The Tinikling: How Traditional Filipino Dance Can Develop Your Combative Attributes!
By Pete Kautz, 2005
It was roughly 17 years ago when I accidentally discovered a secret about the martial art I was studying. It was something so obvious, something we had all been told about, and even told was important…yet it was something that no one seemed to be paying any attention to. Can you imagine that?
When all the books and Grandmasters of your art mention that something is important, shouldn’t you at least be tempted to “look into it” a little?
The thing was…it didn’t seem to make any sense!
Here we were studying the martial art of Arnis, a powerful stick, knife, and unarmed fighting system. But all these sources pointed directly to…folk dances???
“Sure,” some will scoff, “and what next, maybe eating some adobo to improve my skills, too?” You know, I can’t blame the folks who say that, because I felt that way at one point too. But you know what? Even though I felt that way, I’ve always been glad that I decided to take a chance and try it anyhow.
Now, when your instructor says to you “We need a few more people for a demo, can you help?” how can you respond, but positively? That’s how this all got started…how I stumbled across this training method!
What weapons would we be using I wondered? What kinds of cool demo tricks would we do? Break some boards? Maybe a self-defense demo with sticks and knives?
These questions and more all raced through my mind as we finished up class that evening, before the “demo team” would meet.
The instructors brought in some long staffs, and we got ready. “I’ll need a partner” the male instructor said, “to help demonstrate the Tinikling (teeh-NEEHK-lihng).”
Now, as a novice I had NO IDEA what in the world that was, but it just sounded deadly as hell and I wanted to learn it, so of course ran up up to volunteer.
“The Tinikling is based on the movements of birds known as tiklings.” Guru John explained.
Sure, everyone knows how martial arts styles have copied animals, right? So I thought that maybe this was like a Filipino “crane-style” he was going to be showing us.
“Now crouch down and grab the other ends of these two poles.” He ordered.
What kind of wild fighting technique was this? Staff groundfighting? And then what happens next?
“Now, hit the polls to the ground two times; and then together, you see?”
As we clacked the poles together on the third beat I caught my knuckles on the sticks. Ouch! This was a lesson in grip on the sticks and how to maneuver them while shifting the stick in your hand.
Quickly one learns to keep the rhythm…1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3…and not smash their fingers!
Then the female instructor then came over an started dancing in between the sticks! I was worried! Wasn’t she going to get her ankle caught in the sticks as we clacked them together? She sensed my nervousness and just laughed, “Now speed it up!”
And then things really got crazy!
Guru Tammy stepped out and told us to pay attention. She and and Guru John both picked up their pairs of rattan sticks.
They started to do the siniwalli, the hypnotic weaving patterns with the double sticks, where both people strike the canes together. Again, the rhythm was 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
Then they told us to start the rhythm with the poles again, for the tinikling. They took up their places on the outside, and then proceeded to do the siniwalli while doing the steps of the tinikling! This was amazing!
As they wove in and out between the poles, their sticks clacking loudly, the smell of burnt rattan filled the air.
Finally, they both stepped out with a spin, saluted each other and brought the dance to a close.
“Now it’s your turn!” said Guru Tammy with a wink…
In the next two weeks I learned enough of the tinikling steps to be able to take part in the demo, and it was a fun, but the best part was seeing the real Filipino dancers that were there!
From the first moment they started to dance, their skill and grace was clearly evident. They had the flow which Professor Presas always spoke of.
By comparison, I think we must have looked like mga baka (cattle) doing the tinikling instead of the fleet-footed birds the dance is supposed to emulate!
Some of the dances showed balance and fluidity, like the candle dance. Here the girls had small glass candles balanced on each palm and a third balanced on their head.
Unlike some people I have seen doing this dance, these girls did not “cup” or in any way hold onto the candles with their fingers. They made a great point of keeping their palms flat and fingers outstretched.
All the while they moved their arms in circles and figure-eights, like in KunTao, Silat, and Pa Kua Chang (Baguajang). They even had movements where they would kneel, then sit, then roll on the floor…all in a delicate “ladylike manner” and all without dropping the candles on their head and hands or spilling any wax!
There was also the Maglalatik (mahg-lah-lah-TIHK) or coconut dance, which seemed more obviously martial in application. The men came out in two groups, half in red pants and half in blue pants.
Each was wearing a vest of 4 or 6 half coconut shells and holding a half-coconut in each hand, and they had more strapped onto their hips and thighs! What the heck was this all about???
As the music started, the men all kept the rhythm by hitting the shells in their hands together, and then hitting them into the shells on their chest and thighs.
Then the two sides turned towards each other and started to strike the shells on each other’s body. This was a trapping and boxing method hidden in a dance.
They would hit shells in their hands and then on the body, taking turns as they developed parry and strike combinations and keeping the beat going.
Another dance had a funny section where the couples were facing each other. The boys all would step forward and go to kiss the girls on the cheek…but the girls would use a triangular evasion step and elbow shield (which was made to look “cute” by the performers, like brushing the hair) to get out of the way.
Then they would both step back to their starting positions, and the boy would try to kiss her on the other cheek, only to have her slip away with the same evasion and counter to the other side. This was “Angle 1 and Angle 2 Defense Against Kissing!”
Part II: The Legend of a Bear who became a Tikling bird!
Flash forward several years from that night… I’m teaching Arnis to a small but dedicated group in Buffalo. These guys all came from different arts, so it was like a Kung Fu movie at times with the good-natured rivalry between them and between their styles (“You dare insult [Karate / Kung Fu / Judo, etc.], then you’ll have to fight me!”)
This particular night I am teaching the tinikling to them at the end of class. One of the students, Ed, was Filipino, and knew the tininkling from when he was a kid. The guys were “skeptical” to put it mildly.
We got started and one by one the students worked their way through, until only one of them remained…Daryl the Bear!
Daryl was just about 330 lbs. with wrists so large most people couldn’t reach around them with using both hands. He was a doorman at bars and strip-clubs in Buffalo and Fort Erie, and the girls all called him “the bear” too…well, not really…they all called him “teddy” and we knew this.
(We also knew he would murder us in our sleep if we ever called him “teddy”; so “bear” was as close as we could come to saying “that word” without saying it.)
In any case, he had been staring at the clacking poles with ever widening eyes and a clearly growing sense of apprehension. “Uh, do I have to do this?” he asked halfheartedly.
“Would you do it for a Scoobie Snack?” asked Ace, producing a cigarette.
“I’ll about need it afterwards.” said the Bear, as he started to dance…
I don’t know quite what happened next. It might have been something about the heaving 330 pounds of stomping bear-bulk on a gymnastics floor, it might have been something about the look of serious determination on his face.
It might have been the way he had his tongue stuck out sideways between his teeth…I don’t know.
It was scary though, and we reacted as frightened men do…we fell down laughing.
But now the Bear was riled. “Well, pish-posh on you, fie and a pox*” he said. (Not his actual words, but you get the drift, right?)
Yes, the Bear was mad…but what he did next shocked me.
A few months later the boys were ready for their first level test. On it, among other things, was the tinikling. Just like learning how to count in Tagalog and knowing certain terms, I felt it was important to pass part of the culture on too.
The boys worked through their other requirements. Kicks, strikes, trapping, flow-drills, single stick, double stick, knife, anos (forms) and so on.
As we got towards the end I wanted to give them a little break so I asked “Do you want to do tinikling next or go right to the sparring?”
“Tinikling!” said the Bear.
We laughed, but set up the poles, and like the last time people started to go through the steps. Unlike last time, since they were now tired, people did a little worse than the last time they had done this. Daryl just stared at the poles, seemingly transfixed by the rhythm. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
Then his turn came, and what we saw amazed us!
As Daryl started into the tinikling, there were no “thundering hoof beats” on the floor. He moved nimbly and quickly. His balance was low but mobile so he didn’t waste time in making his steps.
They were not quicker than the other people’s, but the timing and accuracy of weight shifting and stepping was better.
The Bear had been practicing!
And you know what? It showed!
He did a few fancy spins through and back, taking time on the outside to reset himself to the rhythm if need be, but he kept moving in time so it looked like he “meant to do it.”
Then he stopped and said “OK…NOW let’s do the sparring.”
The Bear was mighty that night, and as we celebrated over many a drink later on I asked him how he had trained the tinikling. He told us he had been pissed-off that night so he decided to learn it.
I guess when his stripper friends heard he was learning “some dance” they thought that was funny so they encouraged him,”Oh, show it to me!”
How could he resist?
That, and he basically just wanted to make us all “shut the hell up.”
But somewhere in the distance we heard the tikling bird laughing…