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  • In the Court of the Sultan: Orientalism, Nationalism, and Modernity in Philippine and Filipino American Dance
  • Barbara S. Gaerlan* (bio)

“Culture and the arts are potent forces in national development. With its colors and contrasts, our cultural heritage unifies our race, and gives it a national identity that lends pride and dignity to every Filipino.”

- Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino, 1991 1


Inspired largely by the excitement of Edward Said’s work, much of the focus of post-colonial discourse has been on the role and effect of colonialism in the metropole. 2 But as the agency of post-colonial subjects increasingly comes under scrutiny, Benedict Anderson’s insights 3 about the complex “mimicry” 4 of colonialism in post-colonial states seems to me to be increasingly relevant. For example, in his penetrating analysis of colonialism and nationalism in the Philippines, Michael Salman comments that “when Benedict Anderson’s work on the generalization of nationalism is put alongside Edward Said’s writings on the pervasiveness of colonial culture, it does suggest the outlines of a parallel transformation of consciousness, and its containment in conservative [End Page 251] ideology, neo-colonialism, and the repressive authoritarianism of so many post-colonial states.” 5 Vicente L. Rafael, in describing the United States’ colonial “tutelage” of the Philippines says, “[t]he culmination of colonial rule, self-government, can . . . be achieved only when the subject has learned to colonize itself.” 6 This disturbing notion deserves attention from admirers of Said. The Philippines gained independence in 1946. After a half-century of independence its experience of the complexity of post-colonial nationalism can be extremely useful in understanding the legacy of colonialism and the powerful lure of modernity.

This article examines post-colonial nationalism in the Philippines via the appropriation of a multiplicity of indigenous dance and music forms and their representation in a folkloric dance troupe as the cultural expression of the Philippine nation state. As a corollary it looks at the unanticipated impact of those representations on the Filipinos living in the diaspora— most notably those who have grown up in the metropole itself: Filipino Americans. The interaction of those forces raises challenging issues of agency and ideology in a post-colonial world.

Filipino Cultural Nights

Thoughtful Filipino Americans have begun to comment on this issue of identity and freedom. For example, Allan Benamer, frustrated by the narrow nationalist orientation of numerous commemorations of the centennials of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American war, wrote to the Filipino Arts e-mail list, “we can’t stop thinking of an essential Filipino self that is oppositional to American hegemony when that is so obviously far from the truth.” 7 Benamer’s frustration with Philippine nationalism, however, merely poses a reverse opposition, suggesting that American democracy embodied in the Bill of Rights is the unacknowledged attraction pulling Filipino immigrants to move to the former oppressor and settle in the U.S.

An examination of folkloric dance in both the Philippines and the United States reveals a more subtle intermingling of nationalism, Orientalism, and a pursuit of modernity which articulate the complex historical heritage and aspirations of Filipinos and Filipino Americans [End Page 252] alike. An initial case study is the phenomenon of the Pilipino Cultural Night (PCN) on American college and high school campuses.

On March 27, 1992, Samahang Pilipino, the large Filipino American student group at UCLA, presented its annual Pilipino Cultural Night in Los Angeles. PCNs have become popular at West Coast campuses which have seen large influxes of Filipino American students since the early 1980s. 8 This particular event involved over 200 student performers who had been practicing regularly for the entire six months since the opening of school. The intensity of the PCN experience bonded the students into a tight-knit community and aided their sense of identity — the entire 2,000-seat auditorium was packed with their screaming friends and relatives. The program also was designed to support Filipino student and community empowerment: it was entitled “Makibaka [Struggle] 9 : Celebrating Twenty Years of Pilipino Student Activism,” and took place just as UCLA students were gearing up for a powerful campaign which elected Mark Pulido the first Filipino American UCLA...

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pp. 251-287
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