Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sampih -- Gotta Dance, Gotta Die

Photo:  Auke Sonnega
The most famous traditional dancer of his day, Sampih was a boy living in the small village of Sayan in southeast Bali when Canadian composer Colin McPhee, residing in the area to study its music, adopted him.  Under McPhee's tutelage, the youngster trained under the finest Balinese dancers and within a year was a nationally recognized prodigy.  Later, British impresario John Coast showcased Sampih in a "Dancers from Bali" troupe that performed to sold out venues across the United States from September 1952 through January 1953.  The ambitious undertaking marked the first time in a generation the outside world was permitted to see Balinese performers dancing to a traditional Gamelang orchestra using xylophones, gongs, drums, and cymbals.  Although Sampih served as the chief artistic adviser to Coast and was paid the same $75 a week salary as the other dancers, he was the acknowledged star of the troupe.  The dancer's popularity and financial success, however, led some in the company and his home country to feel he had somehow changed and now considered himself to be better than others.  In Bali's rigid social system, Sampih belonged to the lowest caste and his purchase of a modest motorbike, and the fact that prominent people in higher castes now recognized him, made many of his fellow-countrymen angry and jealous.  Evidently oblivious to the undercurrent of hostility around him, Sampih continued to ride his motorbike around his home village of Sayan where he lived with his wife and small child.

While on an official trip to Bali on February 28, 1954, President Sukarno of the Indonesian Republic requested that Sampih dance for him later that evening at a festival near the town of Sayan.  When the 28-year-old dancer failed to appear, messengers were dispatched to his home and were informed by Sampih's wife that he left on his motorbike earlier that afternoon.  Either that afternoon or three days later (accounts vary), the dancer's body was found floating in the Lauh River that flows past Sayan.  Sampih had been strangled and his face beaten almost beyond the point of recognition.  His motorbike, the apparent symbol of the dancer's sin against Balinese society, was smashed and buried nearby.  Sampih's murder remains unsolved.

Recommended Reading

Bowers, Faubion.  "Letter from Bali," New Yorker, 31(7):  114, 116-26, Oct. 29, 1955.

McPhee, Colin.  A House in Bali.  Singapore; New York:  Oxford University Press, 1979.
New Yorker

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