The Singkíl originated from the Maranao people who inhabit the shores of Lake Lanao. It is derived from a story in the Darangen, the Maranao interpretation of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana. The name of the dance itself means "to entangle the feet with disturbing objects such as vines or anything in your path". It is a popular dance performed during celebrations and other festive entertainment. Originally only women, particularly royalty, danced the Singkíl, which serves as either a conscious or unconscious advertisement to potential suitors.
The lead dancer, in the role of Putri Gandingan (the Darangen name for Sita), graciously step in and out of closing bamboos poles arranged in either a parallel, rectangular, or criss-cross fashion while manipulating either apir (fans), mosala (scarves), or even just their bare hands. A kulintang and agung ensemble always accompanies the dance.
While often erroneously referred to by non-Maranaos as a "Muslim dance", the Singkíl is in fact secular in nature, performed by the Ummah communities of the Maranao and Maguindanao. Initially, the dance was performed with just one pair of bamboo poles, eventually adopting the use of two criss-crossing pairs.
When the Bayanihan Dance Company began performing the Singkíl, the traditional dance was adapted to convey Western aesthetics. The Bayanihan portrayal, branded as the Princess Dance or the Royal Maranao Fan Dance, became so popular that it is often mistaken for the authentic version of the dance.
A notable variation from the original is its inclusion of male dancers, as pole clappers and in the role of the Prince, Rajah Bantugan (the Darangen adaptation of Rama). Additional sets of criss-crossing bamboo poles were also added.
Further adaptation divided the dance into four movements:
- First movement- Asik, where the slave with umbrella is introduced.
- Second movement- entrance of Putri Gandingan, the entourage of female fan or scarf dancers, and the arrival of Rajah Bantugan.
- Third movement- Patay, which is a slow section, and is a structural dance convention often found in Western performances.
- Fourth movement- the climax in which all dancers dance to the crescendo of music.
The Bayanihan version attempts to blatantly exposit the story as per Western conventions, and re-tells the Darangen. The dance itself narrates a scene where Putri Gandingan escapes her abductor, the demon king Lawana, and is lost in the forests of Alangka. She is finally found by another person, but the Darangen and the Ramayana differ as to the identity of this person: the former recounts that Rajah Bantugan found her, while the latter states that it was the god Hanuman who found Sita on Rama's behest. The modification of this detail possibly suggests acculturation, where the monistic, Hindu aspects of the narrative were edited to conform with the monotheistic beliefs of Islam.
Performers would therefore gracefully step in and out of bamboo poles, arranged in a criss-cross fashion while manipulating either fans or simply their bare hands.
The dance is said to have been named after either the leg bracelets or anklets of silver, nickel or brass with chiming bells of the same name or the act of voluntarily or accidentally entangling one’s feet in either vines or tall grass.
PCN (Pilipino Cultural Night) festivities held by foreign-based student groups and other theatrical dance companies have modernised interpretations of the dance, resulting in unorthodox portrayals of the Singkíl by even the most esteemed of Philippine folk dance choreographers.
Some dance companies have even fused the Singkíl with ballet, or make use of multiple layers of overlapping bamboos.
The Singkíl was performed in the 2001 American independent film The Debut. The movie was directed by Filipino American filmmaker Gene Cajayon and starred Dante Basco. The film captured the essence of Filipino traditions and the blending of these with modern American culture.