Winter has come (Yeah, I know it’s Spring right now. This was written in the Winter…). The battle is here (the battle of the bamboo, that is). Inalimango is a Barrio dance from the Visayan region - more specifically from the Capiz province - that is a portrayal of graceful, happy crabs. On broader terms, Barrio dances represent an optimistic spirit of rural Filipinos in spite of a hard day’s work (not to mention the toils of colonialism).
I’m wearing bright green scrubs, a periwinkle long sleeve, and a white neckerchief. On a normal day, you would only cash me outside sporting exclusively a grayscale color palette, but these bright colors symbolize liveliness, so hey, I do it in respect of the culture.
But what is the most important thing I’m wearing? A smile of course! But under that smile, I am begging for mercy. The dance is an endless combination of jumps, stomps, and arm movements. Don’t forget some cartwheels for added flair. My unprepared body feels like it’s running a marathon from hell. I’m sweating buckets. Brief moment of transparency: I’m definitely not a good dancer by any means, so it’s sometimes extra frustrating to be so clean, so synchronized, and so perfect. As a result, one question seems to never escape me:
Why do I perform?
As a fellow cultural chair for starters, I obviously prioritize educating others on Filipinx culture. Yet, what is the role of cultural performance?
So this me trying to wrap my head around that. This blogpost is rather introspective, really. It is me trying to find answers to that elusive question through research in which I have thought about it in terms of a past, present, and future.
*Note: cultural performance here is defined as traditional Filipino dance and theatrics of the Philippine Culture Night (PCN)*
Political - Past
In searching for the ‘why’, I find it vital to go back to the roots.
And what better way to spend a spring break but to do some academic reading, am I right?
In his book, The Day the Dancers Stayed, Theodore S. Gonzalves explores the rich history and impact of the Philippine Culture Night in addition to traditional Filipino dance. I definitely recommend this book to all, especially to those who coordinate your PSA’s PCNs or choreo traditional dances. At the same time, though, I put a little disclaimer that some of the sources that Gonzalves cites are super brutal. Like, some of the critiques are textbook definitions of what the kids call “dragging someone”. BUT DON’T BE SCARED. ACCEPT ALL THAT IS THE PLATO’S CAVE EXPERIENCE. It’s very important we see where all sides come from and try to make sense of it to the best of our knowledge. The book still is highly insightful (which is why I use it as a reference for this post lol).
Traditional Filipino dance in the United States was popularized by the debut performance of the Bayanihan Dance Company in New York during post-World War II (1950s). The Bayanihan took over the stage that is the United States for more than just entertainment. Gonzalves argues that the Bayanihan were “dancing diplomats”. Christina Klein expands on this idea stating that they had an important role in “intellectual exchanges of conversation, economic exchanges of shopping, emotional exchanges of love, physical exchanges of tourism and immigration”. Through the Bayanihan the Filipino American community engages in an important conversation with Western America. We pulled up a seat at the metaphorical Western table and came through with the dishes of chicken adobo and Singkil. In light of the United States occupation, Filipino Americans find themselves trying to carve space and validate their place in Western society without sacrificing their heritage.
Instead of words, there was dance and theatre.
Now, when I first read about this motif of exchange I felt a shaking sense of deja-vu. I first learned about it during my first intensive course on the history and culture of the Philippines taught by THE BEST professor that has ever so graced the University of Michigan (and the freaking world for that matter) with her sage-like wisdom: Dr. Deidre de la Cruz. Filipinos had to constantly battle it out against colonialism (@UnitedStates in this context).
The motif of exchange also runs deep with a familiar concept in many Philippine Student Associations (PSAs): The PCN. PCNs were popularized in the late 1970s as a response to a lack of Ethnic studies courses throughout college campuses (e.g. San Francisco State University) and kept going because of the hardships of Filipino American communities. Filipino Americans in the 1980s faced high unemployment rates even with statistically higher degrees of education compared to a national average [subtweet to believers of a model minority…].
The PCN was rooted in mobilizing a community, creating solidarity.
Comparatively, there different types of PCNs from coast to coast in the United States. The West and East coasts put on full plays and musicals whereas the No coast (Midwest [MAFA we the best?]) focuses on philanthropy through galas (although I have seen an emergence in more play-like PCNs, shoutout to Wayne State FIL-SOC *claps*).
Nonetheless, we can learn more about the start of PCN through the iconic works of the West coast: UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino. Their 1983 PCN titled Kasaysayan ng Lahi (History of the People) can be used a case study. In this PCN, many historical Filipino figures are used as characters. One in particular was dictator Ferdinand Marcos. With a martial law era still fresh in many minds, Marcos was portrayed as a pseudo-parody in order to create a political critique. This both “galvanized and split several overseas communities”. Additionally, UCLA’s PCN tried to make sense of the hardships of Filipino immigration with a focus on cheap labor pools and racial exclusion. Although Filipino immigration can be seen as a personal battle, UCLA pinpointed to the systemic oppression of Filipinos.
Education – Present
If it was not clearly alluded to, cultural performance plays a key role in education. Visual aesthetics convey a lived experience of both past and present in an implicit manner. Yeah, the #aesthetic goes beyond a nice Instagram feed. Details in facial expression, colors and patterns of garments, and even subtle movements down to the fingertips must be carefully chosen to avoid the danger of misinterpreting a particular tribe and therefore showing disrespect even it unintentional.
That one Hamilton song that I will now put out of context once said “history has its eye on you”. My UMich FASA ates, Jessica Ruzgal and Kathleen Guytingco surveyed the UIUC, SLU, and UMich, and many choreographers definitely feel that pressure. In general, they have put a lot of research by sifting through literature, watching countless videos, and even consulting past cultural performers. Cultural performance is a looking glass used by an audience to learn about Filipino tradition. Visuals are potent messages that teach others on the Philippine’s indigenous life, folklore, gender politics, and regional differences.
The efforts of the MAFA community to uphold a sense of respect for Filipino tradition is valiant, yet the problem of authenticity still remains. However, authenticity is not specific to the Midwest. It is a core problem that pervades all performances not done by the tribes or people themselves. This problem may be traced back to the Bayanihan. Gonzalves states, “Indeed, the PCN performers of the 1980s have assumed the Bayanihan to be a synonym for Philippine culture itself.” Although many may not directly take inspiration from them, Ruzgal and Guytingco said it best when they said that they have “set the precedent for Filipino folk dancing in the US”.
We are limited in how we produce ‘authentic’ work. Recreation will always remain recreation. It will never be the real thing, because it is a copy. Many critics take offense to that. Francisca Reyes Aquino, a pioneer of folk-dance education exclaims that we should “let the folk dances be as they are… We cannot sacrifice heritage for progress”. One of Aquino’s students also remarks that “with so much stylization, you lose track of the real thing?”.
There is where I start to feel frustrated. I agree with both the supports and the naysayers, but that just leaves me conflicted. So does mean Filipino Americans should just stop trying? If it can only be as good as a copy, then what is the point? It is something that I am still trying to be at peace with. On one hand, we may be giving a false sense of what is Filipino tradition, but on the other hand, would our communities still be open to learn if weren’t at least trying to actively engage?
Community – Future
While the creation and recreation of cultural performance may be seen as problematic, I still believe that we should continue as we recognize the limitations and try to resolve them. I don’t think most Filipino Americans, not in the MAFAsphere at least are trying to pass our renditions as the real deal. Cultural performance should be a starting point to invite others to go out and seek more about Filipino culture. We just need to give them the resources (which is another issue).
At the heart of it, cultural performance stirs up a lot of cultural nationalism. We come to together in excitement in order to portray tradition. PCNs and traditional dance competitions are reasons to travel and catch up with other Filipino Americans, with culture hopefully as the glue that binds us as a community. We come together to also support each other’s hard work. And although competition is sometimes at play and can sometimes be a good motivator, winning a trophy should the least of our concerns. Reasons to be clean and precise in technique should be because we want to pay our respects. This year, I really liked UIC’s emphasis on community building among schools and hope more of that in the future.
Sadly to say, however, that this exploration in cultural performance leaves me with more questions. PCNs and cultural performance can build up Filipino American communities, but in what ways are the destructive? From personal experience, a lot of conflict comes from how we produce production and performance. The line between political and educational is one that is dangerous to cross. There are a lot of different views in the Filipino American community ranging from far left to far right, and it seems that you cannot please one side without offending the other. Yet remaining neutral to me seems so contradictory. The Filipino people have a long history of resistance. Why not call out the injustice? Where do we draw that line? I guess a problem in that thinking is how we even define what is an injustice in our communities. For me, the line between political and educational is so blurred because I believe that everything we do as people of color is political, whether we choose to accept it or not. This is issue is seen in both generations of young and old Filipinos and Filipino Americans.
Another issue is just the generational gaps between young and old. I’ve heard a lot of comments from traditionalists who think Filipino Americans are incorporating too much contemporary culture. I’ve even heard that modern tinikling is a “bastardization of the culture” (Ouch, I could really feel the scorn in that). While I agree on some points and disagree on others, I still think about the greater responsibilities of Filipino Americans every day.
Cultural performance is truly a double-edged sword. While it is unclear on how move forward towards what should such performance do for our heritage, we should be at least be aware that these problems exist. At the end of the day, I believe that you can be both critical while still continuing, because doing nothing at all is the worst final bow.
Christian Paneda, UMich FASA Co-Cultural Chair