Roots of the Singkil, a traditional Filipino Muslim dance

Note: This post is not sponsored by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism.  But I did write it about events on that trip, the 2013 Ambassadors’ Tour in July 2013, of which the Philippines’ DOT underwrote my participation.

With yesterday’s Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Breaking the Fast, I thought I’d share some pictures and videos of singkil, a Muslim dance from the Southern Philippines. Actually on July 10 – the first day of Ramadan – we watched a dance troupe perform a number of traditional dances, including Singkil [my Instgram video!] , while visiting the Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay City.

A post on the famous Muslim Filipino dance, that works for a tie-in on Eid al-Fitr, right? Maybe.

I present the Singkil Wikipedia page:

While often erroneously referred to by non-Maranaos as a “Muslim dance”, the Singkíl is in fact secular in nature, performed by the Ummah communities of the Maranao and Maguindanao [emphasis mine].

A consternate “Oh.” None of the other sources I read (see related reads after the article) indicated the same nor directly refuted it, either. I’ll keep looking. But first, what is singkil?

Here’s a local youth dance troupe from Palawan performing at the Legends Hotel in Puerto Princesa:

Chimes and bronze gongs herald the entrance of the Muslim princess, resplendent in dazzling golds, sapphire and other jewel tones. Her entourage of ladies-in-waiting precede her with scarves, fans and decorative umbrellas, flourishing their measured movements. The princess’s manservants carry her in a litter or sedan chair (depending on the capability and resources of the dance company) in a solemn procession. Upon her ankles the small bells mark her movements.

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A suitor courting the Princess dances opposite her bearing a kris and shield, the pace of the bamboo poles between which closures they skillfully navigate quickens pace. Her main lady attendant – some scholars list her role as ‘slave’ – dutifully follows her mistress.

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The musicians on the kulintang, or brass gong, match tempo of the bamboo clappers. The kulintang musical ensemble is related to the brass gong instrumentation of Indonesia called gamelan. These instruments are forged and tuned to each other, they cannot be separated or mixed with other ensembles.

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But, all the sources – including this wiki agree – that, yes, the Singkil IS a traditional Muslim dance, as it is a dance of the Maranao, a Malay Muslim or Moro people or tribe. But the dance’s roots go further. To India, in fact! The Singkil Wikipedia page notes:

The Singkíl originated from the Maranao people who inhabit the shores of Lake Lanao. It is derived from a story in the Darangen, the Maranao interpretation of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana [indicating the dance’s Hindu spiritual origin]. The name of the dance itself means “to entangle the feet with disturbing objects such as vines or anything in your path”. It is a popular dance performed during celebrations and other festive entertainment. Originally only women, particularly royalty, danced the Singkíl, which serves as either a conscious or unconscious advertisement to potential suitors.

The lead dancer, in the role of Putri Gandingan (the Darangen name for Sita), graciously step in and out of closing bamboos poles arranged in either a parallel, rectangular, or criss-cross fashion while manipulating either apir (fans), mosala (scarves), or even just their bare hands. A kulintang and agung ensemble always accompanies the dance.

After the ancient origins, the next reference I found online about the singkil was in the 1950s. The dance became a popularized Philippine folk dance by the help of historians-dancers-ethnomusicologists, Bayanihan Dance Company. In particular this dance was researched, interpreted and staged by the Bayanihan’s Lucrecia Reyes-Urtula, who went on to be named a National Artist of the Philippines for her contributions to cultural heritage in dance. The Company performed Filipino folk dances for audiences around the world, even for Ed Sullivan, to much acclaim.

Additionally the authors of the Singkil Wiki level judgement on the Philippine national dance company, Bayanihan:

When the Bayanihan Dance Company began performing the Singkíl, the traditional dance was adapted to convey Western aesthetics. The Bayanihan portrayal, branded as the Princess Dance or the Royal Maranao Fan Dance, became so popular that it is often mistaken for the authentic version of the dance.

I, too, was guilty of this same crime, believing in the authenticity of the Bayanihan singkil interpretation now replicated by innumerable dance companies and Filipino student groups around the world. Although — the Bayanihan in their mission statement make no secret of the fact that the historical folk dances they present are reinterpreted and restaged for ‘contemporary’ audiences:

…to research on and preserve indigenous Philippine art forms in music, dance, costumes and folklore; to restructure and enhance these research findings to evolve repertoires suited to the demands of contemporary theater; and to promote international goodwill through performances at home and abroad.

But — OUCH — ‘Western aesthetics’! A wide gulf exists, I think, between espousing or imposing a Western aesthetic on traditional indigenous art forms and evolving or restructuring these same art forms. Hm.

More questions than answers, yet again.

Resources & related reads:

Side note… The Singkil wiki notes the acculturation of the Ramayana poem to a monotheistic Islam frame, but this type of adaptation or repurposing of new belief systems to native ones also happens in Philippine culture with regard to Catholicism and ancestor worship. Not a new phenomenon but an interesting new manifestation of it.

The Bayanihan version attempts to blatantly exposit the story as per Western conventions, and re-tells the Darangen. The dance itself narrates a scene where Putri Gandingan escapes her abductor, the demon king Lawana, and is lost in the forests of Alangka. She is finally found by another person, but the Darangen and the Ramayana differ as to the identity of this person: the former recounts that Rajah Bantugan found her, while the latter states that it was the god Hanuman who found Sita on Rama’s behest. The modification of this detail possibly suggests acculturation, where the monisticHindu aspects of the narrative were edited to conform with the monotheistic beliefs of Islam.

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11 thoughts on “Roots of the Singkil, a traditional Filipino Muslim dance

  1. Is it ok if this type of “cultural dance” is performed in a Christian wedding ceremony, as part of the reception entertainment???

    • Hi Jose! Thank you for reading and your question. Someone recently asked me if the dance was really Muslim in origin, and I am researching this matter again. I will let you know what I find.

      I’m not sure if your question has to do with the dance’s religious origins not being the same as the couple getting married, but aside from that matter, I think weddings should be very personal to the couple. I feel like as long as guests know the sincerity behind the choices in food, music, entertainment or other cultural products, it will be respectful, sincere and enjoyable for all. For example, the wedding program can explain if the couple spent a memorable vacation in Mindanao, or if part of their family origins trace from there. I think it is also important to choose performing artists that can honor the art form well. Again, the choice is yours and I would encourage you to ask scholars in the dance. Meanwhile I will certainly report back my findings. 🙂 Congratulations!

      • Without doing any research or without personal connection to the Mindanao region that I am aware of, I just thought the dance is a part of the Philippines culture as a diverse whole. Hence our idea to include it in as part of the wedding reception entertainment (not in the Christian ceremony). But after reading your blog, I am curious to know if it is appropriate. Thank you for your work. I am sure others will benefit.

  2. Singkil proves that the Philippines is just a copycat country. Singkil has obvious Indian, Indonesian and Malaysian origins and the Philippines is appropriating a dance that is obviously foreign.

    • stupid and arrogant comment. Philippines was influenced by various cultures from different countries, Indonesia and Malaysia are just a few of those countries before spanish colonialization. This doesnt make the Philippines copycat. Geeezzz it seems you dont know Philippine history but you commented as if you know the country… stupid fool…

    • Copycat? Filipino Muslims have never been conquered!! copy that! Pacquiao has went through 8 weight classes and 5 lineal titles in different weight classes! copy that !!

    • The Moros have never been conquered copy that!!! Pacquiao has went through 8 weight classes with 5 lineal titles copy that!!!

  3. There’s a video going viral now that I’m pretty sure is of Malaysian people doing the Singkil dance. Everyone was saying it was from so many countries. Top 2 were Malaysia and Philippines. Do you know how Filipinos were introduced to this dance by Malaysia and/or India?

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