boarded a large ship and went to Jakarta.”

Several years later, the popularity of the Pendet had waned gradually. A new welcoming dance, the Gabor, had taken its place.

Yet the Pendet remained the primary source of inspiration for the numerous welcoming dances
to come, including the Puspa Wresti, first choreographed by Dibia in 1982.

It was performed during the inauguration ceremony of the Denpasar-Gilimanuk highway.
“The Puspa Wresti was clearly inspired by the Pendet,” Dibia says.

“The new element in Puspa Wresti was the presence of male warriors in the dance.”

The influence of the Pendet can also be seen in the Panyembrahma and the Sekar Jagat, both
arguably the most popular Balinese welcoming dances of the present day.

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