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The Dartmouth
June 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Burneikis '98 explores Balinese culture

Over the summer, Alexa Burneikis '98 got to fulfill her childhood fantasy: she visited the island of Bali. "I found Bali in a book somewhere when I was a kid," she said. Ever since, she has been enchanted with the island's tropical landscape and cultural treasures. When a real opportunity to visit Bali presented itself in the form of the Goodman Fund, a College anthropology grant, she jumped at the chance and won funding for her travel.

Although the original focus of the trip was a study of Balinese dance, Burneikis reconsidered this plan upon her arrival at the Indonesian island's tourist center, Kuta. Far from the pristine paradise she had envisioned, she discovered a tourist city in the strictest sense of the word. Complete with American fast food chains and even a Hard Rock Cafe, Kuta caters primarily to the large contingent of surfers who have made pilgrimages to Bali ever since its exceptional waves were discovered in the 1950s.

The contrast between Bali's indigenous culture and that of Western societies could not be more sharp. Aboriginal Balinese mixed with Hindus from the mainland to form a hybrid religion and culture. Bali Hindu combines the teachings of Hindu with the precepts of ancestor worship and animism, a belief system which holds that all things possess an innate soul. In their villages, Balinese still practice rituals like making offerings to spirits that fascinated early Western visitors in the 1920s and '30s.

Even outside of the major town, however, Burneikis discovered the not-so-beneficial influence of Western lifestyles upon native culture. Cremation ceremonies that require traditional garb, for example, draw tourists dressed in T-shirts.

Balinese boys wear Levi's and flirt with the tourists, ignoring local girls. Police, unnecessary prior to Western encroachment because Bali Hindu's karma-based teachings effectively prevented crime, are now corrupt and irresponsible.

Burneikis decided to research the effects of tourism on the island society; she continued to study Balinese dance for pleasure.

The skewed outlooks provided by Western anthropological, tourist and artistic literature provided a necessary counterpoint to the first-hand data she collected. Burneikis' work focuses on debunking the myth of Bali as a neatly packaged paradise by exposing the variety and diversity of the island culture. She used video documentary as a primary tool to record evidence for a comprehensive paper on her cultural findings. As for the dance, she decided to learn it herself.

On campus, Burneikis is known for her fashion savvy and style -- it is with an aesthetically trained eye that she evaluates the beauty of traditional Balinese dance.

The dance is most notable for the performers' "perfect control of the body," she said. "Fingers, eyes, eyebrows and toes move" in a carefully arranged pattern set to the percussion-based music of a Gamelan orchestra. The dancers' bodies are tensed in an asymmetrical form, arching their backs so that the shoulder blades touch.

Despite her initial disillusionment with the false gloss of Balinese culture, Burneikis says that her stay on the island was "without a doubt, the best time of my life."

Locals welcomed her into their homes and, though the purpose of the trip was academic, she admits that there was plenty of "chilling on the beach and playing in the rice-fields." Indeed, after the official duration of the trip had expired, she found that she had budgeted her money so well that she went to Singapore to renew her visa for another month's stay.

After her own success in obtaining grant money, Burneikis enthusiastically encourages her fellow students with ideas for unusual research projects to pursue their interests: "If there's anything -- no matter how crazy -- that you want to do, you should try it because there's so much money out there and this is your time to explore."