Philippine folk dance: Keeping up with the beat of a modern drum

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Hataw Performing Arts fuses Philippine folk dance with skills and techniques picked up from contemporary genres, including ballet, jazz and hip hop. Photo: Hataw Performing Arts


By Angela Bulatao-Taay
In a York University dance studio, about 20 students align themselves in front of a mirrored wall, a can of Campbell’s soup placed atop each of their heads.

The class is diverse, with students hailing from different ethnic backgrounds; women outnumber men.

As Philippine folk dance professor Patrick Alcedo chants “ya ti, ya ta, ya ti ti ti ta,” the students gracefully step from side to side with hula dancer-like arm movements, minus the wave. Some cans slide off fauxhawks and past ponytails, crashing to the floor. Like dominoes, more cans tumble as heads flinch at the constant thuds. “I dented my can,” laughs one student as she picks it up and falls back into line.

If this was a real performance of the Pandanggo Sa Ilaw (dance with lights), shattered candle glasses would be on the ground instead of rolling cans, and two additional glasses would be balanced on the back of each hand. This dance originates from Lubang Island, Mindoro in the Visayas region, where fishermen would celebrate an abundant catch by swinging and circling lit lamps.

Philippine folk dance often expresses celebrations of simple joys like marriage, abundant harvest, tribal war victories and good weather. Having stemmed from culture and history, “it brings Filipino identity that ballet and hip hop can’t possibly give,” says Alcedo.

However, since the late 20th century, with the explosion of Western pop culture, this integral part of Filipino identity no longer commands the spotlight. Today, Philippine folk dance struggles to maintain a stable footing against contemporary genres.

Alcedo, who started York’s Philippine folk dance class when he joined the faculty in 2008, is well aware of the genre’s decline. It has almost become extinct in its homeland’s curriculum. In Treading Through: 45 Years of Philippine Dance, Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz writes, “Whereas most physical education teachers used to teach folk dance as second nature, many now do not know these dances anymore and students are not required to study any dance…”

Pandanggo sa Ilaw

A dancer balances candle glasses on her head and hands while she performs the Pandanggo Sa Ilaw. Photo: Trishhhh/Flickr

Some schools have tried to address this problem. According to a study by the University of the Immaculate Conception, secondary students in Davao City are encouraged to incorporate Philippine folk dance into their school-wide presentations. Traditional dance is also integrated into first-day icebreakers. But with youth immersed into American shows and YouTube more than ever before, a stronger push is clearly needed.

The lack of media exposure for folk dance has also contributed to the rising popularity of other genres. Hip hop dance crews consistently dominate the grand finals of televised Philippine talent searches. The country’s musical variety shows, like ASAP 20 and Sunday All Stars, bank on performances choreographed to the latest chart-toppers and dance crazes.

“Maybe even if it’s a contemporary form, they should draw some vocabulary from Philippine traditional dances just to show everybody that we have our own dances,” says Alcedo.

Although Kathreen Pascual-Binaday, artistic director of the Mabuhay Philippines Festival in Toronto, makes it a point to showcase cultural dances every year, not everyone appreciates going all-out traditional. “You have to capture different generations of your audience,” she says.

One group is trying to achieve a compromise between the traditional and the modern. Hataw Performing Arts, a Toronto-based group that debuted last August, fuses Philippine folk dance with other genres. Instead of traditionally dancing barefoot, Hataw dancers often use pointed toes, like in ballet or lyrical dance. They also incorporate street styles, like waacking’s over the shoulder arm movements and voguing’s rigid pose strikes, to give their performances a modern flavour.

Still, other groups try not to abandon the dance’s origins and culture. The Mississauga-based Fiesta Filipina Dance Troupe of Canada, established in 1966, keeps its dances, music, and costumes authentic by flying in a consultant from the Philippines to hold workshops.

Fiesta Filipina at Mabuhay Festival 2014 - Singkil

Members of the Fiesta Filipina Dance Troupe of Canada perform Singkil at the PIDC’s Mabuhay Philippines Festival 2014 in David Pecaut Square. Dancers depict the story of a Muslim princess and her slave, as they try to make their way out of a forest during an earthquake. Photo: Dennis Miranda Javinal via Philippine Independence Day Council Toronto’s Facebook page

“We use our consultant to ensure that we are traditional and not stray too far from it,” says Odette Aguinaldo-McMillan, who is deeply involved with Fiesta Filipina as a musician, executive producer and make-up artist.

According to Pascual-Binaday, Philippine folk dance provides “a historical perspective of the culture” and “a memory of home.” She recalls when a contestant in a Miss Philippines beauty pageant, held by Toronto’s Philippine Independence Day Council, modernized a traditional Filipino dance. Some people were offended by the tweaks that were made.

Hataw member Jodinand Aguillon believes folk dance doesn’t need to be completely modernized in order to keep up. “When you serve it a different way, you suddenly open doors to other things and to other people that normally would have shut it out,” he says.

In the first two months since its founding, Hataw performed at two events: at the Kultura Festival, an annual summer event hosted by the Toronto-based Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture, and later, a wedding.

“I was a little nervous because the audiences were obviously across the board in terms of age. I was more worried that the older folks in the crowd would think that we were changing the culture,” shared Aguillon. Despite their initial unease, Hataw managed to charm audience members of every age.

“We were fortunate that both times, we were received very well. [We got] very positive reviews from the audience, Filipinos and non-Filipinos [alike],” he said.

Underlying the possibility for modern tweaks, its supporters say what will truly keep Philippine folk dance alive is passion. The year that Adela Bezemer-Cleverley auditioned for York’s dance program, she attended a workshop where Alcedo taught tinikling, in which dancers step in and out of bamboo poles being rhythmically tapped against the ground. The fourth-year dance major also had Alcedo as a professor during first year, so she knew she was going to enjoy his class.

Folk dance would have a better chance at survival “if more people like Patrick were to teach it,” says Bezemer-Cleverley. “It has to be someone who really loves it.”

Patrick Alcedo Tahanan cover

Patrick Alcedo’s passion for dancing and teaching has been recognized: Three years after joining York University’s dance studies faculty, he received the 2011 Dean’s Teaching Award in the Faculty of Arts. Photo: York University

From 1988 to 1995, Alcedo was a member of the Filipiniana Dance Group. From 1995 to 1996, he was on the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ dance committee.

Only two post-secondary institutions in North America – York University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa – offer Philippine folk dance in their curriculum. York was lucky enough to add such a unique class to their course offerings thanks to Alcedo’s expertise in the genre. Through his class, he feels that he is helping to keep the art form alive.

“I absolutely feel I’m making a difference, not only due to this curricular intervention, but also [in terms of] strengthening and preserving the practice of Philippine dance among Filipino and non-Filipino students in Canada,” says Alcedo.

At York, Alcedo has had close to 300 students – mostly non-Filipinos – take his Philippine folk dance class. Besides simply fulfilling a course credit, he hopes his students gain deeper appreciation and respect for the form.

As students rehearse the Kuratsa, a courtship dance prominent in the eastern Visayas region, Alcedo makes his way around the studio. He claps, snaps, and taps his foot to an escalating string instrumental. After noticing the students’ serious facial expressions, Alcedo asks, “Where’s my little smile?” He strokes his mouth into a grin, then transitions into dancing alongside them.

In groups of four, the students stand in a pinwheel formation. With arms curved into a narrow letter C, they circle around in this formation, transitioning from light tip toes to thunderous stomps.

Alcedo and his students’ steps echo Philippine folk dance’s heartbeat – fading but still fighting.

Angela Bulatao-Taay is a journalism student who keeps a close eye on Filipino pop culture

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