Ask any Filipino what the Philippine national dance is, and they will likely tell you – tinikling. A dance mimicking the tikling bird – known for its grace, agility, and speed moving through rice fields, trees, and avoiding farmers’ bamboo traps – the tinikling is performed all over the Philippines during celebrations like weddings, town fiestas, graduations, etc. Moreover, it has made its way across the diaspora into Filipino American college cultural nights, Filipino American folk dance companies, church celebrations, and international days. While the tinikling now enjoys worldwide recognition, its humble beginnings reflect the Philippines’ 400+ years of Spanish colonization.
While it is agreed that the dance resembles movements of the of bird, some Philippines historians also claim that it has origins directly related to Spanish colonization. According to LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble, native Filipinos – then called Indios by their Spanish colonial masters – worked the plantations owned by the Spaniards and wealthy mestizos (mixed Filipino/Spanish). Those who worked too slowly were often punished in the fields by beating their feet between bamboo poles lined with thorns. Workers avoided the poles by jumping. The locals turned an otherwise sinister act of pain and cruelty into a festive display of speed, agility, and grace as they avoid the clapping bamboo poles.
In its basic form, the tinikling dance involves a pair of bamboo poles, two clappers, and two dancers. The group enters swaying to the music – normally played by live ensemble playing instruments influenced by Spain: guitar, rondalla, bandurria, octavina, and bass. The music follows the beat of the Iberian staccato and the bamboo poles clap to this rhythm. Dancers move fluidly through the poles, avoiding getting clipped. The speed of the music and the clapping of poles increases throughout the song until it reaches a dizzying end to thunderous applause by the audience. When performed on stage, the scene often resembles a provincial Filipino town fiesta with streamers and happy town folk in the background. Men wear the traditional farmer’s outfit of camisa de chino, trousers and a handkerchief tied around the neck. Women wear the balintawak dress – a traditional brightly colored dress with knee-length skirt and butterfly sleeves.
The most famous version of this dance is performed by the Bayanihan Folk Dance Company – the national cultural dance company of the Philippines. For me, this company holds a very special place in my heart because of my own family’s roots and connections to Bayanihan. My mother’s aunt, Isabel Santos aka Lola Bills, was the head costume designer and tour director from the company’s inception in 1957 up until she passed away at the age of 94 in 2015. My mom’s cousin and several friends were members of the company in the 1970s. Before her move to the United States, my mom worked at Folk Arts Center in Manila – Bayanihan’s home in Manila. I remember visits to Lola Bills when I was younger, marveling at her home studio where she sketched and designed the company’s elaborate costumes as well as created artwork. The appreciation for Filipino culture was also passed down through my dad’s side where we would often hear the traditional songs like the tinikling soundtrack, provincial lullabies, etc. at my paternal grandparents’ house and we would playfully perform the different dance moves under the guidance of our aunties and uncles.
Philippine folk arts is in my blood, and it is evident in my siblings and me with our shared interest in learning about the Philippine culture, music, and artistic traditions. Since I was in high school, all four of us have been members of LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble based in the San Francisco Bay Area and founded by a Bayanihan alum. Likha is Filipino for ‘creation.’ It is through LIKHA, along with the traditions learned from family, that my siblings and I deepened our love for our Filipino backgrounds by learning and performing dances from all over the Philippine archipelago including the tinikling.
Since 2012 I’ve made several visits back to the Philippines on my own. I try to go back every year and visit some place different in addition to catching up with friends and family. I’ve traveled to my parents’ hometowns in the regions of Pampanga (on the island of Luzon) and Mindanao (southernmost island). I’ve swum the reefs of Coron (Palawan region); rocked out to friends’ bands performing in Manila, and most recently swam with the whale sharks in Cebu (Visayas region).
Each region of the Philippines offers something different regarding scenery, food, and language. Each place has its own unique experience with Spanish and U.S. colonization mixed with Malay and Chinese cultural influences.
Despite the diversity of a nation that spans 7,000 islands – I see what makes them all Filipino. Many Filipinos have an undying pride for the Philippines and a willingness to share that with all. One of my academic mentors when I was in grad school, Dr. Robert Hawkins, who is currently conducting research on poverty in Del Carmen, Siargao (Mindanao area), shared his observations of Filipinos over lunch one day in Manila. “When you visit the Philippines, Filipinos have a great way of making you Filipino no matter where you are from.” This falls in line with the oral history about the tinikling – regardless of pain, suffering, and poverty that befalls most developing nations, Filipinos are happy to share their smile, their food, their love of music, and an undying devotion to dance.
For more information on travel in the Philippines visit Philippines Tourism or the author’s blog
Where to catch the tinikling and other traditional Filipino dances
In the Philippines:
- Bayanihan Folk Dance Company – http://www.bayanihannationaldanceco.ph
- Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group – https://ramonobusanfolkloric.wordpress.com/
In the United States:
- LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble performances in the San Francisco Bay Area – http://www.likha.org
- Mid-June: Philippine Independence Day Celebrations around the U.S.
- Annual Pilipino Culture Night (PCN) performances put on by universities/college Filipino student groups around
Various major festivals throughout the year:
- End of January/early February – Sinulog (Cebu) and Ati-Atihan (Kalibo) to celebrate the annual feast of the Child Jesus of Prague aka Santo Niño.
- Holy Week (March/April) – Moriones Festival (Marinduque) to celebrate the Feast of St. Longinus
- Mid-May – Pahiyas Festival (Lucban, Quezon province) to celebrate the harvest and San Isidro, patron saint of Lucban
- August – Kadawayan Festival (Davao City, Mindanao) to celebrate Mindanao’s indigenous tribes and harvest