Kristina Pacifico on dance, body image, & cultural identity
Recently I spoke with Kristina Pacifico, dancer & choreographer with the Philippine-American Performing Arts of Greater Pittsburgh (PAPAGP).
A daughter of Filipino immigrants, Kristina grew up in Pittsburgh & attended Point Park University. She works at Phipps Conservatory as Internal Events Manager.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
TA: What was it like to grow up Filipino-American in Pittsburgh?
KP: Growing up, being able to claim the identity of Filipino-American was difficult. My brother and I were the only Asian kids at school. Now that I remember, there was one person who was Filipino, but she was a lot older than us. She was always so excited to see us, but literally my brother and I didn’t know who she was. It wasn't until my mom told us, “Oh that’s Michelle, her mom’s Filipino.”
A big question that would haunt me was, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” The answer was like, “Well I'm from Pittsburgh, I was born here.” But I would realize, that’s not the answer they’re expecting or wanting. It wouldn’t even be, “What kind of Asian are you,” it would be, “What are you,” which almost seems otherworldly. Like okay, alright. I guess this is what I have to expect.
It wouldn't be until college that I finally stopped being asked those questions. But even if I considered my life with school to be like an outsider, I had the dance group as a community to make me realize, I am Filipino and it’s not a bad thing. I'm not an outsider because I’m Filipino.
KP: I started dancing when I was 8. At Filipino parties, there was another girl who’d been part of the dance group for a while. From the time I was like 5, she'd ask my mom, “Is Kristina gonna join the dance group this year?” I was still really shy. But as I continued going to these Filipino parties, eventually I would be like, “Okay, I’ll join.”
My family and I were part of the Filipino-American Association of Pittsburgh until 2012 or 2011. Then we became active with another Filipino dancing group, the Philippine-American Performing Arts of Greater Pittsburgh. My dad was one of the co-founders. He was vice-president from its establishment until he passed away, two years ago.
The dance group has been an integral part of my life. I grew up doing dance in one form or another, and now I’m choreographing dances for the group.
One big project we’d been funding for many years was the Philippine Nationality Room at the Cathedral of Learning. That was completed in 2019. It was a constant reason for us to perform, whether for fundraising or to raise awareness.
Getting to see it finished was a big deal. We got to hold a Santacruzan. The Santacuzan is basically like a parade or pageant celebrated in the Philippines. The theme is always religious, so it might be Mother Mary, the different patron saints, or whichever saint resonates with that community.
Celebrating the Philippine Nationality Room was a big milestone for the Filipino-American community. Some people traveled from out-of-state. The concept with all of these nationality rooms is pretty unique — they're used as classrooms, but they’re also like time capsules. There were articles written about it in the Philippines and other US cities. I remember sharing them on PAPAGP’s Facebook and website.
TA: I remember seeing a few of those articles in 2020, when I was doing my senior capstone on Pittsburgh's Filipino-American community. You mentioned there was a Santacruzan at the celebration. I was part of one when I was a kid — all I remember is, you put on these fancy dresses, your moms do your makeup, your crowns, and then you walk. I never really understood its significance.
KP: Similar to dancing, it’s passing along the tradition even if the kids don’t really understand. Some key words might stick in their heads, but a lot of it is the moms trying to make sure the kids’ clothing items look nice, or they’re smiling in the pictures. It won’t be until the child is a lot older that they realize the significance of that kind of event.
TA: With the dance group, a lot of dancers leave once they finish high school. But for you, it's remained a big part of your life.
KP: A lot of kids join the dance group because their parents want them to be connected to the culture in some way. Unless that child already has a background in dancing, a lot of us start off awkward, not really knowing how to move our arms and legs.
When I was younger, I had an interest in dance, but never got to take dance classes. The dance group essentially was my dance classes, except I didn't have to pay for them. Throughout many, many years of dancing, I would slowly accumulate the ability to have rhythm.
A lot of it was me copying whoever the instructor was. As I got older, I would watch videos of professional dance groups. Now that I teach dances, a lot of it is from muscle memory.
There have been times, especially in high school & college, that I wanted to step away from dancing so I could focus on school. But my parents were very adamant about me focusing as much energy or time as I could into the dance group.
TA: The fall I was involved with the dance group was the fall of my senior year. It definitely took a lot of patience, since I was used to the fast pace of college.
KP: I totally understand. Growing up, we’d have practice every Sunday. Honestly, the weekends were dedicated to the dance group. A lot of kids would bring their homework. It felt like a mini community where your whole life was dance, then everything else.
TA: Did you know anyone from the group who pursued dance professionally?
KP: There was a pair of sisters whose parents put them through dance school. They're the closest I can think of who pursued performing. It was something I'd considered at one point, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my career. I wondered, “What if I joined a dance troupe for a number of years, then came back and taught what I'd learned?” Dance had been such a big part of my upbringing, so it made sense if I wanted to pursue that.
TA: That's so interesting. For most people, then, it's more about community than dancing.
KP: Dance was sort of the string that tied us all together. Even if we weren't considered good at dancing or it wasn’t our favorite thing to do, the dance group was the only reason we got to see each other.
But it’s always a shame when there's a kid who is so excited to dance, and for whatever reason their parents stop them. Especially if that family might be very Americanized.
Maybe dance practices once a week are their only opportunity to be exposed to any sort of Filipino community or culture, whether it’s just the food — oftentimes, people just go for the food. They’re like, “You guys are bringing pansit, and lumpia? I’m going.” (laughs)
TA: Honestly, that's a big deal.
KP: If you were to consider how our practices were run compared to other groups, you’d be like, “Is this a party?” or “Why is there so much food here?”
TA: At my first practice when I saw all this Filipino food, it definitely reached another layer of my identity. I'm like, “Wow, I feel so at home. I can’t find this food anywhere else!” The food is such an important part of making it a space for people to belong.
KP: Yeah, the dance group is a space where you can find a sense of belonging, if you give yourself time to attempt to integrate into the community. But there are some negatives. Like it’s not unusual for there to be gossiping among parents, or chismosa. That’s not unusual with any community. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to hang out with certain kids because of chismosa that’s happening.
Another negative was, the way you look and the shape of your body is a big thing with dance. So there was a lot of like, me being hyper-conscious about my body shape, making sure I didn’t gain too much weight, or making sure my hair could be styled in a certain way.
Since I had to always wear the biggest costume, I grew up with this idea that I was big. But it’s weird. I found photo albums my mom put together of various dance performances. Looking back, I was a pretty normal shape. But as you grow up, your body changes, because that's just how we function as growing human beings.
TA: I can relate to the negative body image. Music was my safe place growing up, because it was about how I sounded, not how I looked. But dance really is about your body. To be honest, when you invited me to join this past set of performances, I was like, “Well, I don’t fit into what a young Filipino woman should look like.” You know, the thinness, the hair and everything. A lot of mestiza features that are looked up to.
KP: Oh, I know.
TA: So I admire that you made dance your own, even though that’s a place where it can be so...
KP: It definitely is. Growing up, there was only a certain amount of costumes available because we didn’t have the funding to get new costumes made. So if you were bigger-bodied, more curvy or taller, you might not be able to do a certain dance, because you couldn’t fit the costume.
Body image was definitely something that, even though I tried my best not to let it get to me, would get to me. Even with other dancers. They would think to themselves, “I’m getting bigger,” or “I don’t look as I used to.” But I think that's also part of growing up. Body image is going to follow, no matter what age or community you’re part of.
Hair was something I was always self-conscious of. When I was younger, my hair wasn’t as easy to style or tame as other Filipinos, or Asian-Americans in general. Typically you think of that sleek, silky black hair, long and luscious. When I was younger, my hair was poofy and never straightened all the way. So I had this big journey with me and my hair, where I was just trying to get used to it.
In the Philippines, the term is getting your hair relaxed or something, getting it permanently straightened. I remember getting those one of the times I went to the Philippines with my mom. She told me it was cheaper to get it there, and I should get my hair straightened, so it’s easier for her to manage. Which did give me a sense of relief, because I didn't have to worry about my hair anymore.
And then you were talking about mestizo Filipinos. A lot of dancers have both parents who are Filipino, some dancers are half-Filipino, and some dancers are a little bit Filipino, so maybe one parent is half. I remember always hearing, “The kids who are half-Filipino always look so beautiful,” because they have lighter skin, or more European facial features, or they’re taller and their body is a certain way. Growing up with the community, that's definitely something I noticed.
TA: Did body image affect how you dance?
KP: If you were to ask me when I was younger, oh heck yeah, I would be so self-conscious about how I looked as I danced. I don’t really feel that much now, because I'm used to it.
With dance in general, the goal most of the time is to be synchronized. But when you have a group of newer dancers and they're more nervous, allowing them to practice until they feel comfortable, in whatever level that might be, is how I approach it. Teaching the adults really showed me that I had to be more patient. Even though dance is a lot of judging the body, as long as there’s some level of synchronization, I’m fine.
TA: It’s cool that you now have this role as a choreographer and teacher, and you're able to help others have a more positive experience.
KP: That’s my approach to teaching, to be patient and understand what people are feeling. Often I’ll ask, “Does that make sense, do you want me to show you?” or “Are you guys good? We can go through it a few more times if you want.”
TA: As a musician, there’s this sense that “real” musicians study it formally or pursue it professionally. Have you perceived anything like that as a dancer?
KP: I didn’t grow up doing it in the Philippines, which is sometimes a marker of, "This is authentic." But I was taught by an instructor who did, so I try to talk myself out of those thoughts.
It wasn't until I started managing videos of our performances online, that I would start to feel weird about authenticity. When we started doing modernized versions of the dances, we would get comments like, “That’s not right to do it that way.”
But the modernized versions have their own merit. They're appealing to the younger dancers, and they're influenced by the traditional dances. We’ll do the traditional version and then the modern, so both the audience and dancers can connect the moves and realize, “It might be different music, but the dance moves are the same, or influenced by it.”
Especially when we do dances like tinikling, the national dance of the Philippines — it’s the dance that a lot of people love to watch and are also very critical about. When kids are looking to make sure their feet don’t get hit by the bamboo poles, some people in the comments of videos will be like, “If we did that when I was younger, we would have gotten in trouble.” These are kids who are doing it as a hobby. Of course they’re going to look down to make sure they don’t get hurt.
For the dancers, just knowing that you can do it, to whatever extent that is, that’s definitely a feat for them. Like, "I can dance tinkling, not just the slow version, but the fast version too."
TA: It's about the members connecting to their culture in a way that's accessible to them. I love how the modernized versions are sort of unapologetically hybrid. When you grow up bicultural or multicultural, that's something you experience. Being part of both worlds. The modernized dances are a good place to celebrate that, express that.
KP: Dancers really enjoy when we do the modernized versions. The music we use is something they're familiar with, as well as keeping the authenticity of the original dance moves. It's almost like the modernized versions of the dances that we choreograph, symbolize one person’s viewpoint on what it is to be Filipino-American.
TA: Absolutely. So my last question is, you mentioned that you've been reflecting a lot on why you still dance. Do you feel like you've been able to answer that question?
KP: A big part of why I continued Filipino folk dancing is my parents’ active status with the group, and that I remained in Pittsburgh during my undergrad years. I’m at a point in my own dance timeline where I still enjoy performing, but these days I want to be more of a spectator in the audience, not waiting backstage.
I realized lately that my relationship with Filipino folk dancing is one that’s kinda complicated and emotional. Without getting too trapped in my thoughts, I think I’m still dancing because deep down, I feel like it’s the one of the only things that make me feel attached to my Filipino identity.
TA: Thank you so much for sharing.