Every tribal warrior societies in the world have their own versions of war dances. The Philippines being an archipelago and possessing a strong warrior culture owns a variety of war dances many of them displaying martial arts techniques. Performing war dances have a religious and practical purpose; besides invoking the protection of a particular deity in battle, war dances boost a warrior’s fighting spirit and give him the opportunity to practice combative moves. War dances were often performed to the rhythm of percussion instruments.

One Filipino war dance I personally experienced performing is the maglalatik (pronounced “mahg-lah-lah-TIHK) or the coconut dance. Maglalatik, which involves the wearing of coconut shells on the body of its dancers, is tame compared to war dances from the highlands of Northern Philippines or the Muslim south of the country. The reason for this is that this dance developed in the Christianized part of Luzon.

Maglalatik is a mock-battle between Christians and Moros. A maglalatik performance involves two groups of dancers; one group wearing red trousers represents the Christians while the other wearing green trousers represents the Moros. The mock-battle was over the possession of “latik” (fried coconut milk curd), which is a popular ingredient of Filipino snacks.

A vintage print depicting a headhunting tribe in the Philippines (source: Project Gutenberg) 

Maglalatik dancers first strike the coconut shells attached to their own bodies then they will proceed to hit the shells on each other’s bodies. A person who understands the intricacies of the movements of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) could easily spot combative movements in the maglalatik dance, among them are the crisscrossing pattern akin to the movements of sinawali double stick fighting as well as empty hand gunting [scissor] trapping motions.

Although no longer practiced, headhunting is a long tradition among the mountain tribes of Northern Philippines and associated with it are various war dances.

The pattong of the Bontoc tribe was meant to instill courage and strength to the warrior prior to a headhunting expedition or war. This dance was also performed during the dry months of February, March and April to beseech the deity Lumawig to send rain on the fields. Warriors performing the pattong brandish their head axes and spears while clashing their shields. Another Bontoc pre-headhunting ritual was the mangayaw where new warriors were presented to the tribal council.

The Kalingas, another mountain tribe of Northern Philippines has a ritual dance called idaw. A ritual leader called the “mandadawak” facilitated the idaw. In idaw, a group of warrior watches over the number of insects entering a plate; the number of which will determine the number of heads to be taken in during a headhunting expedition. The Kalingas also have a celebratory dance called a takiling, which is performed after a successful headhunting expedition. The crowned heroes of such missions were called “Mingaos.”

Still another mountain tribe from the north is the Ifugaos. The Ifugaos performed a dance ritual called “monhim-ong” to marked a violent death of a fellow tribesman. Men performing the monhim ong move in a single file while beating a percussion instrument called “bangibang.”

Equally war-like as the war dances of Northern Philippines are those found in the Muslim south of the country. Lanao del Norte boasts of a war dance called “sagayan.” Sagayan is a spectacle to behold as its performers brandish kampilans and shields turning and leaping, trance-like to the rhythm of percussion instruments. The animated motion of the sagayan was believed to drive away evil spirits.

A war dance called “binanog” is still practiced by the Manobo tribe of Agusan del Sur and Agusan del Norte. Binanog imitates the gestures of fighting off an eagle attacking a hen and her chicks. The Subanons of Zamboanga meanwhile perform a war dance called “sohten” to please the gods.

In Sulu, the Tausug tribe, known for its warrior tradition has a war dance called “burung-talo.” This dance, which is acrobatic in nature and displaying stern facial expressions mimics the fight between an eagle and a cat.

Larry Gabao, president of the Philippine Folk Dance Society, Cultural Center of the Philippines and the chairman of the Physical Education Department of the Philippine Normal University explains the “langka tradition” in the dances of Southern Philippines, he wrote, “The proximity of Philippine shore to the Malay Peninsula accounts for Malay influences in the martial dances particularly, those found in the islands of Jolo, Sulu, the southern most tip of the archipelago. Langka, the term use to mean “dance,” has many types: Langka-Silat, Langka-Pansak, Langka-Lima and Langka Budyang. Langka Silat is a dance simulation of a fight in graceful and flowing arm movement. This is almost the same as the Burong Talo, which is an imitative dance of the fight between the cat and the eagle in flight. Also, of the langka tradition is the Langka-Pansak – a variation of slow-paced movements punctuated by a momentary pause at the end of every stance sometimes emphasized by the use of a pis (oversized handkerchief). Langka-Lima, on the other hand, provides a combat variation featuring five defense positions. There is also the Langka-Budyang, the only martial dance variation performed by women in graceful leaps and kicks characterized by feminine arm thrusts and the use of a fan.”

On the original intent of war dances, Mark Wiley in “Filipino Martial Culture,” wrote, “In the past, martial dance was viewed as a rehearsal for actual combat. As such, it was a rite and a symbol of initiation into manhood. Various unspoken symbolic movements and gestures – choreographed and improvised – centered around man’s innate desire to be victorious in war – more specifically, in individual hand-to-hand combat.”