Philippine Ethnic Dances

Ancient in origin but contemporaneous, ethnic dance lives on in the Philippines. The forms and functions are many, performed by a variety of ethnic groups over the 7,000-plus islands. Many of these dances have changed through time , but much of what it is are still alive in all color and rhythm, in many modes and observances.

At the base of ethnic dance are those that imitate nature and life while at the social core are performed rituals that keep an ethnolinguistic group (or a convergence of several) which is spirited and cohesive. Dancing as such is a form of survival as much as it is spiritual and social expression.

With islands of mountains, hills and plains, and kilometric seashores that are havens for many straits and seas, the Philippines is veritably an aviary and an aquarium. Many birds and fowls easily became the inspiration for the various ethnic dances -- from the more familiar tikling (adept rice-preying birds interpreted into Tinikling), itik (ducks, into Itik-itik), kalapati (doves, into Kalapati and Sinalampati), and kilingkingan (swift, clicking birds, into a dance named after them). There are also the fierce hawk-inspired dances of many southern groups that are complemented by courtship dances performed in the Cordillera.

Aquatic life like fish and crabs, and the exotic squirrels, snakes, monkeys and fireflies also found their way into the choreography of various ethnic dances. Such dances enliven the games and feasts of the people from those of the simple Negrito or Aeta to that of the richly dressed up Maranaw, Maguindanao, Bagobo, Manobo, T'boli of Mindanao and Tausug and Badjaw of Sulu. These latter groups perform a panoply of dances that also show off their musical skill  (playing the kulintang gongs, bamboo xylophone gabbang, boat-shaped guitar haglong, carved jaws harp kubing, and various drums like the goblet-shaped dabakan), and their ornate clothes and ornamentation (which are sometimes also musical in design like chiming bells). All these show a zest for life and developed habitation in chants, songs, dances and music-making.

Many old rituals are still observed, often a composite of expressive forms and religious orientations. The people fear and revere the spirits that dwell in nature (diwatas) including ancestors (anitos). A community gathers around a babaylan (shaman) who officiates at rituals. They honor these spirits, ask for their blessings at planting or harvest time, at birth or at dying, and with pleading deflect an ill that may befall a child, or any person.

Distinct  is the Pagdiwata of the Tagbanwa of Palawan which is a thanksgiving ritual and is linked with harvest time and full-moon. A respected babaylan is endowed with an "aura of magic-religious potential" (Robert Fox, 1982). Before an altar laden with offerings, she dances armed with a hood, palaspas (fronds), kris or dagger, to the accompaniment of gongs. Dancing or swaying in a swing, she goes into a trance to commune with a spirit, especially the one called Maguindusa.

Another such ritual is done in the open field. The Subanons of Zamboanga set up a platform above ground, centered around a long pole (pathaw) that digs like a pestle into a log (dulugan) that serves as a resonating mortar from below. On such a height, they dance the Buklog that is also officiated by a Babaylan to address the spirits. In their epic Sundayo, the people bounces up and down and around to sound out a communal call to the gods and ancestors.

Other tribes dance the rituals of the Dugso of the Bukidnon, the Anito Baylan of the Mandaya, the Bawi of the Itneg and the curative Anituan of the Negrito of Luzon. The Manobo of Bagobo initiate their brave warriors by cleansing them in Gin-um. The head-hunter of the Kalinga or Apayao celebrate manhood or heroism through dancing.

The people's life-cycle is also danced out: blessing a child among the Bago (an Itneg group) is done in the Gabbok, where the officiating mandadawak (the north's babaylan) dances; the coming of age of a girl is dramatized in the Pandamgo of the Matigsalug (culminating in a deathly combat between suitors); the Pangalay and Lunsay dances of the Tausug and Jama Mapun exhibits a slow spectacle or a game; the Ifugao's Talip is a courtship dance that approximates those of the fowls; marriages are always with dances as the Yakan's Pagkawin, Bagobo's Kasal sa Banig and Pagasawa-uy of the Matigsalug.

In the Idudo, the Itneg men raise up their babies with singing and dancing, while their women till the fields. A musical log called udol of the Tagkaolo is beaten and around it they dance to call on the dead spirits to come home from a distance or battle. Likewise, works in the field to plant, harvest, or even fishing and hunting, have also been adapted into various choreographies.

Significantly, ethnic dance has also been a resource for contemporary ballets. These have inspired National Artists Leonor Orosa Goquinco and Lucrecia Reyes Urtula, Alice Reyes, Tony Fabella, Basilio, Agnes Locsin, Denisa Reyes, Kristin Jackson and many more to stage their folkloric or modern ballets. Either in its pristine or translated forms, ethnic dance still forms part of the ritual, social and theatrical fabric of Filipinos today.

About the Author: Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz is a former English instructor at the University of the Philippines who danced with Modern Dance Company (now Ballet Philippines), Hariraya Ballet Company, involving himself much later with Dance Theater Philippines as its balletmaster, choreographer and then artistic director. His recent choreographic works include: "Ritual Bonds", "Oriental Fantasy", "Ay Kalisud" (1990); and "Spiritual Canticle: An Eclogue-Operatorio" (1991). He is the Artistic Director of the University of the Philippines Dance Company.

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