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Bethel Filipino Community Dancers thrill audiences in Cama-i debut

The Bethel Filipino Community Dancers perform at the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel on March 16, 2024.
Gabby Salgado
The Bethel Filipino Community Dancers perform at the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel on March 16, 2024.

While Bethel’s Filipino community may be small, they made a big splash on the second day of the annual Cama-i Dance Festival, showcasing the country’s rich history from pre-colonial times into the modern era through dance.

When the Bethel Filipino Community Dancers took the stage at the Cama-i Dance Festival to perform the national folk dance known as the Sakuting, there was little indication it was their first time dancing together.

The staccato tapping of sticks, circling movements, and choreographed sparring told a story from the Spanish colonial period of warring Christians and non-Christians on the island of Luzon.

For each of the 16 dancers, this was one of the folk dances they grew up with in the Philippines. Their rendition in Bethel left the festival attendees wanting more.

Performer Reynold Hunter said that the Filipino Community Dancers only began preparing for their Cama-i debut a couple months earlier.

“We just started practicing [in] January. Most of us are teachers, actually,” Hunter said. “The rest of us are high school science, high school math, junior high.”

The classroom where Hunter can normally be found teaching science is just down the hall at Bethel Regional High School. While some group members have been teaching for the Lower Kuskokwim School District for several years, others are just starting to adjust to life in Bethel.

“Some of them just arrived like a few weeks ago,” Hunter said.

But on stage, the performers looked right at home.

The dances that followed the Sakuting took the audience on a tour through the history of the Philippines, from the Indigenous folk sounds of the Cordillera Mountains found in the Ragrasakan, to the meditative bells of the royal Muslim fan dance from the southern region of Mindanao.

But the group saved the most well-known folk dance for last, the Tinikling from the central Visayas region. The dancers imitated the clever movements of the long-legged tikling bird as it plunders rice paddies and avoids bamboo traps set by farmers.

Other accounts say that the dance represents resistance to forms of punishment via spiked bamboo poles dealt out to field workers by Spanish colonizers.

Whatever the case, the threat of having one’s ankle clapped between two large poles provided a strong incentive for the dancers to stay on beat.

But instead of bamboo, 10-foot lengths of plumbing pipe served as a reliable stand-in.

“We don't have bamboo here. So we just use, well, we improvise,” Hunter said.

Hunter, who has been teaching in Bethel since 2021, is hopeful the Filipino Community Dancers can continue to grow, and can continue to be an outlet for making new arrivals to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta feel a little closer to home.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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