Portrait of the Filipino as Dance

Vinta, performed by Mr Ronnie del Barrio, dance master (Photo by Carlos Ycasiano)

VIENNA — It was a joyous occasion. Filipinos from all over the city donned their barongs or baro’t saya (traditional shirts or dresses) and gathered at the majestic Hofburg Palace Complex in Vienna, Austria. The Weltmuseum Wien (World Museum Vienna), one of the most prominent ethnological museums in the world, staged an innovative exhibit called “Danced Creation,” a series of folk dances from all over Asia depicting collections of mythological, ritualistic and celebratory dances that embody a nation’s storied past. On September 5 it was the turn of the Philippines to regale audiences with our native traditions and rituals as expressed through music and dance movements.

Philippine Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre welcomed distinguished guests from the diplomatic and business communities and museum visitors. In her stunning Filipiniana attire she graciously greeted her kababayans.  Inside the reception hall, puto (rice cakes), lumpia and an assortment of drinks were served. Everybody could not help but be warmed by the smiles of the Filipinos.  It started to feel like home.

The Lahing Kayumanggi Dance Company, a group of avid Filipino dancers from the UK headed by the talented artistic director Ronnie del Barrio, performed Philippine folk dances from north to south of the archipelago. Moreover, 24 prominent leaders of the Council of Filipino Associations in Austria showcased the Rigodon de Honor, a form of quadrille, which was performed during the Philippine Independence Day Ball in Austria.

Rolly Mercado, President of CFAA (right), with Ana Maria Langer (second from left), Lenybeth Nayo (third from left), Noel Garcia performed "Rigodon de Honor" with the other prominent leaders of Philippine community in Vienna. (Photo by Carlos Ycasiano)


Dr. Steven Engelsman, director of the Weltmuseum, opened the night with his keynote speech on the importance of bringing folk dances to the world.  Ambassador Yparraguirre took the podium after him, and enlightened the audience on Philippine-Austrian relations that date back to the sixteenth century and includes the historic friendship between Dr. Jose Rizal and Ferdinand Blumentritt. With that, the house lights faded, the music started and the dancing commenced.

Maidens from the Cordillera Mountains in northern Philippines made their entrance, swaying elegantly to the rhythmic sounds of the gangsa (gong) and bamboo instruments.  They placed, one by one, a tower of banga (jars) filled with water on their heads, as they told the story of their tribe gathering water by the river to take back home to their families.  The higher the stack of pots, the more difficult it was to balance, requiring even more grace and agility.  The women who could balance the most pots were held in the highest esteem for she was the one who could provide most for the family’s basic needs.

Has anything changed? Even in these modern times, Filipinos — the majority of them women — leave their homes in order to provide for their families. They go far away with nary a complaint, accepting their role with the same grace and humility that our Igorot ancestors displayed.  

Is it not the quintessential story of the Filipino people to keep our heads unbowed in the face of struggle and hardship?

In the background, the chant “Salidumay” could be heard, transfixing the audience with the lullaby of the northern mountain regions.  But as the music transitioned, so did the dance. An Igorot warrior in a bahag (g-string) stomped about in a display of masculinity, as if to assure his wife-to-be of his ability to protect and provide for her.  It is called the Pinanyuan, a fiery and passionate dance between a betrothed couple. This gave way to even livelier beats and movements, as the dancers depicted the Ifugaos giving thanks for a bountiful harvest and victory in war.   

Movement by movement, the dancers laced together a tapestry of tales and rituals from north to south. One of them was the Singkil, the story of Princess Gandingan of the Maranao tribe, who was trapped in the middle of a forest during an earthquake. As crisscrossed bamboos banged and clapped about, the princess elegantly wove in and out of the traps, followed by the prince and her faithful servant, each holding their heads high despite the obstacles in their way. Around them, the handmaidens bearing scarves depicted the ferocious movements of the wind. Emotions were stirred; after all, who among us could remain unmoved by this simple but powerful tale? For is it not the quintessential story of the Filipino people to keep our heads unbowed in the face of struggle and hardship? Can an earthquake, a typhoon, or even over three hundred years of colonial oppression dampen our collective spirit? 

Philippine Ambassador to Austria, H.E. Lourdes Yparraguirre greeting and welcoming  guests (Photo by Carlos Ycasiano)

On the contrary, one of the dances that followed was the Rigodon de Honor — an elegant ballroom dance introduced to the Philippines by the Spaniards and “Filipinized” by natives. Dashing men in their crisp barong Tagalog and ladies in their beautiful ternos (traditional gown) awed the audience.  It is a bold statement indicative of our ability to make the best out of a difficult situation.  Though we were nothing more than indios in the eyes of our colonial “masters,” we never deemed ourselves unworthy of the elegance of the Rigodon de Honor. Indeed, this dance is still performed on occasion to introduce dignitaries during formal high-level events in the Philippines. 

As the selected dances moved deeper south of the archipelago, the bamboos of the north and the Spanish regalia of the capital city gave way to the colorful vintas (boats) of Sulu and southern Mindanao.  Each massive cloth, representing the sails, was made to flutter about in the wind, as a man in a badjao outfit appeared to be riding the vinta, keeping his balance as the boat swayed with the waves.

Those of us watching were seized by nostalgia back to our beloved land of sand and skies, seas and stars. We forgot, if only momentarily, that we were sitting in a Renaissance palace in Europe. It was as if we were in a time capsule, steeped in the stories of our native land, feeling the warm, salty breeze on our faces, as though we were actually home. 

The Banga dance (Photo by Carlos Ycasiano)


By the end of the night, we walked out of that time capsule feeling joyful and rejuvenated. We had just witnessed the embodiment of everything the Filipino stood for. Those of us living abroad can attest to the fact that this is our collective success story: No matter how far we travel, we are always rooted in the values of our ancestors.  We reach back through time and place into our cultural memory and find in it the solace of our home, our tahanan.

Indeed, what is more triumphant than the ability to hold steadfast to one’s deepest values? Neither colonization nor modernity, not even diasporization, can erode our sense of who we are, of those things that define us as Filipinos. We are a giving people — generous, warm and hospitable. We have a deep sense of community, of bayanihan, and an even deeper sense of responsibility towards family. We keep our chin up through hardship and struggle, just as we do when we dance the Banga and Singkil, and we do it with humility and grace.  This is our common heritage, our danced creation.   


Carlos Ycasiano

Carlos Ycasiano

Carlos Ycasiano graduated from Ateneo de Manila and pursued further studies in the United States and Europe. He has done internships with the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and lives in Vienna, Austria.