Like most of the performing arts of the Orient, dance in Indonesia is believed to have had its roots in religious worship. Even today, many dances are considered sacred or can be traced back to their early spiritual associations. Among these are not only the temple dances of Bali, but also such seemingly profane dances, such as the Bedoyo Ketawang of Solo, performed only on such rare occasions that they are in peril of becoming lost due to the lack of the young dancers able to perform them. Dance traditions today are as widely diverse as the various ethnic cultures of which they are part. Nurtured to refined perfection in the royal Javanese courts, the classical dances of Central Java are highly stylized expressions which had probably already attained their basic movements during the height of the Hindu-Javanese culture, from the 8th to the 13th century. Those dances eventually reached the common people, who gave them a more spontaneous form of expression. In the hands oh the people, these dances provided a rich source not only for popular dance dramas, but also for sosial dances, which often display clear erotic overtones, such as Tayuban or Ngibing. The bumbung dance of Bali evolved into the beautiful “Bumblebee Dance” and “Tamulilingan”, a creation of Bali’s late maestro, I Mario. Other popular folk dances still display strong magic associations, as in the “Kuda Lumping" horse dance. Whereas rigid discipline and artistry mark the dance of Java and Bali, those of Sumatra, Maluku and most of the other islands are characterized by their gracefulness and charm, a distinctions which is further accentuated by non-gamelan musical accompaniment. The old traditions of dance and drama are being preserved in the many dance schools which flourish not only in the courts, but also in the modern, government-run or supervised art academies.
For comparative study and enjoyment, the introduction of serious western art forms is also being encouraged through performances sponsored by private organizations or foreign missions, as well as by government supervised institutions such as Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Centre in Jakarta.
Regular performances of the popular dances such as the legong kraton, the barong kris and the baris dances, are easily found throughout Bali. They are usually staged for tourists by the village people. The Kecak is performed at night by torchlight. Nowadays, even some of the formerly sacral dances, such as the fire dance, are often performed nightly for tourists, notably at Kuta and Sanur beach.
There are two leading names in staging spectacular traditional dance ballets on a regular basis. One is the Prambanan open air stage near Yogyakarta, where between June and October, during nights of the full moon, performances are given of the Ramayana Ballets. The other is the Chandra Wilwatika open air stage at Pandaan in East java, performing stories taken from the popular East javanese folk legends.
An offshoot of the wayang wong theatre, Ketoprak is the contemporary popular version of dance drama which takes its stories from popular folk legends and history rather than from the classic epics. Costumes, dialogues and dances, are much simpler than those at the wayang waong.