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Sharing Filipino Culture Through Dance: Don’t stop at learning the steps!

Updated: Apr 16, 2022

Daniel Ceeline Ramonal, Serbia

With 7,641 islands, diversity in the Philippines is like no other. It boasts of more than 170 ethnolinguistic groups with varying traditions on language, art, music, food, and value systems. The country's identity is about multiple traditions co-existing in different regions, making the task of sharing Filipino culture a tricky one. Where and how to start?

As a dance anthropologist, movement is the instrument I use extensively in sharing stories about home. Through the years, I had opportunities to perform with different artists and stage performances that highlighted the Filipino identity. But at one point, I asked myself if I was doing it responsibly.

The fear of cultural appropriation was always looming in my head, especially after some well-known Filipino dance practitioners were criticized for prioritizing stylized dance aesthetics over their cultural aptness. I questioned my methods and confronted the techniques ingrained in my body, which I admit lacked cultural nourishment. For example, I observed that I can execute the steps of folk and ethnic dances I learned growing up yet had restricted knowledge of the cultural metaphors and narratives embedded in these dances. As a proud Filipino, this floored me.

From this realization, I began exploring the expanded capacities of dance. I looked into culturally-sensitive modes of transmission with the hope of enriching people’s knowledge of Filipino dance heritage abroad through research and workshops. Additionally, my exposure to the plight of the heritage bearers of many of our local practices has coursed me to look beyond the mainstreamed purpose of dance which is entertainment. Surely there have to be ways for local narratives not to be overwhelmed by theatricalization. Not to underestimate the technicalities of Philippine dances, but understanding their roots and purposes are equally important as they reveal socio-cultural nuances that compose the Filipino identity.

Philippine folk and ethnic dances go beyond moving rhythmically to musical accompaniment or following a pattern of steps. Our dances are linked to local communities’ history, beliefs, and way of life. The Singkil dance for instance is from the Maranao in Lanao del Sur. Originally it was performed only by women, and the lead dancer was of royal blood. The solemn faces and maintained dignified postures with backs straight, chins up, but eyes downcast reflected how women in the community conducted themselves in public.

How many of us knew this and the other unmentioned contextual layers of Singkil? I learned the dance when I was in high school, but I was unaware of the context. Further, the version I know was not this Singkil but the more popular variation that included elements of a male contingent, a bigger entourage, with a storyline based on an excerpt in the Maranao epic, Darangen.

Another example is the ritual dances of our Lumad. I wondered about the bent-knee stances and continuous heel tapping that I had to follow. It was many years later that a Manobo elder explained the meanings. The grounded stances demonstrated humility, and the voluminous heel tappings were mediums of communicating with the spirits, at least for the Manobo. The dances held cultural symbols that were not separate from their social value.

These are only two examples, but they show how our dances are packed with culturally-specific messages often not shared during the learning process. Philippine dance presentations with sole performative purposes easily fall into traps of appropriation when cultural considerations of the original contexts are neglected.

Sharing Filipino culture through dance seems so challenging after reading this. Should we take a less complicated route in promoting our culture? Goodness, no! However, we must tread with the willingness to ask or entertain questions. Go beyond mastering the steps and beyond learning them for show. Whether teaching, promoting or performing, there is a shared responsibility in safeguarding our folk and ethnic dances. We need to educate ourselves on their attached socio-cultural value. I believe it is the least we can do for the communities where these dances were borrowed from. Let us continue sharing our culture through dance, but let us pair our pride in sharing with care and a nod to our heritage bearers.

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