Philippine Folk Dance History

Benna Crawford
History of Philippine Folk Dance

The history of Philippine folk dancing incorporates influences from immigrants and conquerors while at the same time maintaining distinctly Filipino roots. Philippine folk dancing is a true reflection of daily life in past centuries while enchanting modern audiences at the same time.

Folk Dance History in the Philippines

Folkloric dance is the history of the people in movement. In some cultures, pale fragments of it survive centuries of invasions and diasporas. In the Philippines, folk dance is a strong and enduring indigenous expression.

Pre-Colonial

Before the recorded history of the Philippines, before the Spanish conquistadors conquered and Christianized the populace, from the earliest occupation of this volcanic archipelago, the people danced. They danced to appease the gods, to curry favor from powerful spirits, to celebrate a hunt or harvest, to mimic the exotic life forms around them. They danced their stories and their shamanic rituals, their rites of passage and their remembered legends and history.

Rural dances include such favorites as the high-stepping Tinikling, which mimics a bird, and the Gaway-Gaway, which features the movements of children pulling the stalks of the gaway roots during a bountiful harvest. The pagan tribes, the Higaonon, Subanon, Bagogo, and others who have inhabited the Philippines for thousands of years, preserved their customs and symbolic dances. Partly through isolation, they kept their culture free from the influence of the waves of immigrants who settled the archipelago over the centuries. Today, tribal dances like Dugso (a dance of gratitude for a good harvest or a male heir, danced with ankle bells), Sohten(an all-male war dance) and Lawin-Lawin(another male dance which mimics a swooping, soaring eagle) are carefully documented and kept alive in performance by Filipino folk dance troupes and cultural institutions, such as the Parangal Dance Company.

The Pagdiwata is a trance dance, featuring women dancers who enact a thanksgiving ritual at the time of the harvest moon. The shamanic figures mime the spirits who possess them and enact a drama that can last for hours.

Muslim Merchants

Muslim traders from the Malay Archipelago reached the Philippines in the 14th century, well ahead of the Europeans. Thier conversion of the populace was a modest affair; they were more interested in commerce than colonization, although they did establish strongholds and convert the local populace to Islam. They also created their own folk dances in the areas where they settled. Singkil is one of the most famous. It depicts the plight of a princess caught in a magical earthquake in a forest. Her faithful servant tries to shield her with a parasol as the princess gracefully dodges falling trees, and is eventually saved by a prince.

Spanish Colonization

Folk dances survived the European invasion, and the dancers adapted imposed Christian belief and culture to their own dances, borrowing court choreography but imbuing it with Philippine spirit. The Maria Clara dances merged Spanish court style (and its stylized courtship conventions) with Philippine exuberance. Maria Clara is the pure and noble heroine of a novel who represents the finest qualities of Filipino womanhood. The dancers wear European 16th-century dress but move to the sounds of bamboo castanets.

Folkloric Fusion

The revered folk dances from the lowlands and the hill tribes persist in their traditional form and in contemporary choreography for Philippine ballet companies. Dance is still the theater of identity for the Filipino people, a vibrant and cherished way to tell their story forward with all the rich history of their past.

The Beat Goes On

Traditional dance is still performed at celebrations of births and weddings. Modern folk dance festivals still feature ancient dances performed in costumes of the tribal period of the Philippines. If you are fortunate enough to attend a performance, you will hear percussion instruments such as the gangsa (a small copper gong), a tobtob (brass gong) or a hibat (a gong played with a soft wooden stick), accompanying dances such as the Palok and the Lumagen. Many tribal dances use no external musicians; the dancers generate their own accompaniment with stomping and hand clapping.

Idudu: A Snapshot of Ancient Culture

From the area of Abra, Cordillera comes the Idudu, which is a celebration of the family as the fundamental building block of Philippine culture. Depicting a typical day in the life of a family, the father is shown working in the fields while the mother cares for the children. As soon as the father is done, the mother goes into the fields to continue the work while the father goes back to the house to put the baby to sleep.

A singer usually provides a well-known lullaby during this part of the dance, and it emphasizes the necessity of cooperation and mutual support in the Tingulan family structure.

Maglalatik: The Dance of War

A dance from before the conversion of the Philippines to Christianity is called the Maglalatik. It represents a fierce battle between the Moro tribesmen (wearing red trousers) and the Christian soldiers from Spain (wearing blue). Both groups wear harnesses with coconut shells attached tightly to their bodies which are struck repeatedly with other shells held in the hands.

Originally from the Binan, Laguna province, it is now one of the most common dances in Philippine folk dance performances.

Pandanggo sa Ilaw: Grace and Balance

Derived from the Spanish word fandango, this dance is one of several designed to show off the grace, balance, and dexterity of the performers. Three glasses of wine (or, in modern times, water) are held in hands and on top of the dancers' heads as they move, never spilling a drop.

This is similar to the Binasuan dance from the Pangasinan Province which is done with drinking glasses.

Tinikling: Birds Dancing Over Bamboo

Perhaps the best-known dance in Philippine folk dance history, the Tinikling mimics the high-stepping strut of birds in the Philippine jungles over the bamboo traps the hunters would set for them. Two dancers, usually male and female, gracefully step in and out of crossed sets of bamboo poles being moved together and apart to the music.

The dance gets faster and faster as it goes on, and it has been an audience favorite for Philippine dance companies touring the world. Tinikling illustrates the complexity and rhythmic challenge of expressive and intricate Filipino folk dance forms.

More on Cultural Dances

A recent rebirth in interest for all folk and cultural dances has spurred many resources to appear online. You can watch these folk dances on YouTube, read about the cultural history on informational sites, and even learn some of the dances through instructional videos. Check out some of these resources to further develop your knowledge of Philippine folk dancing:

  • Sayam Pilipinas: Plenty of information is available through this informational website, where the dances are divided into categories and then explained with the help of pictures.
  • Cultural Center of the Philippines: This government-run site showcases Philippine arts and features folk dance companies such as Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, with performance dates and ticket prices.
  • Parangal: A Filipino dance company based out of San Francisco which brings the art of the Philippines to American audiences.
  • ArtsBridge America: The way that dance and culture intertwine all around the world is explored in this performance curriculum designed to teach about cultural dances of the world.
  • Ritwal: A DVD featuring several different types of Philippine folk dancing, this is a visual feast for anyone interested in the genre.

Ancient to Modern Dance History

The history of dancing in the Philippines is a long and rich story that shows how intertwined the dances are with daily life and important events. Learn a few of the dances in order to really increase your understanding and appreciation of this dance genre; while the choreography may seem difficult at first, a little focused study can go a long way.

Philippine Folk Dance History