Balinese Poise


Anthropologists have often remarked that Balinese constantly stylize their behavior and are terribly afraid of spontaneously showing emotion. Clifford Geertz wrote that "there is in Bali a persistent and systematic attempt to stylize all aspects of personal expression to the point where anything isiosyncratic, anything characteristic of the individual is muted in favor of his assigned place in the continuing pageant that is Balinese life" (Geertz, 1984: 128).

This cultural configuration--“theater of status” as Geertz calls it--is complemented by appropriate kinds of emotion. The Balinese, says Geertz, are haunted by stage-fright, lek, the fear that they might botch their acts, “that an esthetic illusion will not be maintained, that the actor will show through his part and the part thus dissolve into the actor. When this occurs ..., the immediacy of the moment is felt with an excruciating intensity, and men become unwilling consociates locked in mutual embarrassment, as though they had inadvertently intruded upon one another’s privacy. Lek is the fear of faux pas" (Geertz, 1973: 402). Everything that marks a Balinese as an individual person is to be erased from public expression.

If the anthropologists are right, the Balinese "conceive of the person not as an isolated, indivisible unit but as a nexus of interacting forces, macrocosmic and microcosmic, natural and spiritual, always in a delicate balance. Balians (spiritual healers) interpret the significance of clients' experiences in terms of the connections between the individual 'self' and cosmic forces" (Connor et al., 1986: 29)

This view of the body expresses itself in a motion-style that Jane Belo has described as Balinese poise:

  One remarks a sort of carefulness in the bearing, as if each foot were placed in its appointed place, each turn of the head or flick of the wrist calculated not to disturb an equilibrium delicately set up, and hanging somewhere unseen within the individual. The Balinese is never unconscious of his position in space, in relation to kaja, north, which is the direction of the mountains, and kdod, south, the direction of the sea; and in relation to his position above the ground, which should not be higher than that of his social superior. It would seem that a great deal of the "carefulness" in the manner of the Balinese springs from his habit of adjusting his position according to the laws of his cosmology and his social group. The other great factor is the habitual avoidance of any impulsive movement which could shock or otherwise momentarily disturb the feeling of well-being in the body (Belo, 1970 (1955): 86-7).

Belo also noted the measured quality of the Balinese gait:

  The individual Balinese moves slowly, with deliberation... Walking along the roads, each individual progresses with an even, measured step. The custom is to walk in single file, probably because the trails are narrow, and even today when the gravel covered motor roads are used for long distance walking, there is only a narrow track at the side which is comfortable to bare feet. Rarely does one individual walking in the single file pass another, for all go at the same rhythmic pace. This pace seems to be kept over long distances as well as short and is hardly influenced when the walker carries a medium load (about forty pounds). Women carry such a load with facility, balanced on their heads. (87)

Writing of the movement of people up and down the narrow paths leading down to the river, she depicts the sense of balance that one finds in the Balinese and its acquisition:

  Mothers carry babies on their hips, at the same time balancing a forty-pound jar of water on their heads, yet never do they waver in their erect posture nor vary their slow even pace on the steep and often slippery incline. Little girls of five or six already carry a coconut shell full of water on their heads. Gradually the weight of water is increased, until, on reaching maturity, the slender girl can manage as heavy a load as her mother and aunts. (89)