The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelago that is just east of southeastern China and north of Indonesia. It has been a territory that has been sought after by many nations due to its geographic location. Hindu, Arabic, Malayan, Spanish, contemporary Western and many other influences have been woven into the Filipino cultural fabric. Due to these invasions, the Filipino culture has experienced numerous influences and has infused many other cultures into their traditions. Traceable within the repertoire of traditional and contemporary Philippine dance are the cumulative influences of a number of foreign cultures. Most styles of dance can been seen in their original form in the remote mountainous regions of Luzon. Inhabiting the rugged terrain of the Luzon mountain region are six ethno-linguistic peoples known generically as Igorots or mountain people.
Although each tribe of the Igorots has its own distinct movement patterns, the Igorots share common religious beliefs, and offer praise to anitos or household gods during their dances. Such dancing is usually in vacant areas of the village where the tribesmen dance in a way that is meaningful to the specific purpose of the dance, such as war for example. Among these people, dancing continues to be an expression of community life that animates the various rituals and ceremonies. As with many non-literate societies, the Igorots dance to heal, worship ancestors and gods, and insure positive outcomes during war, harvests, and weather. They dance to ward off misfortune, to congregate and socialize, to mark milestones in the life, and to express repressed feelings.
Compared to other Filipino ethnic and folk dances, Igorot dances tend to have less structure and formality. There are many steps within the tribe’s dances that remain similar. Each tribe complicates and individualizes their own dance by implementing different approaches to dynamic, emphasis, dramatization, spectacle, and costuming. Different tribes are known for their different dances such as war dances, courtship dances, or wedding dances. Some common steps that are featured in most dances are of the close-to-the-earth type such as shuffling, jumps, hops, and a bending of the knees with the upper trunk stretched diagonally forward.
The hands move with the music with a variety of stiff hand positions. The arms are typically extended to the side at shoulder level, moving up and down as if the dancer is flapping their wings. Most steps and movements of the hands go downward to express their bond to the earth. The symbolic rising of one arm obliquely forward and upward is a characteristic prayer attitude in Igorot religious dances. The direction of the palm also holds symbolic significance for the Igorot people. When the palm faces the earth, this expresses the dancer’s respect for the gods and when the palm faces the sky, the dance is to request a favor such as a good harvest, favorable weather, adequate rainfall, recovery of a sick relative, or even to pacify the anger of evil spirits. Toes, employing creeping and pawing gestures, are pointed forward, heel flat on the ground. The movement tends to be light and the dancers spur the ground with their feet and usually beat the ground — they use their heels sparingly. Rising on tiptoe and dropping down again, or first lifting one foot and then the other, the dancer remains in one spot or moves forward to one side, very slowly.
In the Igorot dances, we find that men and women take on different roles in both leadership positions and movement style. For instance, women tend to lead in courtship dances while men lead during wedding dances. The women tend to dance with less movement of their feet than the men. At times, women participate with a sort of backward pawing movement, which throws dirt and stones into the air behind them. In many cases young girls will imitate their mothers as they dance, which shows that portions of this Filipino dance are learned and passed down through movement experience instead of verbal or structured learning sessions. When in the center of the circle, men may execute similar movement to the women but with added motions, adding balancing and tilting of the body, especially of the arms, and with rapid trembling and quivering of the hands.
For some of the Irogot people, singing and chanting accompanies the dance along with music, which usually consists of flutes and percussive instruments to set the rhythm and tempo. The highest prioritized instrument is the gangsa or gong, which keeps time in the dance. The gangsa is a flat metal gong about a foot in diameter, about 2 inches deep, and commonly made of bronze. There are three types of gangsa. The first is the kalos, which is the smallest and gives a spreading sound, which balances the tune of the other two gangsa. The second type of gangsa is the sar-ong-ko-ongan, which is larger and produces a bass tone. The third kind of gangsa is the marwas, which is a similar size compared to the sar-ong-ko-ongan, produces a tenor tune. Only males beat the gangsa by striking the outer surface with a short padded stick. When played simultaneously, these gangsa produce a wonderful harmonizing sound.
In addition, there are a series of bamboo instruments, which include the taongatong, balingging, bunkaka, solibao and gimbal, palas, pattung, and kulibet. The taongatong is a series of short bamboo tubes that vary in size and are played by being tapped on the ground. The balingging is a bamboo nose flute that is blown by a single nostril. A bunkaka is a bamboo percussive instrument that has split forked ends. The solibao and gimbal are drums produced from the formation of hollowed out logs and animal hides. Other percussive instruments include the palas, which are a pair of metals bars that are struck together, and pattung, which as wooden clappers. The kulibet is a type of bamboo guitar. All these instruments in various combinations with the predominant gangsa are what you would most likely hear during an Igorot tribe’s dance.
For the most part, the traditional attire for these indigenous dances is bare skin, including bare feet and upper bodies. Both genders wear various amounts of woven wrap around their waists. For males, this wrap is similar to what is commonly thought of a loincloth with extra fabric that lies down the back surface of the sacral area. The women tend to have more gathered fabric around their waist and have no coverings of their upper body. In some cases, the woven fabric is worn as a larger article of clothing, which drapes from one shoulder to the opposing hip. Lastly, it is common to see the women of these indigenous tribes wear necklaces of various lengths, which are made from the stringing of large colored beads. These necklaces hang around the women’s’ necks either diagonally across their chests or directly centered on their sternum.
In sum, a rich variety of cultures have woven their influences into the complex artistic tapestry of the Philippines. These influences hail from all around the globe, yet the heritage of the Filipino people, especially in the realm of traditional and contemporary dance, lives on in perpetuity because of the Igorots — the six ethno-linguistic peoples who live in an isolated mountainous region. The Igorots have remained mostly free of outside influence due to their strong cultural roots and their geographic isolation. As a result, dance scholars and Filipinos alike should be grateful that the there were people like the Igorots who were shielded from outside influences and could preserve part of Philippine traditions.
Alejandro, Reynaldo G. Philippine Dance: Mainstream and Crosscurrents. Ed. Basilio Esteban Villaruz. Hong Kong: Vera-Reyes Inc., 1978.
Ness, Sally Ann. Body, Movement, and Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsyvania Press, 1992.
Tolentino, Francisca Reyes. Phillipine National Dances. NYC: Silver Burdett Company, 1946.