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Beyond choreography: PH folk dance embodies culture, collective identity

As the country celebrates Buwan ng Wika this August, it feels apt to look back in time to explore what we know of the Philippines’ stories and cultural depth, and move forward toward how we can preserve and continually keep the nation’s vibrant colors alive well into the future. 

We often try to appreciate our own heritage; but for many, the local arts are not just a way to appreciate one’s culture, but also a way of life that they embody. Some use the strokes of a paintbrush; some capture frozen moments through images, while others move to the soul of the rhythm with their bodies, conveying an unsevered connection to its preserved roots.

Such is the case for Philippine folk dance, with their performers strengthening the nation’s ties to its heritage by telling stories that empower local communities, and continue a cultural legacy as they embody the movements which characterize a celebration of often forgotten stories that were born in this country. 

A cultural foundation

“Teaching and directing LSDC-Folk [is] a journey,” says Peter Alcedo Jr., current trainer of La Salle Dance Company-Folk (LSDC-Folk) under the University’s Culture and Arts Office.

As practitioners of the Philippine folk dance genre, LSDC-Folk protects this cultural legacy by spreading the various traditions and dances of diverse local communities through carefully choreographed routines. The group has also “sent numerous dancers to different festivals and conferences around Asia” to showcase the nation’s cultural heritages, according to Alcedo. 

LSDC-Folk member Nicolas Ayap (II, MEM-BME) says, “Philippine folk dance stretches far more than just dance, because it puts responsibility [on] the dancer [on] how [they] will be able to portray the story being told.” From the group’s humble beginnings until now, he affirms that they try to “keep the dances as authentic and as close to the original piece as possible.”

To create a routine that properly pays homage to its cultural context, reading literature tied to the dance is an important process, Alcedo cites; communicating with the ethnic groups themselves also helps with  learning exactly how the dance is meant to be performed. Regarding a recent experience staging a dance of the Ivatan people in Batanes, Alcedo shares that “it took a lot of time researching, choreographing, and collaborating with the indigenous community to come up with a consensual version of their dances.”

To respect and honor

Through movements of lithe and grace, dancers express the emotions of a culture that has persisted through the passage of time. Having lived abroad for 16 years, Leanne Marie Loyola (II, CS-ST), joined LSDC-Folk to “reconnect [with her] roots and heritage.” Harboring a fascination for Philippine traditions, customs, and arts, she shares that being a part of a group dedicated to upholding these traditions has helped her understand and appreciate them further. “There is pride in showing our identity and cultural legacy as Filipinos,” Loyola expresses.

Similarly, Ayap values the way Philippine folk dance keeps passion for our culture alive, saying, “Philippine folk dances [are a way to bring the] stories of our ancestors passed from one generation to another [to life]. These dances are the true reflection of the lives of the Filipinos.” 

Given the value that is placed on these performances, folk dancers aim to increase awareness about the country’s diverse indigenous groups and their rich cultures. “Hindi natitigil sa sayaw ang pagtatangkilik,Loyola furthers.

(Showing appreciation for one’s culture does not end in dance.)

It has become a standard for LSDC-Folk performers to be briefed on the dance they will learn. Alcedo makes it a point to “share his experiences regarding the dance or what he sees the dance would depict” to the members, reveals Ayap. Aside from it being a way for the dancers to know how to correctly execute the steps, Loyola adds that this orientation also “gives an insight of the lifestyle and stories of our communities.” 

Through thorough research and heartfelt commitment, both Alcedo and his pupils alike are able to respect and honor the dances of different indigenous communities, further promoting the authenticity of their craft. As such, Loyola says, “Nais naming iparating palagi sa aming manonood na tangkilikin ang ating kultura—ang sariling atin.”

(We wish to enjoin the audience to immerse themselves in our very own culture.)

Preserving heritage

“Culture evolves because it is not a static idea,” Alcedo asserts. For him, the youth carry a duty to revisit these spheres of heritage; therefore, he urges a deeper understanding of the incredible expanse of folk dance’s historical origins and its contemporary growth and significance, as well as to recognize it as a story of a nation. 

“Some of these local dances have been influenced and changed by the staging of artists from the cultural capital and other parts of the country, but some have stayed the same,” Alcedo adds. He muses that dances, even those of the traditional variety, can be variably and extensively molded in response to the changing times—an attempt to meet modern sensibilities and challenges by bringing history and culture to audiences themselves.

Alcedo attributes the increased interest toward folk dance to educational institutions exerting greater efforts to foreground the genre’s cultural and traditional significance. The annual National Folk Dance Workshop by the Philippine Folk Dance Society, for example, features “teachers and dancers from all over the country learning and dancing together,” Alcedo states. Additionally, the Pasinaya of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is “flooded with folk dance performances” every year. 

“Since these dances imitate nature and life, [they preserve] the cultural unity, [the] social and spiritual expression of our people,” Loyola remarks. The expansion of national efforts toward the preservation and promotion of the performing arts can be felt through the dedicated administration of broad, inclusive functions such as workshops and multi-arts festivals. 

By bringing history to life for modern audiences, the humanistic art of folk dance serves to impart an important message. “To preserve the art, we need to preserve the culture where it originated,” Alcedo explains. “This is the beauty of Philippine folk dance—you empower communities through your performances.”

By Patrick Adrian Chan

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