Performing “War” in the Palo-Palo

This is an excerpt from Sir Anril Tiatco, Madilene Landicho, and Jem Javier’s forthcoming essay “The Palo-Palo in Batanes, Philippines: From Colonial Legacy to Performance of Solidarity” in the Asian Theatre Journal (University of Hawai’i Press for the Association of Asian Performances).


Palo-palo is usually performed when a barangay or a municipality celebrates pista, “a complex phenomenon, thought of as solemn yet at the same time secular; a festivity where neither the state nor the Church is in the ultimate position of authority; a parade of holiness; and a procession of spectacle” (Tiatco 2016: 130). For the pista both institutions join hand-in-hand in financing parades, processions, beauty pageants, sports competitions, and cultural performances. It is an “entangled phenomenon, since the solemnity observed by the Church intermingles with the secular vision of the state” (p. 132).

As mentioned in Barangay Chavayan, palo-palo is performed during the feast of Santa Rosa de Lima on 23 August. Students of Sabtang National School of Fisheries (SNSF) perform the palo-palo with their Physical Education teachers as choreographers-directors. Traditionally, the performance is accompanied by the village’s brass band (most of whom are also students of SNSF). But because musicians are also often needed as dancers, a recording of a march-like music may be played while the performers duel in dance-like choreography, as during our fieldwork.


Commonly, the performance commences with the entrance. Members of two groups come from opposite sides, each carrying two arnis sticks (rattan rods, 30" x 3") to march-like music, dramatically moving as if preparing for a battle. They wave their arnis sticks as if ready to fight.

The performance is composed of repetitive dance-variations: backward and forward movements, march-like dancing while performers hit the opponents’s sticks. After repeating all variations, the performance comes to a halt. The performance ends with all performers putting the arnis on the ground before proceeding to a movement involving once again a marching forward and a marching backward with two kicks in front. Since the sticks are left on the ground, performers begin clapping upwards, twice to the left and then twice to the right. This is done by the performers if the movement is a marching forward; clapping twice to the right and then twice to the left if the movement is a marching backward.

In the end, performers face each other and seem to be shaking hands. All performers then leap forward while their hands still held together. They move to the final position: all lined up in a row facing the audience as for the bow. This final act in the performance represents truce or katapusan ng giyera, according to teacher Virginia Leal (2016) who sees the message as about peace. Leal adds, “the war erupted but in the end no one got hurt and no one got wounded: this is the important message of the dance-performance (translation from the original Tagalog ours).” Generally, the time signature of the dance is 4/4. The movements/steps are relatively the same throughout the 15-minute performance, except when the performers switch places or do formations. Alternatingly, the steps involve two steps to the front and a kick and then two steps at the back and a kick. In many instances, the two groups (two lines) either meet at the center or move away.

In the performance we witnessed, the first group were males and the second, females. According to Castillon (2016), the two groups represent the indigenous Ivatans (females) resisting and triumphing over foreigner invaders (males). However, as Leal emphasized, the finale marks agreement since for Leal and Castillon, the truce signifies the undying hospitality of the Ivatan people to the ipula (outsiders).

However, Castillon says Christians in light-colored costumes while Muslims in dark-colored clothes were part of earlier performance. Usually, white and blue connote Christian groups in Filipino performance while red and black dominate for Muslims.

In this performance, however, both groups wore white t-shirt and denim pants. The females wore woven sombreros, emblematic of the local, while the men wore a sash. Leal noted, when budget was available, vakul (protective headgear made of date palm) would be used. In an all male performance, the local group wears a costume made of dry leaves – usually palm.

The sash connotes outsider and most of the time, “foreigner” is written thereon. Leal adds their costume is easy; they ask group-members to wear black pants, white long sleeved shirts, and a vest. If the budget permits, they rent what locals call Americana (suit). In our observation, the binary costuming is based on how the Spaniards described locals during colonization. Leal remarks, “this is why the costumes of the Ivatans seem to be pagan” (translation from the original Tagalog ours).

Prepared by the Philippine Cultural Performance Archive team.
Photos by Kevin Brandon Saure and Mary Rose Charito Calma.