Dance professor advises Ati-atihan celebration far from his native Philippines

Ati-atihan festivities – a long-standing annual tradition in the city of Kalibo, the capital of Aklan province in the Philippines – are taking place in Toronto this weekend, with York dance Professor Patrick Alcedo playing a leading role as a cultural adviser and chair of the board of judges. 

Similar to Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans, Ati-atihan features thousands of people flocking to Kalibo the third weekend of January each year for celebration and merry-making. In North America, Ati-atihan is celebrated in many major cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Chicago.

Right: Patrick Alcedo 

The local Ati-atihan party, to be held in Scarborough, is organized by the United Aklanon Association of Toronto. Inspired by the Kalibo fest, it is a Catholic event devoted to honouring both the Santo Niño (the holy child Jesus) and the Atis, the indigenous people who are considered to be the ancestors of the Filipinos.

A leading international expert on Ati dance traditions and Ati-atihan festivals, Alcedo – who originally hails from Kalibo – brings his ethnographical expertise to enhance the authenticity of the Scarborough event. His responsibilities include revising the rules and criteria on how the competing dance groups will be judged.

“The judges’ focus will be on spontaneity,” explains Alcedo. “While the dancers will have choreographed routines, we also want to see joyful improvisation. The original festival is very welcoming, allowing all sorts of performers and performances. We will judge the groups on their welcoming spirit.”

This welcoming spirit is an important factor, because the people of Kalibo are renowned for their hospitality. “The Aklanon Association is going to great lengths to invite people from other regions of the Philippines and non-Filipinos to attend,” says Alcedo. “The event speaks volumes about who we are and honours our culture, and we want to welcome many guests to share with us this feeling of togetherness.”

Right: Kalibo Ati-atihan dancing competition at Pastrana Park on Jan. 17, 2009. The park is located in Kalibo, Philippines. Photo by Sadhana Buxani.

Open to the general public, Scarborough’s Ati-atihan party takes place this Saturday, Jan. 9, starting at 5pm at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, located at 5183 Sheppard Ave. E. The event opens with a Catholic mass, followed by the dance competition, a dinner featuring popular Filipino dishes, and social dancing. Information is available by calling 416-929-2457 and tickets are available at the door.

In addition to his work in helping organize the local festivities, Alcedo recently returned from the World Dance Alliance Meeting in New Delhi where he delivered a paper on his experiences at the Ati-atihan festival held in Kalibo last year.

For that event, Alcedo invited and organized a group of indigenous Atis to compete in the festival’s street dance competition. Despite the importance of the Atis for the festival, and the fact that a significant number of them still live in the region, this minority group of Filipinos had never before officially participated in the Ati-atihan. The irony of this was not lost on Alcedo, who points out that the word “Ati-atihan” literally means “to look like the Atis.”

To enable the participation of the Atis, Alcedo raised funds for meals and costumes, and helped the 50-member ensemble register for the competition. During the festival, Alcedo went nearly every day to Bulwang, a town adjacent to Kalibo where the Atis had settled, to assist with their rehearsals and other preparations, including cooking food for the three-day event.

Alcedo is a specialist in southeast Asian dance whose research explores the intimate but paradoxical relationship between folk festival production and notions of cultural authenticity. He is currently writing a book about the Ati-atihan festival. His still and video images of the 2009 Kalibo festival will become part of a multimedia project and documentary film he is creating about the Ati-atihan.

With reporting from Borna Radnik’s article about Professor Alcedo in the Faculty of Fine Arts Research Newsletter, March and April 2009.