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Bernardo T. Pedere Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Philippine Folk Dances
By Bernardo T. Pedere, 1973


Filipinos are a dancing and music-loving people. Singing and dancing are among their most favorite pastimes. Any social gathering is conspicuously incomplete without the lilting melody of native ballads and the spirited steps of folk dances as they entertain themselves while perhaps enjoying a round of local drink or wine. Through this community expression, they reveal a true and typical Filipino spirit.

For hundreds of years past, even before the influx of western colonization, the early Filipinos exploited dancing as a mode of expression. There was always an occasion to express their sentiments and feelings – perhaps in the form of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, as an offering to the gods in supplication for the recovery of a sick member of the family, as thanks for the birth of a child, and as ceremonials in preparation for battle, victory, love, marriage, or death. They set to dance and music the many milestones in the drama of their everyday existence.

The repertoire of Philippine folk dance is as varied as its diverse cultural beginnings. The dance fabric reflects a fine kaleidescopic charm of both the exotic and refined cultures of the many races that helped mold it into the Philippine culture and social life. Strong religious veneer, a legacy of the Spanish era, plays a vital role in creating this climate through the year-round colorful observances of a town or barrio fiesta celebrated in honor of local patron saints. Festivals of this sort can go on for days, rich with their traditional practices. Through these spirited spectacles one may see a vivid panorama of the lives of a proud, happy, and contented people.

Philippine folk dances markedly show a beautiful blending of the native and foreign cultures. It is unquestionable that foreigners who came to our shores left imprints on our cultural patterns, most particularly in the field of folk dance. Steps and styling speak of the flavor garnished from those influences and European characteristics are very pronounced. Common to the Philippine folk dances are the ingredients adapted from the Spaniards as in the Jota, Habanera, Pandanggo, Kuratsa, and Paso Doble; from the Americans and Frenchmen, the Quadrilles; from the Germans, the Redoba from the island of Mindoro, and the Escotis from Capiz province, the latter having borrowed its name form the European Schottische; the haunting Chinese rhythm in the music of Sakuting and Binislakan dances; the Javanese, Hindu-Arabic, and Indo-Malayan pageantry; color and mysticism of the Muslin dances of southern Philippines. The basic native step patterns may be the same as their foreign origin, yet the Philippine dances developed and evolved a unique quality peculiarly Filipino.

Philippean Dancers Customs and traditions lend themselves to the character of most folk dances, particularly the courtship and wedding dances. According to Mrs. Francisca Reyes Aquino, "As a people, we (Filipinos) have conservative tastes insofar as the relationship between man and maid in love or other social amenities is concerned, conservative in the sense that we are shy and secretive. Love, in the traditional Filipino way, is always expressed at arms length." Dance formations are commonly longways, with partners standing about six feet apart. There is hardly any body contact at all. It has been further noted that in the old days a woman would not allow direct contact with her partner while dancing. If it was necessary that partners were to hold hands, she would extend one end of her fan for him to hold onto or the man covered his hand with his handkerchief. It is a social shock and many regarded it repulsive to find a woman readily accepting a suitor. Western culture introduced social ballroom dancing, but usually it has been performed with hyper-extended arms for what may be technically termed open ballroom dance position.

In spite of the geographical isolation and the obvious ethnic cultural diversity, dances around the over 7,000-island archipelago are homogenous in their steps and expressions. These apparently have been handed down from generation to generation through communal and tribal rites and practices. Decidedly, there may be slight modifications and the dances may take certain forms of embellishment indigenous to the regions, yet the synthesis of folk elements are ever present. This is true with the sway balance steps, the most common dance pattern in Philippine folk dances. The tribal dances of the people of the mountain provinces in northern Luzon and the dances of the Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago are among those that almost completely stayed unsullied. The Muslim tribes fiercely resisted any kind of Western domination. Dances of the lowland Christians and the rice-growing people, particularly those found in the Visayas and Tagalog regions, demonstrate strong Castilian air and other foreign influence.

Philippine folk dances have peculiar characteristics in origin, content, and form. Mrs. Aquino classified them according to geographical extent of origin – national or local; according to nature – occupational, ceremonial, courtship, wedding, festival, war, comic, and game dances; according to speed of movements – fast, moderate, slow, combination of slow and fast; according to formation – longways, quadrille, and set; according to distinguishing features – dances with songs, dances with the use of equipment or implements, dances with combine rhythms, and old ballroom dances.

National dances are those found throughout the islands and which have survived attempts at modifications, adulterations, and common distortions. Examples of these dances are among those introduced and popularized during the Spanish period like the jotas, Pandanggos, Habaneras, Kuratsas, the Cariñosa, and the native Balitaw. On the other hand, there are the local dances which are most typical and representative of a certain locality. The people in nearly all the villages or barrios of the town of Bauan, province of Batangas, for example, dance the Subli in the month of May as a ceremonial worship dance in homage to the Holy Cross. This has been age-old tradition in this singular province, originating some three hundred years ago.

Occupational dances cannot escape notice for their charm and local color. This type of dance depicts actions of certain occupations or industries. People living near the sea have dances and songs about fishing. Oasioas, a spectacular folk dance from the coastal fishing towns of Lingayen (Pangasinan province on the island of Luzon), is a vivid picture of the fun and gaiety fishermen have as they signal to their companions at shore by flinging lighted oil lamps after a big catch. A successful fishing expedition becomes an occasion to imitate the sinuous movements and undulations of the fish in water as in the Muslim dance called Tahing Baila. In regions where the coconut forms one of the major industries, dancers use coconut shells as equipment for rhythmic effect. A spirited cycle of plowing, sowing, planting, harvesting, threshing, pounding, and winnowing rice is happily portrayed in the dances of the lowland Christians. Most of these rural occupational dances are colorful, graceful, lively, and carefree. They instinctively burst and exude with neighborliness and group spirit.

Courtship and wedding dances embody close adherence to customs and traditions. At a marriage celebration there is much feasting and merrymaking. Family members, relatives, and friends congregate to give the newlyweds their best wishes. In a rural town or barrio, the affair can even turn into a huge community gathering. They sing and dance and the highlight of the day is when the bride and groom finally perform the wedding dance. This is supposed to be their last dance of bachelorhood. Usually it is spontaneous and there is no definite step pattern. Relatives of either side gather around the dancing couple, each one trying to outdo the other by seeing whose side pins the greater number of paper bills on the groom's outfit or the bride's gown. Guests also participate by pinning bills or by tossing coins in a handkerchief unfolded into the center of the dance floor. After the dance, they count the total donations and eventually hand them over to the couple together with a special blessing from the heads of both families. The object of all this is to start the couple toward economic independence in their new life together. Mrs. Aquino states that there are a variety of wedding dances, but everywhere the dance is performed for the purpose of collecting gifts, in money or in kind, for the newly married couple.

Dances classified according to their movements are determined by whether they are active, moderate, slow, or fast. Active dances are energetic, forceful, and fast. The Tinikling, most famous of all Philippine folk dances, is a good example. The liveliness and accelerating tempo of this dance has made it almost always the climatic finale of any cultural show. Another rousing number is the vigorous and syncopated Maglalatik. This is an all-male dance where performers wear a harness of coconut shells which they beat to a staccato rhythm as they perform a mock fight over "latik," a coconut residue.

There are a good number of festival dances that show a combination of slow and fast movement. Widely known is the Jota Moncadeña. The dramatic change of pace and mood throughout the dance is most noticeable. Alcamfor and Habanera Botoleña are other examples.

Other distinguishing features characterized in many Philippine folk dances are those performed with songs like the Lubi-Lubi (The Coconut Tree), and Lawiswis Kawayan (The Bamboo Tree). It is not uncommon, especially in the Visayan islands, to witness at a big dance celebration the native string orchestra extemporaneously organizing two groups of the best singers in the area to alternately sing for couple dancing. This often gets to a high point where each singing group tries hard to outsmart the other by improvising lyrics to go with the musical accompaniment. The dancers themselves can get so carried away that a joust like this can extend for a long time, depending on the mood of the singers and musicians.

The Spaniards undoubtedly introduced the formal ballroom dances to the Philippines. In a sophisticated and formal gathering like the inauguration of a new president or high-ranking government official, the ball is traditionally opened by the important dignitaries and their ladies dancing the famous Philippine quadrille, the Rigodon de Honor. Paso Doble, Polka, Mazurka, and Balse (from the Spanish word "valse") are among the European dances that gained prominence among the Filipinos.

Philippine folk dances have a unique process of nomenclature. Dances may drive their names from the steps used, like Haplik, Papuri, Polka sa Nayon, and Mazurka Boholana to name a few. They may be named after persons, like Panchita and Miligoy. Birds and animals are fascinating inspiration in many dances. There are the Itik-Itik (Duck), Kalapati (Dove), Pabo (Turkey), and Tinolabong (Cattle Egret). Alcamfor got its name from the aromatic camphor plant. An Marol is the Visayan term for the Sampaguita, the Philippines' national flower. It is a delicate, white, fragrant blossom and is a favorite for making garlands. From the Maranaw tribe in the province of Lanao on the island of Mindanao, every daughter of royal blood is expected to learn to dance the Singkil, a highly intricate, show-stopping dance that takes its name from the bell-bracelet worn around the ankle.

Dances can also be identified after their places of origin, such as Habanera Botoleña that came from the old people in the town of Moncada, province of Tarlac. Pandangguiado Buraweño is from the town of Burauen, island of Leyte. Folk dances also evolve their names from the combination of two dance steps, as in Jotabal, a blending of Jota and Balse.

Step patterns, hand movements, and general styling of Philippine folk dances differ from region to region. In places where living is abundant and carefree, the dances are exuberant. This is typical of dances from the Visayan, Tagalog, and Bicol regions. In contrast, in places where life is less plentiful and money is scarce, the dances are sad, slow, and sometimes mournful. Even the "Kumintang," a basic Filipino hand movement, reflects its personality. It is usually performed with fist half-closed. The Ilocos region dances are representative examples of this type.

Philippine folk dances were born to satisfy a deep longing for cultural expression. Their character and personality were molded from the geographical, historical, social, and religious temperament of the people.

Printed in Folk Dance Scene, December 1973.