Why Watching Cultural Performances Is More Important Than You Thought

I must admit that I am not really the type who often goes to cultural events like dances, theater and so on. Maybe this will change now. The reason why I did not appreciate it very much was that I saw it more as pure entertainment, rather than something that I could learn from. But when I went to a performance of the Kecak dance yesterday, I learned more than I ever imagined.

This wasn’t the first time for me to watch Kecak. Many years ago I enjoyed the show, but I just didn’t get it. It was fun to watch, but when you don’t really know what’s going on, you also don’t really learn much. But yesterday was different for two reasons:

  1. I was lucky: a nice Indian man sat next to me
  2. I was eager to talk with him because he was from a culture I barely know anything about

Thing is, if you watch the video and see a little of what Kecak looks like, I’m sure you will not have any clue about what’s going on. What the actors are doing is beautiful, but incomprehensible. Men chanting songs and women moving beautifully. Now what? What is this supposed to tell me?

Well, I have no plans to tell what Kecak really is about. What I want to tell you is what I learned from the experience. And to do that, I will share a little bit of what Peter Young calls the Building Block metaphor of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The mind consists of “a set of building blocks”, he says, “which can be assembled in a huge variety of ways”. And because we all have our own unique experiences, the way these building blocks are put together are also unique for each and every one of us.

Every day we add blocks of knowledge to what we already know




We have fields of knowledge, knowledge piles,  into which these new experiences are then integrated. Imagine each pile as one field of knowledge, to new pieces are added step by step. The piles grow and grow, until finally they overlap.

Together these blocks of knowledge form our worldview

What this means is that:

  1. our previous experiences shape the reality we perceive
  2. our worldview changes whenever we experience something new and interpret it in a way that is in-congruent with what we already belief
  3. Our experiences, knowledge blocks and expertise in a certain area defines not only how we interpret a situation, but even whether or not we pay attention to information, or even recognize it at all

In Peters words:  “As you continue to learn, you develop expertise in certain areas, which means that you have the ability to differentiate details, and describe differences with other people who do not have the same background experience literally cannot see”.

When I watched Ketchak, it was me who literally couldn’t see what meaning there was behind the dance…

…because it is almost impossible to understand what it means unless you are, by any chance, well informed about Hindu mythology, which my Indian friend obviously was. He knew exactly what the chanting meant, the way the people moved, even though they neither said anything, nor did he know anything about the dance. What it took was that you understand the background situation first. And interestingly, in that way, the Kecak dance perfectly reflects the Asian culture of indirect communication.


Without having the same frame of reference, the same experiences, and without an understanding of background information, communication among Asians, and understanding their dances is impossible. And that is very different from the performances in the West, which are mostly not too abstract, but rather straightforward. Or…well….at least the people are saying something.

But my perspective was shaken up in other ways as well…

First there is the fact that I’ve suddenly grown to realize to what extent cultural performances reflect the local way of thinking, and why they can give you amazing insights into the local perspective.

Second the extent to which different cultures from different nations overlap. The only reason why the Indian man was able to understand what was going on, is that the story is exactly the same as what he is familiar with from his own folklore. In fact, the story even comes from India. It is an Hindu epic called “Ramayana”, on which many other Indonesian cultural aspects such as the “Wayang” puppets are based. Sure, I always understood that culture is influenced by migration, but to what extent is something I just began to comprehend after my encounter with the Kecak dance.



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