Taking Center Stage: South Cotabato’s Helobung Community Dance Troupe tours the U.S.

Members of the Helobung Community Dance Troupe, Inc. teaching children how to use the sloli, or Tboli bamboo flute, during their performance, workshop, and lecture at William Fox and Westover Hills Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. (Source: Michael Angelo Yambok)


South Cotabato’s Tboli people’s traditions and culture are taking another spotlight as members of the Helobung Community Dance Troupe tour the United States of America the entire month of October as a featured performing arts group in Center Stage Season 7.

Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, whose general management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.

It provides opportunities for performing artists from other countries to engage with communities in the U.S. to give local talents the chance to grow in understanding and appreciation of other nations.

For season 7, which runs from July to November 2023, Center Stage features five performing arts groups, namely Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness from Sowetto, South Africa; Garage Dance Ensemble from O’Kiep, South Africa; Nomfusi from Johannesburg, South Africa; Ethiocolor from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Helobung Community Dance Troupe from Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, Philippines.


Members of Helobung Dance Troupe during a meet-and-greet with Filipino community at the Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia, U.S.A. (Source: Helobung Community Dance Troupe, Inc.)


A Look at the Helobung Community Dance Troupe


“Helobung is a community organization that aims to preserve and promote the Tboli culture and traditions,” said Michael Angelou Yambok, president of Helobung, in an interview with the Philippine Information Agency.

Yambok said Helubong, an all-Tboli cooperative of artisans, was created in 1986 by young Tbolis who acknowledged the magnitude of preserving their own rich heritage for the benefit of the future generation.

“We aim to restore, protect, promote, and practice Tboli arts, culture, and traditions through performing arts,” he said, thereby “advancing self-affirmation and community empowerment.”

As a performing arts group, Helobung has already showcased Tboli music, instruments, and dances in foreign engagements in Paris, France, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Helobung also represented the Philippines in the Singapore Arts Festival in 2003; the Asian-African Carnival in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2015; and the ASEAN-Russian Cultural Festival in Sochi, Russia, in 2016.

At the local scene, Helobung sustains its mission to preserve and promote the Tboli heritage through several programs and services, including School of Living Traditions (SLT), a non formal institution where community elders teach young people arts, culture and traditions; cultural presentations that showcase traditional chants, instruments, and dances;  research and documentation;  education and scholarship programs; livelihood and handicraft program that provides income generation for farmers, women, weavers, and youth while practicing indigenous knowledge system and practices; and community extension program offering performances in festivals and celebrations with other indigenous peoples (IP) and non-IP communities.


Helobung’s U.S. tour with Center Stage is also an opportunity to promote understanding and appreciation of the Tboli culture and traditions. (Source: Michael Angelo Yambok)


Helobung and the U.S. Tour


Yambok said the Helobung Community Dance Troupe was invited to join the Center Stage program by the Department of Foreign Affairs. After a series of document screenings and interviews, the performing arts group from South Cotabato got a spot as the lone Filipino artist to be featured in Center Stage Season 7.

Five members represent the group in the tour, including Yambok, president of the organization, an educator, community organizer, and volunteer; Mary Grace Guay, a government employee and a traditional dancer, musician, and occasional chanter; Joel Ganlal, a pioneering member of the Helobung, farmer, and dedicated musician; Amelita Lugan, a community development professional, government employee, dancer, and musician; and Kenneth Blagay, a multi-talented college student.

In their month-long travels, Helobung members are set for major performances at the Chrysler Museum, at the Richmond Folk Festival in Richmond, Virginia; at the Capitol Theater in Yakima, Washington; and at the Tau Dance Theater in Oahu, Hawaii.

In between, the Helobung Team also visits Filipino-American and American communities, schools, and public libraries to hold short presentations, lectures, and workshops highlighting the Tboli culture and traditions, particularly its instruments, music, and dances.

The Helobung Community Dance Troupe arrived in the U.S. on October 4 and will fly back home from Honolulu on October 30. (DED – PIA SOCCSKSARGEN)


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