Deconstructing ‘Maria Clara’ and the colonial bias in Philippine folk dances

In attempts to acknowledge indigenous dances across the country, many are helping shift our focus away from just the Spanish-influenced folk dances.

Folk dances serve as a reflection of a nation’s diverse culture. The Philippines is certainly no exception, with local folk dances symbolizing the experiences our ancestors faced throughout history. “One important function is how they connect us to the spiritual dimension as a way of sustaining the community’s way of life,” Ronnie Mirabuena, supervising Culture and Arts officer of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) points out. 

But the Filipino representation of these choreographic masterpieces highlights folk dances that are embedded with colonial influences. While appreciation of these Spanish-influenced dances is not a concern, this unconscious preference may foster inferiority toward indigenous dances, and therefore, indigenous culture. 

Movement as the narrator 

On the surface, Philippine folk dances seem relatively easy to identify. However,  La Salle Dance Company Folk (LSDC-Folk) Company Manager (CM) Althea Medelo (IV, BS-BCHEM) reminds that there are many more classifications to consider. “[There are the] rural [dances], Cordillera [dances], the Maria Clara or the Spanish-influenced dances, and the Muslim dances,” she enumerates. This is why LSDC-Folk doesn’t focus on a sole category and instead researches about the other “suites” or their own set of categories of dances. 

In doing so, LSDC-Folk showcases dances that reflect diverse narratives found in different communities. “These [dances] are inspired by the different groups, environments, [histories], and experiences,” LSDC-Folk Executive for Marketing and Creatives Felize Joves (IV, AB-ISE)  shares. “We [even] have dances that reflect or symbolize the [movements of] water, the mountains, [and] birds.” 

However, Mirabuena reminds that these dances serve a higher purpose. “They are not only important as a form of aesthetics. [These are important as] social [tools] affecting other aspects of society,” he jets. The diversity found in these indigenous dances shouldn’t reflect a caste system of superior and inferior cultures; rather, it should serve as a catalyst for unity among Filipinos. 

Revisiting roots  

Though diverse local folk dances have existed for decades, common knowledge of the art form is often limited to the Maria Clara dances. “The colonial invasions affected the survival and dissemination of our ethnic dances performed by various cultural communities in the Philippines,” Mirabuena emphasizes. As Christianity spread throughout the archipelago, it became associated with the country’s popular culture, establishing a cultural divide in the folk dance repertoire. He adds, “When there is a cultural barrier, harmonious cultural exchange is hindered.” 

Medelo expresses that the country’s educational system must break this divide. She shares, “[My] introduction to folk dance was just [through learning] Cariñosa, which is a Spanish-influenced dance.” The LSDC-Folk CM cites that for herself and for many others, this exposure to Philippine folk dance “usually ends there.” Mirabuena points out that National Artist Francisca Reyes-Aquino’s codification of Filipino folk dances “widely disseminated the regional representation of ‘Christian’ folk dances all over the country.” While it did help preserve folk dances influenced by Spanish culture, some indigenous folk dances were unfortunately neglected. 

But religion and our education system aren’t the only ones to blame. Joves theorizes it was only in the 2010s when indigenous cultures had more exposure in mainstream media, citing the 2014 film K’na the Dreamweaver as an example. She furthers that resources on indigenous folk dances are either lacking or not properly distributed. “We cannot [solely] blame other people for not knowing these different [indigenous] dances [and] for just thinking about [the] Spanish-influenced choreography,” she opines. 

Outside the scope  

Saving these dances begins by promoting and encouraging appreciation. Apart from the much needed revision of Reyes-Aquino’s codification to feature indigenous folk dances more prominently, local cultural programs would greatly benefit in continuing the art form’s legacy. 

Mirabuena cites that the Philippine Folk Dance Society has been organizing regular national workshops to preserve and teach a wide range of folk dances. “[Even] some LGUs have initiated some programs related to the documentation of the dances found in the locality,” he shares.  The Provincial Tourism and Cultural Affairs Office of Capiz, for one, has partnered with several cultural organizations to publish seven of the region’s folk dances; these include two from the indigenous Ati community in Dumarao, Capiz. 

As for LSDC-Folk, “Our primary goal is to educate,” Medelo expresses, hoping that their efforts in preserving the craft would go a long way. They do so by doing research on other dances they can add to their repertoire, and eventually performing them during concerts. One example is how they integrated the Pangalay dance—commonly performed at wedding ceremonies by the Tausug community—for their online anniversary concert, Alpas: Kultura ng Malaya.

Additionally, technological innovations should allow cultural groups to document their dances such as recording video footage and compiling music sheets and choreography notations, allowing for more accessible consumption.  As Joves suggests, “We need technology to further promote and market [Philippine] folk dances especially in this fast-paced world where trends easily come and go.” Local dance troupes such as the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group have started digitizing their rich collection of unpublished dances by the late National Artist Ramon Obusan.

Most importantly, reaching out to cultural communities that can share their dances must be at the forefront. “[Communities] should be assured that collaboration with them is a step to address the [misconception] that indigenous cultures [are] inferior,” Mirabuena notes. Apart from this, however, they should be given more avenues to preserve these dances that chronicle history and highlight cultures.

Merriment of cultural diversity 

Ultimately, Mirabuena stresses that the youth plays a big role in keeping indigenous folk dances alive. “Young audiences should experience how [these] dances are being performed,” he encourages. Going beyond aesthetics cultivates a deeper understanding and elevates the essence of these dances—sustaining the knowledge and history these dances hold. “It’s important to keep in mind that these dances [are] not just dances, they’re actually someone’s life story,” Medelo furthers. 

The essence of Filipino folk dances is how it links us to the rich cultural heritage of our country. “Our survival as a nation is greatly affected by the importance of knowing how life and dance define us [as] people,” Mirabuena ends. The history of a prestigious art form is not limited to a single region in the Philippines—rather, it encompasses the multifaceted culture of the nation. Above all, the preservation of Philippine folk dances ensures the enrichment of Filipino culture and artistry, not only in the archipelago, but across the globe.  

Danielle David Castillo

By Danielle David Castillo

Miguel Gabrielle Valentino

By Miguel Gabrielle Valentino

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