Topeng-masks and accessories used by Balinese Dancers

Watching a Balinese dancer can be foreign, even odd. The movement and posture seem angular and unnatural, the masks and outfit disconcerting, the vocals and characterization over the top. What seems odd even sometimes funny, is a high art to the Balinese, who start training very young. Little boys and girls as young as five already perform at events, following in the footsteps of an old tradition and refined art.

Some react surprised when they learn I have played for such dancers. As a gamelan player and tutor I have had the honor to skip my hammer across a metallphone-like instrument, as I watch the dancers twirl here, pause there or burst into bobbing and weaving sequences. It is always a highlight for us musicians to work with dancers, and I believe many in the audience also perk up when they have more than just the fast-paced music to experience.

Working with Topeng [mask] Dancers

Preparing for a concert in Munich a few weeks ago, brought this world into a whole new light for me. Imagine arriving two days before the concert and not knowing a single phrase of the dance-piece you will be playing in two days time. Imagine witnessing two internationally-renown dancers teach and rehearse this piece – sometimes even fine tuning and changing details as they go along. There is no time to be in awe of their skill, as you busy yourself grasping the melodies and structures.

But in retrospect I am in awe: not of their skill (which goes without saying is brilliant) but the openness and readiness these men have in teaching Europeans their music. A patient tap on the shoulder with a wordless correction, offered with a twinkling smile. An honest interest to understand everyone’s questions and wobbles and a tireless energy to solve every challenge as a team. A ready laugh and calming attitude when things get tight. These men might be stars, but they are more down to earth than many common people you meet on the street.

And just when you got used to their openness and ready helping hand they get up to dance, transforming into character: e.g. a caricature of someone haughty, old or drunk. It is one thing to marvel at how quickly they slip in and out of their dancing. But looking past that, I started to discover a more profound lesson to be learned.

“The World is But A Stage”

Shakespeare knew what he was talking about. We are always performing. Many change their actions, stance, mannerisms or any other detail in appearance as soon as they feel observed. They want to belong to a group, make an entrance, be remembered, not make a fool of themselves … It’s like we are putting a mask (if not more than one) when meeting certain people. Some do this as soon as they leave their house or even their bed. One mask could be called “I am successful”, another “I am cool”, or “I am young”, “I am happy”, “I know what I am doing”, “I am sexy”, “I am better than you”, “I am an expert”, and so on. Add to those professional, political and religious orientation, ethnicity, family roles and similar parameters and the masks are stacking up fast.

The real and true self is hidden beneath layers and layers, with the person cocooned within. The masks become a shield, to hide behind. Sometimes they are an out right lie as to what is happening “behind the mask”. Like someone putting on happy face whilst inside they are ready to burst into sobs or start to scream. Others grow so used to their mask(s) it becomes daunting to drop them and be themselves. The beautiful uniqueness of the individual gets locked away, replaced by a mask reflecting societal expectations, learned habits and limitations.

Is this why some people cringe when watching the Balinese mask dances? Some indicate how foreign it all is. But maybe the reaction is more subliminal. Western audience members comment how the dancers switch between their brilliant art and suddenly seemingly very private and openly personal moments. The two worlds of masked and unmasked are being drawn close together. Sometimes we note on the contrasts; sometimes we see them blend to one. Does this remind us of the day-to-day person identifying so much with the mask they wear, they lose the distinction between their inner self and the mask they put on?

A Balinese approach to life

The dancer might be hidden behind a mask and several layers of clothing, but despite this cocoon, they convey much more than a mere character. They act as a mirror to society. A reminder how easy it is to put on a mask and become someone else, to negate who you truly are inside.

On Bali, various kinds of events take place that includes dance and other art forms that comment on daily life. There is an openness to laugh at not only jokes but also people. However, this is not in a finger-pointing, destructive way. There is a joie de vivre, that seems to say “don’t take yourself so seriously,” “let it go,” “this happened to me, too”.

At first glance, these events might seem to offer an escape from the drudge of day-to-day life. But on closer inspection, it reflects on it. This helps individuals find not only a lighter take on their own life, but also a tighter community, as they learn that they are not alone in their experiences. But what is more, even the dancers form a part of this community. They are neither remote nor set themselves above others. As soon as the mask comes off, they are themselves with no additions or bells and whistles.

What is more, these artists have a knack of switching back and forth with ease. During rehearsals, it is fascinating to watch how they work. Even without the masks, it is clear when they are “wearing” the character and when they quickly jump out of it to discuss something or just perch themselves mid-motion to take a breather. It’s as simple as putting on and taking off a hat, only that their whole posture and demeanor reacts.

Looking behind the mask

Now many of us are not renown dancers, but then our daily life does not require us to move to set dance rules either. What is keeping us from taking off our mask(s) once in a while? We talk about wearing or swapping different hats when talking about our lives, which we multi-taskers handle rather well. But when it comes to appearance we struggle in showing our real selves. We struggle to drop the mask that indicates social, ethnic, emotional, expected habits or similar. The result is that the individuality is not only hidden, but actions and reactions differ from what the unconstrained person would do. The image (the mask we wear) is so important that we do not even blink when it suppresses the natural drive to support ourselves and others.

I would like to invite you to be brave and look at the mask(s) you wear, whether these relate to your social environment, what your family expects of you, your professional “face” or your outer emotional shell you present to the world. Really explore what you’re are presenting to the world.

  • What is it disguising or changing?
    • Does it suppress emotions or traits?
    • Does it enhance what you are doing whilst you wear it? i.e. Does it set your role, enabling others to know who to focus on?
    • In what way does it differ from the real you behind it?
  • In what way is the mask interacting with your life and/or other masks you wear?
    • How does it shape your day-to-day life?
    • Watch the reactions of people around you whilst you are “wearing” it.
    • Does it still serve its purpose, or are you reliving past developments every time you “wear” it?
  • Where does it attach?
    • Do you trigger it by posture, a change in voice, clothing or a place?
    • Is there a different feeling or emotion when “behind the mask”?
    • Can you easily slip it on and off, or does it feel like you have to go through a time-consuming installing and detaching?

These are but a selection of the kind of questions you can explore. The point is to become your own observer, your own audience, and to see what is happening. When unsure watch those around you how they react in your day-to-day life. They might offer subtle hints when you suddenly don or switch masks.

Get creative

And now for some fun: Balinese dancer do not just act out the character but also have a unique mask for each. When you have figured out a mask you wear, grab some paper and draw it, give it a name, create a story around it exploring and describing its traits. Hey, if you are a crafter, get crafty and make a 3D representation of it. Have fun and get creative. The important thing is to take a step back and explore it, without judgment. This approach is an aspect of what the Balinese dancer provides. He or she takes characteristics and allows his or her audience to view them from a distance, mixed in with a story, the enjoyment of the art and even some fun.

Now if you do not feel like dancing, that is totally fine. However, you could have a chat with the mask. Interview it on how it feels when you wear it, or what advice it wants to give you and write down whatever comes to mind. Again this should not be judgemental. Just follow your observations and explore little tweaks you want to make. If you want to throw it out and draft a new one, or even go without, that is fine. But you can also restrict where/when you wear it, or reduce the emotional or other filters it bears.

Strive to create comfort, both for you behind the mask and those around you whilst you are wearing it. Strive to be conscious of when you use one, and you will learn to be more tolerant with those around you who have yet to develop this mask-consciousness. Better yet: see if once in a while you can drop all masks and just be you in all your glory. Surprise yourself and others by shining your light unaltered and unfiltered. You need not be a dancer to be awesome both on and off the stage that is our world.


Title image: photography of topengs & accessories during “Musik und Tanz aus Bali”  (Music and Dance from Bali) project, 12/29/16 by A. Haupt.