By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS -The glass with a lighted candle inside perched gingerly atop the lovely maiden’s head as she swayed to the beat of the music. Then, in unison with the four other dancers, she dropped to the floor, but kept the graceful dance in perfect harmony.
With flourish, the dancers rose up, holding glasses in their dainty hands, one glass on their heads, as the “Binasuan” folk dance drew to a close and the three dozen or so people gathered erupted in warm applause.
The performance of the Kalahi Philippine Folkloric Ensemble at the Las Vegas Hotel recently was the highlight of the 40th wedding anniversary of Jim and Leah Patterson of New York.
Their renewal of wedding vows at the Hilton’s Labella Chapel drew friends and relatives from seven states and continued a love story that started four decades ago in the Philippines.
It was also another nostalgia-stirring performance, like dancing their way back home, for the Kalahi dancers, a Las-Vegas-based group organized four years ago to keep Philippine culture alive in the city’s burgeoning Filipino-American community, and to popularize a unique culture that blends east and west.
“Our goals are two-fold,” said Rhigel Tan, who founded the group with four others in 2009. “We want to introduce our culture and heritage to the next generation of Filipino-Americans, and we aim to promote that culture that gives us our identity.”
On its Facebook page, Kalahi describes itself as a non-profit “devoted to maintain, preserve and promote the Philippine cultural heritage through various forms of arts including dance, music, fashion and artistic performances.”
However, Tan insisted that their mission is primarily to educate people, not to amuse or entertain them
That’s why he said the group puts a high premium on authenticity – in costumes, music, and down to the props of their shows.
An even mix of men and women, young and old, comprise the 50 or so active members of Kalahi, who are either dancers or singers. One of the oldest members is Tan’s mom, Yolanda, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher.
In addition to the dance group, there is also a vocal ensemble, and both groups regularly perform during Filipino-American community events, city civic functions, and in hotels and casinos.
The group has been invited to perform at the Smith Center, Las Vegas’ mecca for the performing arts, in November, an indication that Kalahi has arrived, Tan said.
“We’re very proud that they have accepted us,” Tan said. “It’s like them saying, yes, we acknowledge that Filipino-Americans and Philippine culture is thriving.”
With more than 30,000 living and working in Las Vegas, mostly as nurses and casino workers, Filipino-Americans are the largest Asian minority group, with an increasing economic and political clout.
When he arrived in the city in 1994, Tan said there was only one Filipino store, on Sahara Avenue. Now, restaurants, a large grocery store, even banks line up along Maryland Parkway and other city streets.
A professor in the school of nursing at UNLV, the 42-year-old Tan, a native of Cebu in the Philippines, has come a long way, but plenty has yet to be done to promote his heritage, he said
In February, Kalahi started a free workshop focusing on Filipino dances at the District Studio on East Tropicana, beside the Leberachi Museum in Las Vegas.
Held every Thursday, starting at 8 p.m., the workshop includes formal instructions on Filipino folk dances, and is conducted by Gerald Gutierrez, a former member of the respected Kalipayan Dance Troupe.
Aside from its cultural and artistic value, the dance lessons, Tan said, are also a great exercise and an exciting way to spend the evening with friends.
From the folks that enter the group’s doors, future dancers and singers are trained, and they, in turn, pass on their knowledge to other Filipino-Americans to keep the cycle of life in their adopted home going.
“We may be all different – from various backgrounds, dialects, and from many islands in the Philippines,” Tan said. “But the unifying force is our culture. And that’s what we want to promote.”
The radiant smile from the young dancer with a glass with the lighted candle on her head said it all. And the thunderous applause from the predominantly American audience signify their acceptance.
Filipinos have danced their way to a new home.