By Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
When I was about ten, I went for a folk dance workshop held by the Bayanihan, the national folk dance company of the Philippines. Their Sayaw Workshop is a wonderful initiative where the troupe opens its practice halls every year to dance enthusiasts of all ages and experiences – or lack thereof, as was the case for me when I started out with them. They teach the fundamentals of traditional Filipino dances, and participants get to be in a culminating recital at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
This year I was able to join again and truthfully, I’m a little sad that the workshop finished last Saturday. It was an activity I really loved as a kid. All the years I was away from the Philippines, I’d miss being able to go.
I think I missed it so much because there’s something really special about traditional dance. Traditional dance gets a lot of flack in Filipino society, probably because it’s not deemed as cool as say, ballet or hip-hop. Or maybe because it is usually introduced in Physical Education class by teachers who don’t really like dance, and then students are forced to practice in uncomfortably cramped rows out on the pot-hole ridden school field in itchy costumes under the noon sun. (Please don’t tell my ex-PE teacher that I said that.)
Traditional dance done right is really not like that. There’s a sense of camaraderie and joy within the Bayanihan Dance Troupe that I have rarely experienced elsewhere. Then there’s the strange beauty of repeating steps perfected through time to a live classical rondalla, feeling how the traditions have been passed down for generations. During the older tribal dances, it’s impossible to describe the inner pulse of life you feel in that moment when your foot strikes the ground in sync with the gong.
People often say that folk dances connect us to those who came before. True, though I think feeling that connection far outweighs the general understanding of that statement. When a group of teenage girls I was guiding were in the wings right before we stepped on for the final show, I could see their spirits failing from exhaustion and their arms not raised as they should have been. I had this picture in my head of women in the old days who spontaneously danced these same steps. I reminded my girls and myself of how these ancient women wanted to be eagles soaring to their husbands who were off in distant mountains fighting or hunting. These were the dances of proud people, dignified in defeat, glorious in victory. That is why we perform the tribal pieces with our chins up and our countenances calm.
In each piece that succeeded, I could not help but connect the twirls and tones and shades of colour on stage with our history. Bayanihan splits its dances between the four suites and each paints a picture of life in the past. In the rouge on our cheeks with castanets, fans and smiles flashing for the Maria Clara suite, I saw the three centuries of colonial influence by the Spanish. In the flowing arms and fluid gliding of the Muslim pieces, I felt the love of the Filipinos from the south for the sea. In the fiesta atmosphere of every Rural dance, I witnessed a tribute to joy amidst the hardship of a people forged under the sun.
A tribute to sorrow here, a touch of romance there – when the performers are on stage, they are greater than themselves in that moment. Our selves extend beyond the now to stages long gone and stages yet to be built. During our final concert, I think I understood why traditional dance is so different: it is more than music in motion or steps recorded in dusty books put together. It is the story of my people.