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Filipino Kali

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Filipino Martial Arts hidden combat structures in folk dances

The Filipino martial arts are devised from the Moro-Moro dances, which were introduced to the the Philippines in the 1630s. The dances are a celebration of Christian victories over the Moors. Filipinos hid their martial arts of sword fighting in their cultural dances when the practice of swordsmanship and the carrying of swords in public was banned by the Spanish conquistadors.

According to Filipino martial art folklore, Eskrima and Arnis are descended from an ancient and esoteric indigenous Filipino fencing system called Kali, which can be traced back to Battle of Mactan and the death of Magellan in 1521. The Mactan chieftain Lapu Lapu, was an exponent of Kali, and the Spanish were so afraid of it that they banned the local population from practising it.

The Philippines were colonised by Spain in 1565 and remained part of the Spanish East Indies until 1889
, 333 years of Spanish colonial rule. The first documented mention of Kali was in 1957, in a Filipino stick fencing manual by Placido Yambao called “Mga Karunungan Sa Larong Arnis”.


In the 16th and 17th century Spanish colonization was marred by revolts. The fighting skills of the natives were highly developed by this time and were respected by the Spanish. While most of the Philippines were colonized by the Spaniards, the Moros of Mindanao were not and it is they that must be credited with the greatest experimentation, systematization and martial use of the bladed weapon. And as systematization developed, it was necessary to preserve the systems in some form which would permit daily practice without actually engaging in serious combat with an enemy, so native dance rhythms supplied the form. Ancient native rhythmic movements employing bladed weapons were abundant which today can be seen in ritual dancing like the Sinulog which consist of fast tempo movements of parry and counter thrust. The Binabayani, a dance from Zambales, requires two groups of men mocking a fierce battle using the Bolo which is a heavy bladed long knife. In the Sulu Archipelago a dance called Silat uses a Kris which is bladed wavy dagger.

Eskrima is the name Lorenzo Saavedra, gave to his style of stick fencing when he opened up the Labangon Fencing Club in Cebu in 1920. The word
Eskrima is taken from the Spanish word esgrima, which literally means fencing. He devised his system entirely from the popular mock fencing routines from the traditional Moro-Moro dances. The word arnés, which literally means harness in Spanish, was used to describe the Moro-Moro dances, and is now sometimes used to describe Filipino stick fighting, as well as other things.





Moro-Moro Dance

When the Spanish eventually conquered the Philippines, they banned the practice of Kali, for fear that the Filipinos might use their skills and turn against them. As the 19th century approached, Filipinos were able to circumvent the ban and practice the art again, by disguising it as part of stage plays called “Moro-Moro” and other native dances. In order to avoid suspicion, they used wood training sticks of Rattan or Bahi to practice their moves. The only time the martial artists were able to even hold a sword, was during the finale of the Moro-Moro plays, which were often performed for the Spaniard’s enjoyment.

Because they would go up against the Spaniard’s sharp swords and daggers, Kali practitioners learned to develop speed, agility and accuracy. They developed ways to strike nerve centers along the body and limbs they could easily disarm and disable any opponent using a flurry of attacks.

Many training methods were altered and new concepts and techniques adapted due to the influence of the Spanish culture and language. The Spanish sword and dagger
(Espada Y Daga) were incorporated into the martial arts and certain concepts were given Spanish terms.



Maglalatik Coconut War Dance

The Maglalatik (also known as Magbabao) is an indigenous dance from the Philippines in which coconut shell halves that are secured onto the dancers' hands and on vests upon which are hung four or six more coconut shell halves. The dancers - all male - perform the dance by hitting one coconut shell with the other - sometimes the ones on the hands, sometimes, the ones on the body, and sometimes the shells worn by another performer, all in time to a fast drumbeat. Like many native Filipino dances, it is intended to impress the viewer with the great skill of the dancer, and in some Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) circles, it has been noted that the Maglalatik "consists of a trapping and boxing method hidden in a dance".


Maglalatik is a mock-war dance which shows a fight between the Moros and the Christians over the prized latik or coconut meat. The first portion shows the intense battle, and the reconciliation in the end.

The name of the dance comes from the Filipino word "Latik", which means "fried coconut milk curd", a coconut product that is used in Filipino cooking, particularly in snacks.



Singkil Dance

Singkil is a Philippine Moro dance where the Moro Prince saves the Princess, it uses four long bamboo poles crossing one another. The spirit and fighting techniques of the Filipino Martial Arts were hidden in many of these native dances because the Spanish authorities banned the practice of these arts.

The dance shows a striking similarity in the footwork, timing and rhythms that of Kali. It takes its name from the bells worn on the ankles of the Muslim princess. Perhaps one of the oldest of truly Filipino dances, the Singkil recounts the epic legend of the "Darangan" of the Maranao people of Mindanao. This epic, written sometime in the 14th century, tells the fateful story of Princess Gandingan, who was caught in the middle of a forest during an earthquake caused by the diwatas, or fairies of the forest. The crisscrossed bamboo poles represent the trees that were falling, which she gracefully avoids. Her slave loyally accompanies her throughout her ordeal. Finally, she is saved by the prince. Dancers skillfully manipulate apir, or fans which represent the winds that prove to be auspicious. Royal princesses to this day in the Sulu Archipelago are required to learn this most difficult and noble dance.

There are other versions of Singkil. Perhaps the version more widely performed by dance companies is the "Garden Singkil". The story goes that the princess goes into her garden, accompanied by her slave, and plays with the butterflies, which are represented by the fan dancers. The movements of the fans supposedly represent those of the butterflies, as opposed to the diwatas.




Sakuting Dance

Sakuting is a northern Philippine Christmas dance of the Ilocano Christians and non-Christians from the province of Abra. It portrays a mock fight using two Kali sticks 26 to 30 inches long to train for combat. The dance is customarily performed during Christmas at the town plaza, or from house-to-house. When preformed the spectators give the dancers aguinaldos, or gifts of money or refreshments. The footwork, timing and rhythms of the double stick fighting is used in this entertaining dance.

The Sakuting dance, originally performed solely by boys, portrays a mock fight using sticks. A sakuting stick is striped or bamboo and is about 1½ feet long and tapered at the end, like a candle. Its original use was for combat training. During the playful folk dance, two teams, one representing each side, circle and clash bamboo sticks in a gentle imitation of martial arts sparring. Its dance form is the comedia (a theatrical dance, also called moro-moro) and features a battalla (choreographed skirmish).




Burong Talo Dance

The Burong Talo dance of the Tausog people is a form of martial arts interpreted in dance form. Mimicking a fight between a hawk and a cat. They simulate martial arts movements while manipulating daggers and fans.








Tinikling Dance

Honored as the Philippine national dance, Tinikling is a favorite in the Visayan islands, especially on the island of Leyte. The dance imitates the movement of the tikling birds as they walk between grass stems, run over tree branches, or dodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers. Dancers imitate the tikling bird's legendary grace and speed by skillfully maneuvering between large bamboo poles.



Itik-Itik Dance

At one baptismal party in the Surigao del Norte province, a young lady named Kanang (the nickname for Cayetana), considered the best dancer and singer of her time, was asked to dance the Sibay. She became so enthusiastic and spirited during the performance that she began to improvise movements and steps similar to the movements of itik, the duck, as it walks with short, choppy steps and splashes water on its back while calling to its mate. The people liked the dance so much that they all imitated her. There are six separate foot sequences in the series of Itik-Itik steps.


Pandanggo Sa Ilaw Dance

This popular dance of grace and balance comes from Lubang Island, Mindoro in the Visayas region. The term pandanggo comes from the Spanish word fandango, which is a dance characterized by lively steps and clapping that varies in rhythm in 3/4 time. This particular pandanggo involves the presence of three tinggoy, or oil lamps, balanced on the head and the back of each hand.


Subanen Dance

The Subanen dance is a representation of tribal rituals of the Subanen people that live in the mountains of Southern Mindinao. It includes three Subanen rituals: Sohten, an all-male dance performed before going to battle where the men use leaves and shields to call upon the deities for a safe return, Diwatahan, an all-female dance where the women use the rustling of the saliringan leaves to pray for a good harvest, and Thalek, a dance where all of the men and women gather together to celebrate bountiful harvests and successful rituals. It involves all the members of the community and incorporates bamboo sticks and the sounds of the saliringan leaves.


Tumahik Dance

Tumahik is a mock war dance performed by the males of the Yakan tribe, indigenous to Basilan Island in order to practice their fighting skills. The movements, common among Southeast Asian martial arts, include traveling on the knees, tumbling, and high kicking.



Palo-Palo Dance

The Palo-Palo is a war dance that reenacts the conflict and eventual reconciliation between the Spaniards and the Ivatans.



Sagayan Dance

Sagayan is a war dance performed by both the Maguindanao and Maranao depicting in dramatic fashion the steps their hero, Prince Bantugan, took upon wearing his armaments, the war he fought in and his subsequent victory afterwards. Performers, depicting fierce warriors would carry shield with shell noisemakers in one hand and double-bladed Kampilan sword in the other attempting rolling movements to defend their master.


Various Filipino War Dances


· Indarapatra

· Borokil and Rinompo (Camarines Agta)
· Latak-Latak (Waray)
· Saut (Manobo)
· Palivuhoy (Umayamnon)
· Tamingan (Tagbanua)
· Sambali (Ibanag)


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