Culture Club: Modesto teen learns about her Filipino heritage through dance

Louise Ramos second from left is part of a Filipino dance troupe. She waits to perform with Annamarie Panganibou 12yrs at left Elace Bajarias 13yrs second from right and Kyla Manawatao 16yrs at the St. Joseph's Parish Festival on Saturday afternoon in Modesto .
Louise Ramos second from left is part of a Filipino dance troupe. She waits to perform with Annamarie Panganibou 12yrs at left Elace Bajarias 13yrs second from right and Kyla Manawatao 16yrs at the St. Joseph's Parish Festival on Saturday afternoon in Modesto . Modesto Bee

While most people were getting ready for a long day at the carnival, I was busy making sure I had all my dance steps memorized.

It was Saturday, the day of the 38th annual St. Joseph's Parish Festival, and kids and teens from my dancing group -- the Modesto-area Filipino-American Association -- were up first on the entertainment stage.

Better known as Fil-Am, our nonprofit organization performs about two to six times a year, in various events and celebrations. The dancers range in age from elementary students to high school graduates.

There are various types of dances we put together, but the most popular one is called the tinikling, meaning "bamboo dance." Two people tap, slide and hit bamboo poles against each other in coordination with two other dancers, hopping over and in between the bamboo in speedy waltz timing.

Another well-known dance is pandanggo sa ilaw, roughly translating to "dance in light," where couples dance along with music, while having to balance lighted candles on their heads. It's not easy!

I joined the group last year, but some of the members, like Modesto High School junior Kyla Manawato and her brother Jeffrey, a Johansen High graduate, have been performing for a while. They joined the group in 1999, when Kyla was around 6 years old and Jeffrey was 8.

"I was motivated to dance because my older cousins were dancing and I wanted to be a part of the whole scene," Jeffrey said.

Because they have been members for many years, they've had the opportunity to do other types of dances in addition to tinikling and pandanggo sa ilaw.

We practice about once a week at another member's house, and the hours depend on how many figures and steps we need to work on. Sometimes we dance in the living room, but if we have to, we go to the garage or the driveway.

Because my parents are friends with one of the organizers of the group, my younger sister, brother and I decided to join last November. The first time I danced the tinikling, I got my feet caught stuck in the bamboo. Boy, did that hurt!

My dance partner, Enochs High junior Jason Taa, joined the group about the same time as I did. We've danced three dances together already and are planning on learning more.

The tinikling usually takes the most time to learn, but it's the most fun to dance. Every time we have to perform, we switch up the dance routine a bit, usually adding on more complicated steps along the way.

"It makes me aware of my surroundings, and the speed gives me a sort of a fun adrenaline rush, but it makes me nervous at the same time," Jason said.

Fil-Am participates in other festivals, like the International Festival in Modesto, in which various dances are performed by different cultural groups. Our organization also builds floats for the Celebration of Lights parade downtown during the holiday season. Jason and I played Joseph and Mary in the living-Nativity Scene in last Christmas' parade.

So why become involved in this group? It isn't always just about dancing and rehearsing. There's more to it than that.

"My favorite thing about being in Fil-Am is that everyone is like your sibling; you grow close to every person. It's just a lot of fun and excitement," Jeffrey said. "I get to learn about my heritage, which otherwise I couldn't be taught anywhere else."

Said Kyla: "It's an amazing experience where I have learned so much about my Philippine culture."

Her mother, Jet Manawatao, a former president of the group, sees it much the same.

"This is our way of giving back to the Filipino community," she said. "We want to be able to teach our children the ways of our culture, have them proudly look back when they grow up, and pass what they learned on to future generations."

Although I have been involved with Fil-Am for only about a year, I have gotten so close to the people that they have almost become like a second family to me. I learned so much about my culture — from little bits of history about the Philippines to balancing a lighted candle on my head while dancing. They've also taught me to not be ashamed of my heritage, and to teach others not to be embarrassed of theirs.

Not only does Fil-Am brings us closer together, but it also helps us spread the Filipino pride we have in our unique culture. Because most of us grew up in America, we are given the opportunity to go back to our roots and have this kind of experience. When I am in school, it's always nice to know that I have people like my sister and Jason who share something in common with me.

I may be living in America, but being a part of this group lets me have the best of both worlds.

Louise Ramos is a senior at Enochs High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.