Not many people know that Tinikling1, the bamboo dance often considered the national dance of the Philippines, can be performed to the tune of Queen’s We Will Rock You2. Far fewer know its origins – in fact, nobody really seems to know, and what we do ‘know’ may be very wrong.
Which is the sort of challenge that sends the cold, wet noses of history bloodhounds quivering.
I had not thought much about Tinikling over my three decades in the Philippines, it was just there, part of the cultural background that surrounded me. You’ll find a link to a video below so I will not describe the dance itself here.
All I seemed to find in netsurfing was that it is a mimetic dance: The dancers imitate the movements of the Tikling Bird as it hops among rice stalks and evades bamboo traps set by farmers. It is variously said to have been introduced during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines in either Pampanga or Leyte3. Some of the more confusing versions have it as being both pre-Hispanic and of the Spanish era. The dance only seems to have surfaced during the American occupation of the Philippines as part of physical education.
The first mention of the dance I have found is in The Philippines progressive music series for the primary grades , compiled by Norberto Romualdez, et al. published in 1914, where it is creditted to Samar-Leyte and includes lyrics.
Oddly, Tinikling, despite its colourful exoticism and excitement, made no recorded appearance at the 1887 Madrid Exposition nor the 1904 St Louis Exposition, both of which displayed a wide variety of Hispanic and indigenuous cultures of the archipelago.
Inevitably, like ancient map-makers writing ‘here be dragons’ on territories they knew nothing about some writers suggest that Tinikling was derived from a punishment imposed by Spanish overseers on lazy workers, rather than admit that they do not know.
A Mr. Guillermos Gomez Rivera claims that Tinikling derives from a Spanish dance, the Jota Aragonesse. The latter dance, however, has none of the key hallmarks of Tinikling – clacking bamboo poles. The Spanish certainly influenced how the Tinikling was performed and removed its indigenous elements to ‘civilise’ it.
In an articcle for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz, does concede that Tinikling “has had some Southeast Asian beginnings”.
A uniquely Filipino dance form, or so I thought, with a similar dance in Mindanao called Singkil.
It appears that there is more to Tinikling than being a folk dance.
Former Australian diplomat, Philip Coggan, happened to send me a video of an elderly man hopping between the familiar clacking bamboo sticks. But this was not the Philippines, it was Chin state in Myanmar, formerly Burma. The Karen people of Myanmar also have the same bamboo dance.
Across the border in Mizoram, North East India, which is believed to have been populated by immigration from Myanmar, the bamboo dance is also performed, as well as Bangladesh.
Further digging found it in Malaku – the Mollucas – and in an arc that includes the Indochinese states of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and neighbouring Thailand, as far as China’s southernmost island of Hainan and te south Chinese province of Guangxi.
It is notable that the dance is prevalent in tribal communities and hill people, a dance of the ordinary people rather than royalty, with the exception, perhaps, of Mindanao’s Singkil.
Given that spread, it seems unlikely that Tinikling spread from the Philippines to this vast geographical swathe of cultures. So how did it get here?
Remember that the islands that make up today’s Philippines were not isolated from the rest of South East Asia, they were historically part of the maritime trade routes of the region. Before direct trade between China and the archipelago were established in the 12th century, that trade went through the entrepot of Champa – Southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
The bamboo dance geography largely matches that of the Buddhist Srivijayan empire that stretched north from Sumatra from the 7th to the 14th century. The Philippine archipelago was not part of that empire but would have interfaced with it through trade links.It also fits with the Hindu Majapahit Empire that emerged from Java in the late 13th Century to the early 16th century, which had tributary states in southwestern Philippines, including Sulu.
Neither empire seems to have left much impression upon the Philippines. Artifacts like the Golden Tara and the Laguna copperplate suggest some ancient contact between Buddhist/Hindu South East Asia but it does not appear to have been glued into place.
India is the centre of Hinduism, and the home of Buddhism. From India, Buddhism spread to Cambodia which then spread it throughout coastal South East Asia. Many aspects of Hinduism and its pantheon were embedded in the Buddhism of Indochina.
One hypothesis might be that what we know as Tinikling in the Philippines arrived somehow through. route from India to Champa/Cambodia and from there to the Philippines in some fashion, prehaps through immigration from Indochina, in otherwords, a living artefact of the Philippines place in South East Asia.
That suggestion would be stronger if there were other examples of Indochina-Philippine links in ancient times. And, indeed, there are.
Wherever tinikling-style dances are performed, you will find the sarimanok or Garuda bird as a potent symbol.
Consider the Tikbalang, the horse-headed spirit-demon of Philippine mythology. Horses are not native to the Philippines and did not appear until after the Spanish conquest. They were, however, known on the Asian mainland. And wherever you find Tinikling you will find the horse-headed deity depicted in museums across the world.
Australian academic Geoff Wade has noted the extensive similarities between Philippine writing systems and those of Champa and Cambodia.
Despite its ubiquity across the region, the dance seems to be absent from traditional art and sculpture, nor does it appear in travellers tales of the 18th and 19th Century. The first reference in the Philippines, for instance, is 1914.
The question is why is the bamboo dance invisible in the historical record?
We are far from having the smoking gun on the origins of Tinikling but it does seem to show us how interconnected and integrated the Philippines was across a large chunk of Asia.
Yet, this dance may well pre-date the empires of Southeast Asia and its trade routes. It may have its roots in the great Austronesian expansion and colonisation that began around 3000 BCE that passed from Taiwan through the Philippines and onwards to the rest of Southeast Asia by 1000 BCE.
So, Tinikling could be an ancient vestige of that expansion and somewhere along that line the bamboo dance was created.
But if that was the case one would expect the dance to be represented among the archipelago’s indigenous non-hispanised communities, especially those of the interior and the highlands
Another potential route for Tinikling is slave-raiding. This was common in the region and it may well be that slave-raiders from the archipelago what was to become the Philippines brought back with them slaves who introduced the bamboo dance. The same Visayan raiders who assaulted coastal Chinese ports, and the Tausugs who sought alaves in what is now Indonesia, could have carried knowledge of the bamboo dance among the human produce they returned home with.
Or was it a dance at all? Could it have originated as an elimination game set to music, like today’s musical chairs – players being removed from the game as the clacking bamboo poles caught them until only one was left.
History is more than paper and papyrus, clay and copperplate, it is also in the songs we sing, the dances we dance, the games we play. in a lost language we have yet to decypher.