Traditional Dance In the Hands of Fil-Am College Clubs

The author, far left, in 2008 with her Townsend Harris High School tinikling dance group Flip 'N Funky Fresh.

“Culture and the arts are potent forces in national development. With its colors and contrasts, our cultural heritage unifies our race, and gives it a national identity that lends pride and dignity to every Filipino” – Corazon Aquino, 1991

1, 2, 3! 1, 2, 3! The clicking sound of bamboo sticks slapping against each other for tinikling is an all too familiar rhythm. That dance is, after all, the quintessential introduction to Pilipino culture taught to kids in community youth groups, adapted for high school international nights, and ubiquitous in cultural productions by university Pilipino clubs.

The first time I learned the dance, I was 13. I eagerly joined a group performing tinikling at my church as an earnest attempt to connect with my heritage. Naturally, we used PVC pipes in lieu of bamboo, wore white tees and denim shorts instead of native garb, and choreographed our traditional dance to none other than Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and Ne-Yo’s “Stay With Me.” Body rolls were involved. At the time, it felt like a worthy homage.

Fortunately, I’ve since discovered the rich offering of folk dances beyond tinikling: the graceful balancing act pandanggo sa ilaw, the flirtatious hat duet subli, the masculine coconut dance maglalatik, the stoic, haunting janggay, the regal singkil, and countless others.

Every year, I see Pilipino clubs at universities put on innumerable showcases of our native culture in dance competitions, pageants, and Philippine cultural nights (PCNs, or “barrios” as some call them.) A hodgepodge of interpretations of “traditional” dance appear on stage, from meticulously rehearsed, authentic displays to barely recognizable, loosely-interpreted traditional dance: pandanggo sa ilaw performed with flashlights, maglalatik fused with step dancing, and tinikling liberally peppered with breakdancing.

For every crew I see striving to do traditional dance justice, there is another itching to reinvent, break out, ditch, even, the antiquated choreography. A “cultural” portion is often pegged as a requirement for qualification, and you can’t help but see traditional dance turn more into an obligation than a genuine homage. I've seen some clubs give all of thirty seconds of their seven minute set to a hastily put together folk dance.

NYU's International Filipino Association performing singkil at the Battle of the Barrios 2010 competition.

Why do we even bother to “be cultural” and learn traditional dance? What is the value of portraying them accurately or not? In The Day the Dancers Stayed: Performing in the Filipino/American Diaspora, Theodore S. Gonzalves explains that second generation Fil-Ams use traditional dance to reconcile the conflict of in-betweenness. After growing up Americanized, PCNs are an alluring effort for identity-seeking young adults to reclaim ethnicity.

Dance, after all, is a universal language and educator. Even if a Fil-Am doesn’t know Tagalog, which is a common case for many young Fil-Ams today, repeating the steps of our ancestors offers that connection to heritage that students who join Pilipino organizations seek. However, the experience can seem second-hand and diluted after learning from YouTube clips that learned from YouTube clips that learned from dance troupe’s YouTube clips.

The Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company that started in the 1950s is one of those authorities–their singkil video alone has 300,000 views and counting. The company, which tours internationally and even inspired its own national day in the Philippines (May 27), popularized folk dance as we know it. To a fresh eye, the elaborate presentation, trained facial expressions, and detailed costumes look as traditional as it gets. What we don’t realize, however, is that even Bayanihan’s presentation of traditional dance is skewed. Barbara S. Gaerlan, author of “In the Court of the Sultan,” claims that Bayanihan’s singkil dance in fact shows an orientalist portrayal of Muslims featuring over sensualized females, costumes borrowing from Arabia, and bare-chested males in a way typically offensive in Muslim culture.

Still, the dramatization of the dances are undoubtedly entertaining. Perhaps this is what it boils down to. When we are showcasing our culture to an audience of outsiders, who wouldn’t want to amp up theatricality?

I brought up this dichotomy of accurate traditional dance versus reintepretation to Dr. Kevin Nadal recently, and he challenged me with a thought: Isn’t dance about art?

Art is meant to change, be open to interpretation, and molded in personal experience. If that means tapping your cultural side by infusing tinikling with the latest hit on Z100...by all means, bump that track and bring out the bamboo sticks.

Photo credit: Don Gutierrez

Seven Things You Should Know About Pilipino Languages

Let's talk about talk. We all know the importance Tagalog plays in Pilipino identity here in the States. You're viewed as "more Pinoy" if you can at least understand the main dialect of the Metro Manila region. Tagalog is the lingua franca (the default universal language) of the global Pilipino diaspora. It unites, empowers, and strengthens the Pilipino.

But you'd be amiss if you didn't give a nod to the dozens of other languages/dialects that the Pilipino speaks. In a land of 7,107 islands, with a history of influences from dozens of kingdoms, dynasties, tribes and regimes over centuries and centuries, the Philippines boasts one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the more developed countries of the world.

I can write novels about this, but here's the run-down on the skills of the Pinoy tongue (wink!):

  • There are eight recognized regional language of the Philippines: Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon (or Ilonggo), Ilokano, Pampango, Pangsinense, Tagalog and Waray. Of the 170 languages spoken on the islands, these have the highest number of native and secondary speakers.
  • The official language of the Philippines is not Tagalog per se, but Filipino: It's the language used in news and official communications by the Philippine government. Filipino has had a bumpy ride toward universal acceptance since it inception in 1959 as "Pilipino", particularly by non-Tagalog speakers, since – let's be honest – it's basically Tagalog. But language evolves, and the government hopes that Filipino evolves over time, adapting more and more aspects of the other dialects.
  • The Philippine languages are Austronesian, which means they're more related to Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Hawaiian than they are to Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.
  • There are Philippine creole languages! Which is awesome. Look up Chavacano. Much like how Haitians speak a French Creole and Jamaicans have Patois, a creole of English, Chavacano is a a dialect of Spanish that arose in the southern Philippines that sounds super fun. (I showed some Latino friends videos of people speaking Chavacano and they were amazed.)
  • The Philippines has its own variant of Chinese called Lan-nang, which has its origins in the islands' trading history with China. If you're a Chinese Pinoy, your family probably speaks it. They might also call it Hokkien or Fukkien.
  • Philippine English is its own variety of English, exactly like Australian English or British English. Lots of Pinoys get heat in the US for speaking English with a Pilipino accent, when it's much more than that. It's the national language of the Philippines, for Hesukristo's sake! School is taught in English. English movies are not dubbed. English is the language of the law.
  • Taglish – mixing Tagalog and English, and switching back and forth between the dialects – is a legitimate and recognized thing, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it (no more "Marunong ko po lang mag-Taglis!"). Pinoys are masters of linguistic fluidity, and you're just as Pinoy speaking in hybrid as you are speaking in pure.

If you're one of the millions of Pinoys here in the US or elsewhere in the world that doesn't just use Tagalog and English, but maybe one or more other dialects at home, it's something to be proud of. These dialects have as rich a history as any other, and should be nurtured and supported. My home is a jumbledunk of Tagalog, English and Ilokano, and whenever I hear strangers speaking Ilokano on the street, I'm reflexively even more informal and familiar with them. Almost as if there was an even deeper level of closeness than the already-close bond of general Pinoy-ness.

Ya feel me? Good. Now you're speaking my language.

Land of 100 Tongues

Language has always been something that fascinated me: the way some languages have words that can’t be translated outside of them, the nuances of languages that are perfected by little sighs or marked by guttural rumbles, others accented by the flourishes of gracefully rolled r’s and still others staccato and marching like Ravel’s “Bolero.” We are lucky in the Philippines to be home to over 100 languages, many of which range in all of those qualities. Some Filipinos refer to them as dialects, but they truly are distinct languages that stand on their own, some bearing similarity to the familiar Tagalog, others completely different from it. My grandmother knows Tagalog, Ilokano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan and Bicolano, on top of learning English upon arriving in the United States. It’s remarkable to me that one could pick up all these languages and it’s an experience I wish I had, to be able to learn them out of necessity as my grandmother did, despite not having a formal education in her life.

I have wondered if being home to 100 languages is perhaps not such a lucky thing. In college, one of the best papers that I wrote was on Philippine culture and its effects on politics during the Marcos regime. I raised the question of whether or not language barriers could contribute to a weakening unified cultural identity. Sure, most Filipinos speak Tagalog, and it is recognized as one of the national languages. But that too presents its challenges. How do speakers of the lesser known languages make themselves recognized? Do they simply let their languages die out? And for the languages that do die out, I can only wonder what histories are lost with them.

Perhaps the stunning diversity of the Philippines is also its unifying force. Even in a country as comparably diverse, the United States can’t say people speak 100 different languages here. There’s something very awe-inspiring about that, and I can only daydream of the different tales that each beautiful language can tell, unbeknownst and unlocked to those who don’t hold its precious written and spoken keys...

Racism & Discrimination in the Fil Am Community

by Carlo Limbog, UniPro Community Building intern When we think about racism and discrimination towards Filipino Americans, we may fall into the trap of believing the situation isn't quite as bad as it may have been historically. But ask any Fil-Am and he or she will probably be able to rattle off at least a handful of times where he or she has felt marginalized or victimized because of his or her ethnicity and the fact that it still strongly exists today is a major concern. We, being strong & hardworking citizens that contribute a lot to our society, do not deserve to be undermined by the so called “majority.” The Filipino community has endured major discrimination ever since the first Filipino settlements at Saint Malo, Louisiana in 1763. The Naturalization Act of 1790, which granted the right of U.S. citizenship solely to “free white persons,” immediately alienated the first-ever “Fil-Ams.” Because of this, our very own people were treated poorly under the demeaning attitudes of the Americans. Despite our substantial representation within the United States, our population is still subjected to discrimination to this day. We are the second-largest Asian American population in the U.S. At a staggering four million individuals, yet we continue to face the daily “microaggressions” used by our fellow American citizens.

The term “microaggression” typically involves subtle insults and implications against specific minorities including us. We all have been exposed to different types of microaggressions at some point in our lives; some more than others. I can speak from my own personal experiences too. Growing up in a predominately white community, my family and I have always been told that “we spoke good English.” It was almost as if it were a shock to some people. In grade school, I was also put into ESL classes simply because my parents’ primary language at home was Tagalog even though I didn’t speak the language nor understand it.

Sure, we can all live by the cliché “sticks and stones” saying, but such racism still have a negative effect on our professional and political status in our society.

Being subjected to these microaggressions creates a sense of alterity, or “otherness” in our society. We’re creating a rank of distinct groups not in terms of numbers, but by power. By ignoring these subtleties, we’re enabling this behavior to continue on.  We need to pay more attention to these everyday occurrences and actually take a stand against the people who continue to speak negatively about us.

These microaggressions have, in addition, escalated into more blatant forms of racism. For example, in 2006, Filipina nurses Wilma Lamug and Elnora Cayme and the rest of the Filipino staff at the Delano Regional Medical Center were singled out for violating the hospital’s “English-only” policy by speaking Tagalog in the building. After being reprimanded, the situation only got worse for the Filipino workers. The rest of the staff ridiculed their Filipino colleagues by mimicking their accents and even ordering them to stop talking in all areas of the hospital, even in break rooms and hallways. Hospital management also threatened to monitor them with audio surveillance and suspension for those who were caught speaking Tagalog. The case was brought to court which resulted in a $975,000 settlement fee brought upon by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Delano Regional Hospital.

Another instance of blatant racism was an anonymous hate letter sent out earlier this year to Filipino families living in American Canyon, CA. The letter addressed to resident Maria Aida Ignacio Brandes targets the entire Filipino population calling the Filipino community “filthy” and “unwanted.” The letter continues to attack Brandes and her interracial relationship, stating that “we are attempting to have our community a law abiding one, without having yet another gang of Filipino scum such as yourself and married daughters who have attempted to assimilate into this once clean non-Filipino dominated area in American Canyon…” Brandes then reported the letter to the authorities who went under investigation to determine whether or not it violates hate crime codes.

Serious offenses like these should inspire Filipino Americans to take action when their rights are being violated no matter how big or small. Just because the majority population may alienate us as a typical minority, does not mean we have to fulfill that role in our society. With our strength in numbers and strong political voice, we need to work together as a striving community to continue fighting against discrimination. We earned our right as Americans just like any other individual who has worked hard to make a living in this country. By no means do we deserve to be subjected to any form of racism or hate in our own country.

Shame and Struggle: My Journey to Learn Tagalog

Utak muna ang gamitin mo, bago ang puso mo. (Use your head before your heart.) Lalabas na ang tunay na kulay mo! (Your true colors are beginning to show!)

Hayop ka! (You’re an animal!)

The expressions above (picked up from forays into the living room as my parents watch their teleseryes), random insults, the lyrics to this ‘70s gem, and phrases from daily conversation - these constitute my pathetic, hacked-up version of Tagalog.

Rachelle Ocampo, our UniPro President, says, “Every time I meet new Pilipinos and they ask if I understand Tagalog, I greet them with ‘Hindi ako marunong magsalita ng Tagalog pero nakakaintindi ako.’ They are immediately impressed, and encourage me that it is not too late to learn. My goal for this year is to take a Tagalog course and push myself to learn more phrases.”

Like Rachelle, I can’t speak Tagalog, but I can understand it. It’s a result of growing up in a household where my parents spoke enough Tagalog that my brother Marc and I knew when it was time to eat dinner and when we were in trouble, but enough English that it was still our first language. As a proud Filipina-American and cultural enthusiast of my roots, my inability to speak the native tongue of my ancestors is my scarlet letter, a shameful burden, an embarrassing thorn in my side that tears at my flesh each time my family speaks to me in Tagalog and I am forced to respond in English. As Marc puts it, “Identifying so closely with a certain culture and not speaking the language is like being that kid who wore vans but never skateboarded. At least that’s what I feel like: A big. fat. poser.”

"...my inability to speak the native tongue of my ancestors is my scarlet letter, a shameful burden, an embarrassing thorn in my side that tears at my flesh each time my family speaks to me in Tagalog and I am forced to respond in English. "

My ability to understand prompts many people to declare, “Well if you can understand Tagalog, then you speak it.” To which I respond emphatically, “It’s not that easy!” When I hear Tagalog, there’s no internal attempt to translate it. I just know what it means, even if it’s difficult to explain it in English. ("Ang kapal ng mukha" comes to mind.) But when I try to speak Tagalog - that’s another story. With no knowledge of any grammar rules, including tenses and pronoun usage, I grasp desperately at the few words in my vocabulary bank, taking ages to sputter out a few broken and laughable sentences. Unfortunately, “Lalabas na ang tunay na kulay mo!” is not an appropriate response in every conversation.

Some immigrant parents purposely don’t teach their children their native language so they’ll grow up Americanized, sparing them from the difficulties of learning English as a second language and having an accent. The thought process behind my parents’ decision to refrain from teaching me Tagalog didn’t go that far. In fact, there didn’t seem to be a decision at all. It simply didn’t happen. This has spawned eternal resentment from my end and the occasional tirade to my parents (“I could’ve been bilingual. Instead, I’m paying to learn a language I should already know!”), who respond to my tired complaints by rolling their eyes.

My best friend for the next few weeks.

"Language is the unique expression of a culture through sounds, words and the strange idioms and melodic inflections those sounds and words compose."

I can keep griping or I can do something to fill this linguistic void, which is why I’m currently taking a Tagalog class. Thanks to The Filipino School of NY & NJ, I’m enrolled in a five-week conversational course. It’s unrealistic to think I’ll be a pro in five weeks, but it’s a solid start. Again, like Rachelle, one of my life goals is to learn Tagalog, to converse fluently with my relatives, to speak confidently to strangers while getting around in the Philippines and to feel closer to my culture. Language is the unique expression of a culture through sounds, words, and the strange idioms and melodic inflections those sounds and words compose. To know another language is to have a gift, a skill, a key to another way of life through its lovely and complex verbal structures. In other words, it automatically makes you cooler.

It will take a lot of work, but I will learn Tagalog, despite the shame and struggle. Now excuse me while I do my homework and practice that simultaneously wretched and awesome “nga” sound.