The tinikling of Leyte in the Visayas region is a popular bamboo dance in the Philippines. The dance imitates the movement of the tikling bird as they walk between grass stems, run over tree branches, or dodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers. Dancers imitate the bird’s legendary grace and speed by skillfully maneuvering between large bamboo poles.
The sound of clashing bamboo poles are accompanied by the melody of a rondalla, brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards. The hand and leg movements also display Hispanic characteristics. It is usually performed during important social events such as the town fiesta. I can only imagine what the original version must have been like as no record of it have managed to survive.
Some legends suggests that tinikling was also used as punishment against unproductive natives during colonial times. With the bamboo poles struck together with the intention to crush the ankles of the poor native while the corrupt masters watch him/her helplessly leap to try to avoid being hurt.
Bamboo dances are an old tradition throughout continental and island South-East Asia with much variation in terms of the timing of the beat, the movements of the dancers and its purpose.
The Bandanese from Maluku, Moluccas (also known as the Spice islands, south of the Philippines) have a similar version of this bamboo dance called tari gaba-gaba as a dance to celebrate friendship. They were also influenced by Spanish and Portuguese settlers but the accompanying music is their traditional gong ensemble. The Bandanese, like the Visayans, have become mostly Christianized.
The Maranao of Lanao in Mindanao also have their bamboo dance which is traditionally a solo performance and accompanied only by the static beat of the bamboo. (Source: Alejandro, R.G., 1978. Philippine Dance: Mainstream and Crosscurrents. Manila: Vera-Reyes, Inc.) Known as the singkil or kasingkil it was performed only by women, particularly royalty. The dance serves as either a conscious or unconscious advertisement to potential suitors. Incorrectly referred to as Muslim dance, its origins are secular and predates the conversion of the Marano people to Islam.
The modern and unorthodox version by the Bayanihan dance troupe using Western conventions has largely eclipsed the traditional style and most Filipinos now use it as first reference.
The theatrical lao kra top mai of Thailand; the robam kom araek of Cambodia; and to a lesser extent, the mua sap of Vietnam shows the apsara hand gestures found in Buddhist and Hindu art. It was used as etertainment by farmers at the end of a long workday in the fields. In Vietnam mua sap is performed to celebrate events like Tet.
The Lizu, Hmong and Miao of South-East China consider their bamboo dance as a game or sport where anyone can participate. The goal is not to get your foot caught in the closing bamboo. Whoever remains last will be the winner.
In Sabah, Borneo, the anggalang magunatip of the Murut tribe is performed as a welcome to the returning warriors during their head-hunting days. Unlike the groups mentioned above, they have retained their traditional woven dresses, loincloth and feathered head-dress clothing. Their culture is very reminiscent of the Ifugao tribes of Northern Luzon, probably an echo from a time when the Austronesian culture was dominant in the region.
The Chin, Karen, and Mizo of Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and India also have a bamboo dance called cheraw; and the Mizo recently set a world record for the largest ‘bamboo dance’ for the Guiness world record with 10, 736 dancers. Although their language is part of the Sino-Tibetan group of language, their culture is closer to the Austronesian culture of their eastern origin. In ancient times, the cheraw was originally performed with the hope of providing solace to the soul of a deceased mother who had left her newborn child on earth.
In the United States of America, a version of tinikling is taught as a type of aerobic exercise for the P.E. classes of grades K-12. Introduced by the large Filipino-American community there, it has evolved to accommodate hip-hop music, further evidence of the flexibility of the dance to be transformed by the people. I personally do not find it culturally or aesthetically pleasing but I do appreciate the effort of making it more appealing and somewhat relevant to a younger (displaced) generation.
The are numerous other bamboo dances from India to the Pacific islands which does not involve passing through clashing bamboo poles which I will discuss in another post in the future.
I suppose these dances must have had a common origin which eventually got lost as it was adopted into the different culture it was exposed to. I assume that the origin is an ancient culture in what is now Northern Vietnam and Southern China which is the proposed homeland of the Austronesian culture. We may never know the true origin or the original purpose of the bamboo dance but we can celebrate its ability to survive through the ages.