Cak or Kecak is a contemporary Balinese dance, a secular dance that its origin can be traced to the sacred Sanghyang dance. This dance was first created by dancers in Bedulu village, Gianyar regency, at the request of Walter Spies. The group was commissioned to devise a new kind of dramatic performance which is based on Ramayana epic, accompanied solely by a chorus like that found in sacred Sanghyang Dedari performance. In that old sacred rite, the choral group consist of perhaps a dozen men, each making distinctive ‘chek, chek, chek’ sound that blend into a complex interlocking rhythmic pattern to assist the dancers in sustaining their trance condition.
This sacred dance, much developed, is the basis for Cak, a purely secular performance given almost exclusively for tourist. It is unthinkable for a Balinese to stage a Cak dance in his ceremony or for local consumption. The first simple version created in Bedulu achieved instant success and rapidly became very popular with tourist and other visitors to Bali. At heyday of Balinese tourism, several dozen professional groups perform regularly at the larger hotels and on special stages built for that purpose in their ward meeting halls.
In Cak, a chorus of chanting men, whose number has been increased to a hundred or more, sit in concentric rings around an oil lamp. One of the chanter-dancers serves as the leader. Instead of the simple repetitive continuous chanting of the original version, the chorus now performs a highly structured piece of vocal music, exactly one hour long. Melodies and musical ideas from the modern Balinese concert repertoire are heard, and the influence of the Kebyar musical style is apparent.
The creators of Cak included a dramatic episode in the performance, executed by a small number of skilled dancers wearing simple costumes. The dramatic episode was taken from Ramayana epic, the first episode was a very simple representation of the abduction of Sita, Rama’s wife. Later, a battle sequence was added, in which Sugriwa, the king of monkey pitted against a giant named Megenada. This and subsequent innovations were quickly copied by other villages as more and more Cak group came into being. Since Balinese choreographers and musicians are very alert to the efforts of their colleagues and rivals, a successful local novelty can become standard practice all over the island in a matter of months.
In 1969, a number of important changes were made in the Cak performance. The single Ramayana episode was lengthened to represent the whole epic tale. The new costumes were brought into use, and the music was made more elaborate. These innovations were adopted almost everywhere within a few months, under pressure from travel agents, who threatened to stop taking tourist buses to village refusing to adapt their play to newer style.
Materials for this writing were taken from I Made Bandem and Fredrik Eugene deBoer’s Balinese Dance in Transition.