Utah dance groups teach younger generations about their Filipino heritage

Story and multimedia by DANA IGO

Get a glimpse of Likha’s traditional dance costumes

Manny Evangelista grew up in the Bicol region of the Philippines on the tiny palm tree covered island of Burias.  In 1979, he moved to California to attend Stanford University on a scholarship. An avid skier, Evangelista took a trip to Utah where he broke his back in a skiing accident. During recovery he took a liking to Salt Lake City and made the valley his home.

Though he has spent the majority of his life in America he still remains close to his Filipino heritage through an appreciation of traditional dance and the Filipino language.

Unlike Evangelista, his children lacked knowledge about their heritage. They had trouble straddling the line between American and Filipino culture. “They had fully integrated but there was something missing,” Evangelista said.

In 1996 Evangelista started Likha, the Philippine American Cultural Ensemble of Utah. Likha is a cultural and educational organization focused on teaching children about their ethnic backgrounds as well as teaching the community at large about the Philippines. “There was a need to promote the Filipino culture,” he said.

Likha means creation in Filipino, a fitting title given the organization creates a place for Filipino-Americans to learn about where they came from and who they are.

Dance, which is a major facet of the Filipino cultural identity, is Likha’s signature program and currently includes 37 performers of all skill levels, many being children and teenagers. The dance group performs at festivals like Living Traditions, an annual event in Salt Lake City showcasing cultural traditions from all over the world. They also perform at school assemblies.

Many former dancers of Likha who have gone on to attend universities across the country travel back to perform.  They also teach younger generations about the power of knowing the culture they came from. “They say, ‘I’m in this university because of the fact that I’ve learned to understand who I am,’” Evangelista said.

Like Evangelista, Eunice Jones, 51, grew up in the Philippines. She was the daughter of a farmer and a seamstress who lived in a small village nestled between the mountains and the ocean with their 11 children. In 1986 she moved to Los Angeles for a job opportunity. Later she moved to Las Vegas and finally to Salt Lake City.

Jones, a community leader who heads the Asian Advisory Council and started the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, has seen a lack of unity among Filipinos in Utah. She says she wanted to pull them together into one organization. In August 2010 she started the Kulturang Pinoy (meaning Filipino Culture) Ensemble (KPE).

Along with traditional dances, KPE tries to incorporate Tagalog, the root of the Filipino language, into its lessons. Jones doesn’t want children to lose the linguistic connection to their families’ homeland. She says when her own children speak their native language (they were born in the Philippines but moved to the U.S. before age 5) they sound funny because they have become Americanized.

Agnes Higley, the vice president of KPE, said teaching Filipino culture to children is the main reason why she participates in the dance group. She felt Filipinos weren’t represented enough at cultural festivals and KPE was a way to both teach about the culture and give representation in the state.

Currently, KPE has around 35 members composed of children, teenagers and adults. It’s grown fast and has garnered interest from the surrounding community. In September 2010, KPE hosted a fundraiser to help purchase costumes and props for its performances. Donors from all cultures were invited to attend and together they raised enough money for KPE to begin purchasing the items it needs to enhance its dances for festivals, weddings and other events.

Filipino dances reflect the different parts of Filipino heritage, Evangelista said. There are dances that hail from certain geographic areas of the Philippines and dances that are performed for special events. Likha performs three types of dance: ethnic, rural and folk.

Evangelista said folk dances are “Hispanized” or influenced by Spain in both music and style. Ethnic dances are traditionally Filipino and reflect the origination of dance in the Philippines. Rural dances incorporate western images and themes.

Costumes are a big part of Filipino dance performances. A video of Likha’s 2009 performance shows a dance called Polkabol. In it the women wear sunset colored dresses with long, wide brimmed skirts, which conjure images of toned down flamenco costumes. Underneath they wear petticoats, giving the skirts a full appearance. As the women dance they swing their skirts in fluid motions with one hand as they hold fans in the other.

In the Tinikling dance, some women wear knee-length blue skirts with red tulle layered over the top. Other women wear the colors reversed. They all wear blouses of different colors and styles. The men wear white shirts with black pants.

All of the dances, regardless of origin, express aspects of the homeland and the cultural identity of the Filipino people, providing an opportunity for children and community members alike to learn about the Philippines.