Dance to Vivacious Drum Beats at the Ati Atihan Festival in the Philippines
The Atis (or Aetas) are one of the indigenous people of the Philippines. Dark-skinned, and short with kinky hair, these Atis were the first settlers of the Philippine archipelago and still live in the highlands all over the country.
The Ati Atihan Festival holds street dancing competitions from different groups called “tribu” (or tribe), and these performances are the main attraction of the entire celebration. Dancers in their flamboyant costumes, with headdresses made from indigenous materials, paint their bodies in black and dance along the streets of Kalibo. Almost all Philippine festivals of dancing, drum music and elaborate tribal costumes trace their origin back to the Ati Atihan Festival.
You can choose to watch the Ati Atihan Festival from the sidelines and enjoy this carefree sight, but with all the energy it's hard to resist joining in the street dancing. Expect someone from the crowd to drag you up to dance or paint your face. A clean face is frowned upon during the Ati Atihan Festival, and some tourists and locals smear their arms, legs, and even their whole torso with soot. Black is undoubtedly the most prominent colour during the Festival, and “black dancers” identify the Ati Atihan Festival from other Philippine festivals. The word “Ati Atihan” means “to be like an Ati,” and covering the body with soot mimics the appearance of an Ati.
The Ati Atihan Festival started when a group of Malayan chieftains, known as “datus” from the neighboring Borneo, sought refuge and found a new home as they escaped a tyrant king in their homeland. When they arrived in the island of Panay, where Aklan is located, it was inhabited by the Atis. Diplomatic and courteous as they were, the Bornean datus made a pact with the king of the Aeta, Marikudo, to settle in their land. In exchange for some gifts, specifically a golden hat locally known as “salakut” for Marikudo and an anklet for Marikudo’s wife, the Atis agreed to settle in the highlands leaving the lowlands to the new settlers. To celebrate the new relationship between the Atis and the Malays, they danced and drank day-in-and-day-out. At that time, the Atis were celebrating their good harvest, and so to join in the celebration, the Malays covered their bodies with soot to appear dark-skinned just like the Atis. Hence, the first Ati Atihan Festival was born—which is still going 700 years later.
Attached to the Ati Atihan Festival is the Santo Niño (or the Holy Child Jesus) which is highly venerated in this Catholic country. When the Spaniards came to the Philippines to convert the natives to Catholicism, they performed the native Ati Atihan. Today, the tribal festivity also has its own religious aspect, and some devotees carry images of the Holy Child and dance their petitions to God for the success of their children and their business.
When to Go to Ati Atihan
Since January is the peak tourist season of Kalibo, hotel rates are high (if you can get one), so you must reserve your hotel as early as you can.
Odds n' Ends
Be aware that some people celebrate the Festival with a drinking spree, so expect some drunken people on the streets.
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