The History of the Subli Dance

By Ted Hann ; Updated September 15, 2017

The Subli is a traditional folk dance of the Philippines which is still quite popular today. It is a ceremonial worship dance honoring the Holy Cross (or “Mahal Na Poong Santa Cruz” in Filipino) and is celebrated around a large crucifix which has an image of the sun in silver at its center. Although the dancers are quite certain of the meaning behind different portions of the dance and the steps, the origins of the Subli itself remain unclear. There are varying theories, but even experts and researchers aren’t in agreement.

Origins

Early natives of the Philippines who lived near the Taal Volcano are known to have planted similar crosses around the crater of the volcano, in hopes of warding off the evil forces of nature. The modern religious connotations of the Holy Cross come from sometime during the Spanish rule in the Philippines, but exactly when and how is where experts disagree. Around this time, an icon of the cross was discovered in what is now the municipality of Alitagtag, in the province of Batangas. The Holy Cross is a patron of many towns in this region, which has a strong tradition of dance and music. The dance of Subli originated in the barrio (or baryo, rural village) of Dingin in Batangas approximately 300 years ago, but soon spread to barrios throughout the area.

Meaning of "Subli"

Even the origin of the word “subli” has differing theories. For many years, it was thought that “subli” was a combination of “subsub,” meaning “fall with the head,” and “bali,” meaning broken–and many felt that these themes were represented in the dance. More recently, however, Dr. Elena Mirano of the University of the Philippines has researched the Subli thoroughly, and disagrees. Her theory is that “subli” is from the old Tagalog word “sobli,” meaning “exchange of place.” She feels that “exchange of place” is an important feature of the dance itself.

Folkloric History

Putting aside the disagreement between experts on the exact origins of Subli, an important piece of the history for the dancers and Filipino citizens is the folklore that accompanies it. The story has been passed down through generations, along with the dance steps. The basic story is that a woman went to a well to get water, and there she found wood which was giving off water. Also on the wood was a traditional Filipino doll called a “naaginging.” People from many towns in the area came to see the wood and the doll, but no one was able to move it. After singing and dancing around the wood, they found they were able to move it. They then took the wood and carved it into a saint. The dance that allowed them to do this is the Subli.

The Subli Itself

The Subli is not just a dance. It is made up of a long sequence of prayers in verse, songs and dances, which are performed in a set ceremony. It tells the story of the “manunubli,” or early dancers, who traveled far to search for the cross. The songs are based on a basic melody (“punto”) which can than be expanded upon. The dancers are in pairs (the number of pairs varies by barrio, but is often one, two or eight pars) of men and women, and dance to the beat of a stick on a “tugtugan” (a drum made with iguana skin). The men’s and women’s dance moves are quite different–with the men being quite energetic (leaping and kicking, hitting the ground with large wooden clappers), and the women performing the more sedate “talik” (small gestures with the hands and wrists, and touching of hats and scarves).

Religious Aspects

Part of the confusion regarding the history of the Subli stems from the religious aspects. While crosses were obviously a symbol in the Philippines in ancient times, much of the symbolism of the dance itself is based in Christianity, which is why it is thought that much of the tradition of the Subli dates from more recent Spanish rule times. The Holy Cross is obviously the focal point of the dance, and it is thought that it is not possible to truly do the dance without a cross present. The cross is also draped with a white fabric that is seen by many to symbolize the stole of Jesus Christ that is placed on the Holy Cross during Easter celebrations. However, there are no other references made to Jesus or Christianity, and Filipinos see the dance as more traditional than religious. According to the Philippines Travel Guide, the Subli is seen as “more than a dance, rather this is more of a 'kaugalian' that tells of the enduring belief and panata of the locals.”

About the Author

Ted Hann has been writing since 1980. He is a television casting director based in Southern California. His work has appeared on eHow, and he specializes in entertainment- and arts-related topics. Hann holds bachelor's degrees in English and music, summa cum laude, from Arizona State University.