Philippine National Traditions and Cultural Festivities

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When looking at dances around the world, one might find it difficult to choose one they consider “the best” or “the most interesting”. There are literally hundreds of dances to choose from, and each specific style comes with its own unique history, movements, and meanings. Rather than choosing a dancing style I’ve seen or heard of before such as the Austrian Waltz or Spanish Flamenco, I figured that it would be a good idea to start with something I simply have no knowledge of. I started on an internet journey and after several hours of watching videos, doing research and asking professors for their opinions. I decided to choose a Philippine dance style called Tinikling.

There are two stories of how the tinikling dance came about, one with historical accuracy and one that is based on legend. History states that tinikling originated from a Spanish settlement on what is now known as the Philippine island of Leyte. The dance was created as a mockery of a persistent and intelligent bird called the Slaty-Breasted Rail or what is commonly referred to as the tikling bird. On the island of Leyte, rice was one of the most cultivated crops and many of the inhabitants relied on rice as their main source of food and unfortunately for the Spanish farmers, this included the tikling bird. As a way of combatting “the worst enemy in the rice fields”, farmers set up bamboo traps called clappers in the rice pastures, attempting to catch the stubborn birds. (source) However, when the farmers looked out over the fields with excitement hoping to see their avian competitors caught, they instead discovered that the tikling would weave in and out of the clapper traps with a fast-paced leg movement, nearly avoiding all of the hard whacks that came with the bamboo being released. As the farmers analyzed the movements of the tikling over time, the Tinikling dance style was soon created, initially to “portray the community effort to hunt and prevent Tikling, from infesting the ripe rice grains” (source).

The story of legend though has a more gruesome story explaining how during the Spanish colonial era, when Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippines, indigenous Filipinos were ordered by the King of Spain to work on large plantations. If the Filipinos did not follow his orders directly, they were subject to stand between two bamboo sticks as punishment. The bamboo poles were slammed together, in a vicious attempt to harm the feet of the farmers and in order to escape the punishment, the native Filipinos would jump before the poles hit their feet. (Source) In both stories regardless of the exact origin, (though many claim it to be pre-Spanish) the dance is meant to represent the power of a community and their effort in overcoming hardship, whether that be avoiding the abusing power of Spanish colonists or fighting the annoying efforts of a hungry bird.

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Tinikling is performed at a variety of events including weddings, birthdays, festivals and holidays such as Philippine Independence Day held on June 12th. Additionally, Tinikling is also used as a common form of exercise in gyms and schools. When doing research, I found a couple studies that even examined how Philippine tinikling can be harnessed as a powerful form of exercise, as everyone involved in the dance are doing intense repetitive movements that target muscles such as the arms if you’re the “clappers” and the calves and legs if you’re the “farmers” (source).

In the Tinikling dance style, there are two roles dancers must play, the “farmers” or those who leap and hop through the bamboo sticks avoiding the smack as they come together and the “clappers”, the people responsible for smacking the nine-foot bamboo sticks to a rhythmic beat. The bamboo must be slammed hard enough to make a sound, as it used as a percussion instrument in the dance. The performers must be moving fast enough in a fluid motion to avoid their feet being caught by the poles and the dance becomes even more difficult as the banging of the bamboo becomes faster and harder as it progresses. Anyone who might have the ability to hop and jump through the bamboo sticks are allowed to dance to the tinikling style as there is no age or gender requirement. Initially, Philippine tinikling was a community styled dance that represented unity and empowerment over agitators, so there can be as many people possible dancing together so long as they follow the rules of half of the dancers being the clappers and the other half being the farmers.

When looking at the cultural aspects of the tinikling dance style, I discovered that there is a lot of symbolism and cultural significance simply behind the bamboo sticks that are used. Dance researcher Merites Buot explains how “bamboo is essential in the Filipino lives [because of] its numerous uses.” (Source) It’s easy to see why bamboo is such a sacred plant and prop in the tinikling dance because in the Philippines, there are creationism legends that state the first man and woman came from splitting a bamboo in half. Additionally, people who live in the Philippines use bamboo to make homes, food, and even tools such as the traps created to catch the tikling bird, so the plant was nearly involved in their everyday lives. In the past, the bamboo used in the tinikling dance was the same bamboo used to catch the tikling bird; however, in modern times this is no longer the case because the wooden pestles used to catch the birds were much sharper and would cause foot injuries to the dancers (Source).

Artistically, the Tinikling dance has a few traditional props such as outfits and instruments that are used in performances. All Philippine dancers who perform the Tinikling dance are barefoot as it is much harder to dance with shoes. Additionally, there are a couple garments or costumes that men and women wear when participating in the dance. Men wear what farmers traditionally wore in the 1600s: a pair of trousers alongside what is called the camisa de chino which is basically a white shirt and a neck handkerchief. Women wear a traditional brightly colored dress with a knee-length skirt called the Balintawak. Both pairs of clothing are baggy and make it easier for the dancers to move around while performing as the dance is very fast-paced and precise. Besides the percussion played by the bamboo sticks clapping together, there is also usually an ensemble of Spanish instruments playing in the background such as the rondalla, guitar, octavina, and bass. Many of these instruments were brought over by the Spanish colonizers and the bamboo is the only instrument used in the dance that is native to the Philippines.

Without a doubt, Philippine Tinikling proves to be a culturally rich traditional dance that symbolizes a society’s effort in overcoming oppressors with fun, light-hearted and high energy movements. Filipinos faced many years of brutal treatment by Spanish colonizers and since gaining their freedom from Spain in the late 1800s, the Tinikling dance has served as a national symbol for promoting unity.

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