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Sinag-Tala has brought Filipino dances to Kansas City for 50 years: 'It gives me goosebumps'

A group of eight dancers pose on stage. Four hold wide fans while the others hold blue or pink scarves.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Sinag-Tala dancers perform the Princess Fan Dance/Kzadoratan.

Sinag-Tala, Tagalog for Starlight, began as a four-person dance troupe eager to showcase traditional Filipino dance. 50 years later, the group has welcomed hundreds of dancers and created a close-knit community.

When Dr. Lillian Pardo helped start a Filipino folk dance troupe in March of 1972, she had no idea the staying power it would have in the Kansas City community.

Fifty years later, Pardo, 83, introduced her fellow dancers at Sinag-Tala’s 50th-anniversary show to a packed crowd at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art last weekend. As she spoke, she reflected on how much the group has accomplished over the years.

“I didn't think we would grow into this,” Pardo said. “It gives me goosebumps that 50 years later, we're still very strong and very well thought of in the community. I'm proud of the fact that people followed. I feel very nostalgic about it actually.”

Since it began, the group has grown from a handful of amateur dancers to a group that numbers in the hundreds. They’ve built a cultural center and teach people about Filipino culture.

Julian Rivera, Sinag-Tala’s latest artistic director, has been with the group for 30 years. He said he’s maintained his connection with the group because it’s a second home for him.

“I think Midwesterners pride ourselves like we're pretty welcoming, but you know, it can feel pretty isolating if you feel like you're the only kid in class that is bringing rice to lunch and stuff like that,” Rivera said.

“To know that you always have people that you can immediately relate to and a place that feels like you never left — it's invaluable."

A chance to share Filipino culture

In March of 1972, Dr. Lillian Pardo was working at the KU Medical Center. Nurses at the hospital requested a showcase of Filipino dance, so Pardo and a handful of other Filipino immigrants — Claire Ick and Shirley G. Sulit — decided to form a group, called Sinag-Tala.

The name is Tagalog for Starlight — a nod to the effort to grow Filipino culture and performing arts in Kansas City. The only problem? They didn’t know the traditional dances well enough to perform.

That’s when they joined forces with Manny De Leon, the group’s founding artistic director and choreographer. De Leon was a former member of Bayanihan, the Philippine's National Dance Company. The group rehearsed every Sunday for hours, but they didn’t begin performing immediately.

“We were cover story of the Kansas City Star Magazine in November of 1972, we were photographed at the Shawnee Mission Park,” Pardo said. “It’s so interesting because we didn't know all our dances yet, but we were posing for all kinds of dances.”

The group eventually learned all of their dances and held their first concert at Shawnee Mission East High School. Tickets were $2 each and Pardo said “we were so scared that nobody would come.” But people did, and Sinag-Tala continued to grow.

A group of eight young dancers move in a circle
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
The Filipinettes perform at Sinag-Tala's 50th anniversary performance. The dance troupe incorporated a junior dance troupe in 1977 to teach children about Filipino dance.

In 1977 the group expanded to include a junior division known as The Filipinettes to encourage Filipino-American children to take pride in their culture.

Today, a majority of the members of Sinag-Tala began in the Filipinettes. Alexis Snyder, who is now a choreographer for the troupe, was one of them. Her mom was a member of the original Filipenettes and later served as the group’s artistic director.

“I was literally born into this group,” Snyder said. “My mom would bring us to rehearsal and a couple of the moms noticed me dancing in the corner, got my mom's attention, and were like, ‘you need to put her in the show.’ So my first performance was our September fair of 1997, and I was 4 years old.”

Snyder said her mom made sure to raise her with a knowledge of her culture. Having Sinag-Tala as a resource cemented that. She said the four types of dance the group does — showcasing the northern mountain tribes, the Muslim influence on the country, Spanish colonial rule and independence — not only serve to teach people different styles of Filipino dance but also the country’s history.

“Growing up here in Kansas City, the only time you learn about the Philippines in school is when you're learning about World War II,” Snyder said.

“It's so enriching to know that here in the middle of a country we have a place and a foundation and a group and a community to teach our heritage to our younger generation who has either never been (to the Philippines) or grew up here in the States.”

The main hub for Sinag-Tala was a small, two bedroom house affectionately known as the Filipino House. But after decades of fundraising, the group was able to build a cultural center to welcome in even more members – and provide a space for others to learn about Filipino culture.

A woman wearing a white dress with embellishments speaks into a handheld microphone on stage
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Dr. Lillian Pardo, one of the founders of the group, introduced Sinag-Tala at their 50th anniversary performance.

A celebration of 50 years

Sinag-Tala has had a number of major concerts over the years. The group held Fiesta Filipina at Crown Center Square for four years in the late ‘70s. In 2005, they performed at the Folly Theater. And almost every year they’ve performed at Kansas City’s Ethnic Enrichment Festival and other showcases around town.

The group wanted Sinag-Tala’s 50-year anniversary show to be a celebration – and to represent how far they’ve come. Many former dancers, like Angelo Santos, returned to the troupe for the anniversary concert.

Santos came to Kansas City from the Philippines when he was 6 years old. His family immediately joined the Filipino-American Association of Greater Kansas City, the parent organization of the troupe, and soon enough he was dancing for Sinag-Tala.

“I always get chills thinking about being lucky to have this for our community where I know a lot of kids don't have that support from their own community,” Santos said. “It's been an awesome experience, awesome journey to grow up with the Filipino community and knowing you have support as well from people that aren't necessarily family, but you call Tita or Tito. It's been really nice knowing that you have that comfort."

Santos said he wanted to rejoin Sinag-Tala for its 50th year to pay tribute for all the group has done for him. With a 7-month-old daughter, he’s hoping one day she might want to begin dancing with the group as well.

“It gives you a sense of pride of who you are and seeing other people that look like you and have a commonality,” Santos said. “Growing up as kids, you don't really have representation. So being around people that share your culture, you start to gain more confidence. You're able to take that confidence out into the real world, make new friends – you're comfortable with who you are because you have this strong sense of identity.”

Rivera said many of the returning dancers, as well as some new members who joined to reconnect with their culture, remain highly involved with the group. The troupe is an extension of their culture, and where each member becomes part of an ever-growing family.

“It’s this spirit in Filipino culture called Bayanihan,” Rivera said. “It's just this idea of like, we're gonna build this together. So when you put out sort of the call to be like, ‘Hey, Sinag-Tala is doing a thing,’ it surprises me still to this day how it's like, ‘oh yeah, I'm here.’ I will always be grateful to the people who are willing to just give their love, their talent and their time to put on something like this. And it's so meaningful that we get to do something so, so cool for our 50th.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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