college students

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 all means, bump that track and bring out the bamboo sticks.

Photo credit: Don Gutierrez

Behind Closed Doors: A Hidden Gem on a College Campus - Mental Health

In the Fil-Am community, there is a cultural mistrust against seeking mental health help. Among teens and young adults, who may fear shame from their community and peers for seeking help, this problem is also quite prevalent. Unfortunately, college students are at a high risk of facing high levels of stress and mental health illness. However, students also have the most resources available to them during their undergraduate (and graduate) years. One of these resources, which is considerably underutilized on campuses across the nation, is the school’s counseling center. The stigma that 'seeking help from a counselor means that you’re admitting defeat or weakness' often deters students from seeking help. Students dread being embarrassed and shamed. Some students even fear risking their academic career, and may choose to carry on silently with their struggle. However, choosing to get help and talk to a mental health professional can be a very positive and life-saving experience.

Why are college students depressed?

depressed maleDepression is increasingly more common among college students. For many students who go off to college, it can be an extremely trying transition period. Students have to get accustomed to new surroundings, influences and peers - all without close supervision or parental guidance.

This is a critical time of growth for college students, as they are learning responsibilities that they may not have had experience with before in the past. Students are becoming more independent, having to manage their time, and steering toward their future careers. Often, they don’t know the importance of taking care of their mental health, or don't know the steps to do so in a college setting. It's crucial that college students remember that they are not alone in whatever they are facing.

According to an Associated Press-mtvU poll, about four in ten college students are experiencing depression. Students who need mental health attention should not be afraid to get help. There’s nothing shameful about it, and it doesn’t make that person weak or incapable of dealing with their issues. Rather, making the decision to ask for help shows great strength and self-awareness.

What are the advantages to going to a counseling center during college?

  1. Services are free. While some students do inquire about mental health services at their counseling center, others don’t always know where to get help. Also, beyond college, it becomes more difficult to get help, especially when dealing with mental health coverage and insurance plans. Simply put, it is expensive to receive mental health help after college.
  2. Those who reach out and take advantage of  counseling services experience a considerable decrease in their stress levels and worries.
  3. Students can still turn their life around and steer toward a healthier life, even if they feel like they have done too much damage to their academic (and professional) record and relationships with others. Anything that has fallen by the wayside can still be salvaged and improved.
  4. Students will be able to access more resources, especially if they need more intensive help. This includes getting outside counseling, receiving medical attention, or meeting with other mental health professionals.

What are some signs that someone should seek help?

  • feeling down or hopeless
  • violence and hostility
  • suicidal thoughts
  • self-harming actions
  • changes in eating habits
  • not sleeping enough
  • not attending class
  • not enjoying things that you used to
  • substance abuse 
  • social anxiety
  • academic stress
  • conflict at home

Are there alternatives to the counseling center?

  • Call the national suicide prevention line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Talk to someone you trust: parent, family member, teacher, primary care physician, spiritual leader
  • Seek additional support here.
  • Read more information here.
  • If you want to get involved with mental health on your campus or in the community, contact your local Active Minds chapter or NAMI chapter.


Photo credits: The Guardian and and Sujen Man