All About Tinikling Dance: History, Characteristics, Steps & More

The culture of the Philippines has always been regarded as one of the most unique in the world.

The unique blend of Eastern and Western traditions gave rise to many interesting cultural expressions, such as the Tinikling dance (also known as the “bamboo dance.”)

Regarded as the national dance of the Philippines, if you ever get the opportunity to visit the island nation, you definitely must try to see a performance! The dance can tell you a lot about the country, the people, and its history.

This guide will tell you all you need to know about the Tinikling dance, from its history to its characteristics, the steps, and more!

Tinikling Dance Origin

Like most traditional dances around the world, there are many variations of the origin story of the Tinikling dance.

Historical records commonly cite two versions that now serve as the best answers to the question of “Where did the Tinikling dance originate?”

It might originate from a species of birds

The first version says that the Tinikling dance came into being during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, specifically, the island of Leyte.

At the time, the people living in the Visayas (a chain of six islands that includes the Leyte) were mostly rice farmers. The rice crops were often attacked by a species of bird known locally as Tinikling.

Today, in the Western world, these birds are known as buff-banded rails (Hypotaenidia Philippensis).

The locals set up bamboo traps to protect the crops from these birds. However, the traps didn’t work, and the birds would jump over the bamboo poles built to trap them.

Soon, the locals imitated the hopping motion of the birds, and the Tinikling dance (also named after the bird) was created!

It might be the way Philippine farmers jumped to dodge the bamboo punishment

There’s another variation of the dance’s origin story, this one a lot darker.

The second version also takes place in the Spanish-occupied Philippines. The King of Spain ordered the local Filipinos to work the fields in large plantations.

Anyone who worked too slowly or didn’t meet the quotas at the time was punished. The punishment involved standing in between bamboo poles that clapped together to strike the farmer’s feet.

The farmers would jump before the bamboo poles were clapped to dodge the punishment.

Eventually, the jumping motion was converted into an artistic dance form, which we now enjoy on-stage as the Tinikling dance today.

Whatever the real story is, there’s no doubt that the nature of the Tinikling dance is intimately connected with the history of the Philippines.

This is the reason why we said earlier that you need to watch it to fully understand the people and their culture here!

Tinikling Dance Characteristics

Tinikling Dance Characteristics

The poles & the clappers

The most distinctive part of the Tinikling dance is the bamboo poles.

These poles are typically between 6 to 12 feet (1.8 to 3.7 meters) long. They’re held parallel to one another by two people, known as “clappers,” on either end.

The poles make a percussive “clack” when struck against the ground or clapped together, so they aren’t just supporting tools … they’re full-fledged instruments!

The clappers will hear rhythmic clapping together in a triple-meter pattern. So, two claps against the ground, then one claps together.

The poles’ percussive sound is usually backed up by Rondalla music played by a string band consisting of bandurrias, octavinas, ukuleles, guitars, and laúdes.

The dancers

When the bamboo poles clap together, the dancers – standing in between the poles with bare feet and ankles – must anticipate and hop over the closing poles.

This takes a lot of practice and a good sense of rhythm. If the dancers miss the cue, they could get their feet and ankles stuck between the poles when they close.

A pair of dancers usually perform the Tinikling dance. They will start the dance with their hands on their hips or clasped behind their backs.

As the music begins to get faster and the rhythm of the poles becomes quicker, the dancers will get closer together and hold each other’s hands.

To end the fast Tinikling dance, the dancers will let go of each other’s hands and jump out from between the poles.

Classification Of Tinikling Dance

The traditional version of the Tinikling dance only involves two poles. But other variations use up to four poles.

In a four-pole Tinikling dance, the poles are controlled by four “clappers,” and are arranged in a cross-like pattern. This significantly increases the difficulty of the dance.

The dancers not only need to count the rhythm extremely precisely to avoid getting stuck between the poles, but they also need to pay extra attention to their footing.

Tinikling Dance Basic Steps

There are two basic dance steps for Tinikling, called the Singles and the Doubles.

Singles Tinikling Dance

In the Singles Tinikling dance, the poles are placed to the left side of the dancers (so the poles are to the right side of the dancers, and they have the left foot leads).

Both dancers will start the dance facing in one direction with a short distance between each person.

  1. The dance will start with the two dancers hopping twice on their right feet.
  2. After the two right-foot hops, the dancers will make a left hop into the poles’ middle. Make one step on the left foot, then one on the right foot. Count the rhythm carefully and hop right on time when the poles clap together to avoid having your feet stuck.
  3. Hop once more to the left and out from the middle of the poles, and hop again on the right foot.
  4. Hop to the right on the right foot, repeat the motion, and make a right footstep, then a left footstep. Once again, be careful of the clapping poles.

Doubles Tinikling Dance

With the Doubles Tinikling dance, the dancers will start on the right side of the poles.

  1. Start the dance by hopping on both feet twice to the rhythm of the music.
  2. Jump between the poles, count the rhythm, and hop twice on both feet. Make sure to hop right before the poles close in and clap together.
  3. Make a big hop and bring your feet apart, straddling the poles with your legs. Make two hops with both feet in this pose.
  4. Bring your feet between the poles again and make two hops on both feet. And that’s one dance cycle finished!

You can repeat the cycle however long it takes for the song and the dance to complete.

The Clappers’ movement

If you’ve been chosen to be the clappers or the people that hold and “play” the bamboo poles, then the rhythm to keep in mind is: apart, apart, together.

So, you make two taps against the ground (apart), then close the poles and clap them together on the third count (together).

Repeat the motion as rhythmically as possible and avoid bringing the poles upward, which can ruin the hopping motion of the dancers.

Tinikling Dance Costumes

The female dancers will wear traditional dresses called Balintawak or Patadyong.

The Balintawak are colorful dresses with distinctive, wide-arched sleeves. While the Patadyong includes a blouse sewn from pineapple fibers and a checkered shirt.

Male dancers will wear a barong Tagalog, a light, long-form, embroidered shirt usually paired with a pair of red trousers.

Tinikling Dance in Other Areas

The Tinikling dance isn’t just found in the Philippines. You can find it in many other places around the world.

In the Western World

The benefits of Tinikling dance extend well beyond just being pretty and fun!

In the Western world, particularly in the United States, the Tinikling dance is taught in many K-12 classes as a form of anaerobic exercise.

Because of the unique and fun dance steps of the Tinikling dance, many schools have adopted it in their physical education classes. 

This is to train the students on physical skills like hand coordination and foot speed and sharpen their sense of rhythm.

However, the Tinikling dance in the US is a modified form. Instead of a three-beat pattern, they’re usually taught with a four-beat pattern to fit with the rhythm of modern pop music.

Then, instead of bamboo poles, the poles used in such classes are typically fashioned from PVC and plastic pipes.

Many classes even remove the poles altogether and tie the feet of two students together with elastic bands.

The dancers will hop in between the bands held by these two students, and the elastic-banded students will simulate the “clapping” motions by jumping with their feet apart and together.

This way, it’s not just the dancers who get to do anaerobic exercise, but the students who are chosen to hold the rubber bands too.

In Asia

The Tinikling dance is mostly performed in the Philippines. In the country, this dance is usually performed as part of a “rural suite,” which includes other colonial-era dances from the regions of Luzon and Visayas.

Such performances aim to imitate the simple and modest lifestyles of the people back in the day.

People also find similar dances to the Tinikling in many Asian countries.

In Taiwan, we have the Puyuma bamboo dance.

Or, “Múa Sạp” in Vietnam, “Rangku Alu” in the Manggarai, “Lao Kra Top Mai” in Thailand, “Gaba-gaba” in Indonesia, “Karen bamboo dance” in Myanmar, “Robam Kom Araek” in Cambodia, “Alai Sekap” in Brunei, “Magunatip” in Borneo, “the Zhuang” in China, the “Cheraw dance” in India, etc.

Tinikling Dance Music

During a Tinikling performance, a live string band will usually play Rondalla music in the background. Rondalla music is a type of Western music that originates from Medieval Spain.

As you may have guessed, it was brought over from Europe to the Philippines during the colonial era and was incorporated into the fabric of the Philippines’ culture.

The string band performing the music will usually consist of several musicians, each playing a special instrument ranging from guitars and ukuleles to bandurrias, octavinas, and laúdes.

Tinikling Dance Competitions

Although Tinikling isn’t as popular as Latin or ballroom dances, many competitions still have this special dance in the programming.

Most notably, the Philippine Folk Dance Competition is the largest event that features Tinikling.

Elsewhere, small, local dance competitions are held. And, in the United States, many folk dance competitions are hosted by universities in the country that celebrate Tinikling, too.

For example, the Battle of the Bamboo competition hosted in May 2022 by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Check more: Limbo Dance: History, Rules, How to Play


How many dancers can perform a Tinikling dance?

A “standard” Tinikling performance will consist of four dancers. Two will act as main-line dancers hopping in and out of the bamboo poles, while the other will work as “clappers” and control the poles.

Typically, there will be two males and two females.

How is the Tinikling dance performed?

The Tinikling dance is often performed at Filipino cultural fairs and traditional festivals. But in the Philippines and many nations, it’s also performed as part of school or theater performances.

What type of bird does the Tinikling dance imitate?

The name of the dance is actually the name of the bird itself!

As we explained earlier, the name “Tinikling” comes from the Tinikling bird, which, in the Western world, is known as the buff-banded rail.

What does the Tinikling dance represent?

Many say that the Tinikling dance represents two valued traits of the Filipino people: fun-loving and resilient.

Despite their painful past and the potentially dark Tinikling dance history, which originates from a cruel form of punishment, the Filipinos have adapted it into a fun, entertaining dance that delights people of all ages today.

How long should the Tinikling pole be?

The bamboo poles that are used in a Tinikling performance are usually 6 to 12 feet (1.8 to 3.7 meters) long.

The Bottom Lines

The Tinikling dance is a wonderful aspect of the local culture of the Philippines.

If you ever get the chance to visit the island nation, be sure to check whether there are any local performances or cultural fairs in your area. You definitely won’t regret taking the time to watch it.

And, of course, since it’s so easy (and fun) to do if you have some friends and two plastic pipes lying around, give it a shot! As many K-12 students in America have learned, Tinikling is a great way to exercise.

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