UbudIn the 1930s, when tourism to Bali was just beginning, two western residents, painter Walter Spies and author Katharane Mershon felt that the “cak” chorus of the Sanghyang dances, taken out of its ritual context with an added storyline, would be a hit among their friends and other visitors. Working with Wayan Limbak, a leading Balinese dancer and his troupe in Bedulu village, they incorporated Baris movements into the role of the cak leader. Eventually the story of the Ramayana was added, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that elaborate costumes were used.

The Kecak dance, as it is now called, involves a chorus of at least 50 men. They sit in concentric circles around an oil lamp and begin to slowly chant: cak-cak-cak-cak is the sound they make. Up to seven different rhythms are interwoven, creating a tapestry of sound similar to the gamelan. One man is the kempli or time beater and his “pong” cuts through the chorus. A juru tandak sings the tale of the Ramayana as the drama progresses. Tourists call this the “Monkey Dance,” because at the end of the play the men become the monkey army sent to rescue Sita. The cak sound also resembles the chattering of monkeys.

Kecak is performed solely for tourists. One would never see it in a temple ceremony. Even though it has its roots in the Sanghyang trance dances, the Kecak dancers themselves do not go into trance.