by Bianca Henares
It was around 5:10 P.M. when we pulled in to the Tuloy sa Don Bosco Street Children Village. It was clean and well-kept, a stark contrast to the busy Alabang-Zapote road just outside the gate. In the distance, I could see children either cruising around on skateboards, playing with footballs, or just sitting on the curb and talking. I was feeling a little bit awkward after being dropped off – I immediately felt like an outsider – so I took my phone from my bag and called up my key informant, Bea Subido. She told me she was walking back to the gymnasium, and that I should meet her there.
We had a couple of minutes to kill before tap class started, so she took me on a mini tour of the village. She pointed out the church, the culinary center, the school, and the football field, as well as the dormitories that the children live in. While she was showing me around, a couple of kids passed by us, pushing a little cart that was filled with plastic bottles. I asked her where they were going. “Oh yeah,” she said. “They recycle around here. Like crazy. And they actually segregate their trash.”
Bea has been at Tuloy all summer long, taking theater and tap classes along with the street kids. (I met Bea in high school. She does not live in the Tuloy village, but takes classes and does volunteer work for them in her free time.) She told me that the Tuloy Foundation was a non-government, not-for-profit organization that provided residential care services for abandoned children and youth. They are taken away from living their lives on the streets, where they are exposed to begging, theft, drugs, and prostitution. The boys and girls stay in separate dormitories, and in each dorm there is a “head of house” who acts as a parent. The Tuloy sa Don Bosco School inside the village provides the children with free education – from the most basic level all the way through to vocational and technical courses. Tuloy also offers the children free sports, dance, music, theater, and arts training.
From the get-go, I was pretty impressed. The village gave the children everything they needed to become well-rounded people. Tuloy isn’t just a program that simply clothes and feeds poor street children. It’s meant to give them meaning in life that goes way beyond their basic needs. It’s a holistic formation program that aims to help them become independent, productive members of society.
We stepped into their huge gym with eight basketball hoops and a large stage. I was told this was also where they held masses and performances. The actual tap class was held in an air-conditioned “music room” in the gym. The music room had two pianos off to the side, and a large mirror that took up an entire wall. There was also a sound system (a very large speaker) at the back of the room. There were bags, water bottles, and shoes scattered around the far side of the dance area. When we arrived, we were greeted by a couple of kids that were early for class who were playing with a pair of stilts. Bea introduced me to some of the kids, and they all greeted me with warm smiles and waves. I noticed that some of the kids that had enrolled in the class were not from Tuloy. Although the class is free for Tuloy children, outsiders must pay the normal fee of P700 per session.
The kids started putting on their tap shoes. (I was wearing regular slip-on sneakers, because I don’t own tap shoes.) I observed that some of the Tuloy children were using duct tape to attach coins to the bottom of their shoes. Sensing my confusion, Bea told me that they had been improvising because tap shoes were way too expensive. She pulled out her phone and showed me a Tweet she had posted a week ago, asking for donations and sponsors to help them get tap shoes.
It was now 5:30 on the dot, and Teacher Katy Osborne had just arrived. With a bright smile, she shook my hand and told me she hoped I enjoyed the class. Bea told me later on that Katy was a West End musical theater actress who had first visited the Tuloy Foundation while touring with the cast of Mamma Mia. The children from the foundation had made such an impact on her that she decided to return to the Philippines to teach musical theater and tap dance classes at Tuloy for free.
Katy was carrying a paper bag with two shoeboxes inside. She waved over a couple of Tuloy kids and had them try on the shoes. Bea explained that Katy had been crowdsourcing used tap shoes from her friends and family back home, but they had been taking a while to get shipped to the Philippines. My heart melted as the children cheered for their classmates that received new tap shoes. Bea mentioned later on that the kids really did love each other like siblings, and “supported each other through thick and thin.”
Class was about to start. Katy announced that we’d be doing a couple of new drills, and that during their next session she would hopefully begin teaching them a little routine. The kids quieted down as Katy connected her iPhone to the sound system and said we’d be starting off the class with their usual drill. (I had no idea what this drill consisted of. One of the older kids gave me a reassuring smile and told me not to worry or be nervous, because we were all still in the process of learning.) Katy spoke in straight English with a thick British accent, but there seemed to be no language barrier. The kids knew exactly what she meant, and found their places in the room.
I was still pretty confused by the end of the drill. I didn’t process much except for the fact that we were jumping around the room on our toes and swinging our arms from side to side. I learned later on that this arm movement was called “opposition arms.” Katy took the time to walk around the room as the drill was ongoing, sometimes squatting down to the ground to watch our footwork closely.
Then, we moved on to doing a drill that was significantly easier – “tap-toe-heel.” This consisted of brushing your shoe against the floor, tapping the floor with the front part of your shoe (the toe), then tapping the floor with the tail end of your shoe (the heel). We lined up by pair on the right side of the room, and crossed to the other end of the room while doing the “tap-toe-heel.” It looked like everyone had their regular partners, so I paired up with another newcomer. All the children seemed to mesh very well together – there was no clear divide between the Tuloy kids and the non-Tuloy kids. Again, Katy inspected every pair’s footwork. The kids would get really excited when she told them they were doing a good job.
The next drill was another pair drill – this time, “tap-heel-toe.” It was very similar to the first drill, although after brushing your shoe against the floor, you would then then tap on the floor with the tail end of your shoe, and finish off with tapping the floor with the front part of your shoe. However, this drill was new to the kids. Before we went across the room in pairs, she asked each child to demonstrate the drill for her and gently corrected their mistakes.
Then, we learned “tap-step-tap-spring.” This was an individual drill. We had to put our hands on a wall for support. Katy emphasized that this was so that we stayed on our toes. This drill wasn’t very difficult, but it was a little bit tiring. Tap-steps were easy – we just had to brush our feet against the floor. Tap-springs were a lot like skipping or jumping from one foot to another. She observed and corrected the mistakes she had identified.
After this drill, the class was about to come to a close. I am in no way physically fit, so I was exhausted after the hour of tap dance drills. Katy called the children’s attention, which was a bit challenging amidst the noise of tap shoes slapping on the wood floors. She told us we did a great job, and that we should practice the drills at home to prepare for the routine she would teach us during the next class. She also announced that more tap shoes would be coming, and that while we were waiting, we should get our duct tape and coins from Milo (a Tuloy kid). Everyone rushed to give Katy big hugs and thank her for teaching the class.
In the Philippines, I don’t think that tap class is as popular or common as ballet, piano, musical theater, or even street dance classes. Even so, these types of Westernized performing arts classes are not really offered to children in poor, underdeveloped parts of the country, and perhaps not offered at all in indigenous regions. Most of these classes require special clothing and shoes and are expensive and time-consuming.
When I was a child, my mom enrolled me in ballet, piano, and musical theater classes because she wanted me to explore what I could do and hopefully find a talent or hobby that would stick with me. All my classmates were similarly-aged children from middle-class families.
Tuloy sa Don Bosco gives these abandoned street children a chance to explore the arts. Tap class at Tuloy isn’t that different from the usual performing arts classes that even I used to attend back in the day (aside from maybe the lack of tap shoes). These underprivileged children are getting to explore what they like to do and decide what they’d like to pursue. In class, no one gets special treatment. Everyone is observed by the teacher and corrected when wrong, creating a healthy learning environment. I think it’s great that the Tuloy children are given such a broad scope of skills-training classes that will help them become well-rounded and productive members of the workforce in the future.
- What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Participant observation, just like tap dancing, was something that I had never done before. You must fully engage with the activity and the people you’re with, but you must also consciously take note of everything that’s happening so you can analyze it later on. It’s challenging, but it’s worth it – as they say, experience changes everything. It gives you a unique perspective from which you can view an activity, allowing you to have a fuller understanding of the activity as well as its participants. Participant observation makes you feel less like an outsider, making the whole experience of observing less “clinical”. It also makes the actual participants feel more at ease, making them more relaxed and less aware of their actions, as sometimes people can act differently around outsiders. This gives a better glimpse into their normal behavior.
- What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
I am reminded of a passage from Conformity & Conflict: “To get at culture, ethnographers must learn the meanings of action and experience from the insider’s or informant’s point of view.” Having a key informant was really helpful. Because of Bea, I could understand, from her perspective at least, what was going on, the nature of the people involved, and the area that we were in. She had been around these kids for months and formed close friendships with them. She had her own ideas about why they behaved the way they did. She was able to answer all my questions and provide me with details that I wouldn’t have learned from plain observation. The information that she gave me wasn’t something that you could read on a brochure or a website, either.
- What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
When collecting data from questionnaires or surveys, the information you receive is very limited because you can’t ask follow-up questions. There is also a chance that the people who answered your questionnaire did not take it seriously and just tried to finish it as soon as possible. There is no way of telling if they have been honest. When engaging in participant observation, you can interpret people not just because of what they say, but also from their body language. Also, it is difficult to describe dance moves and drills through words, it is better to see it for yourself. Although interviews allow the researcher to ask follow-up questions and read body language, people tend to modify their behavior if they are aware that they are being studied. Participant observation is more casual, a more laid-back way of gathering information. Aside from being able to ask my key informant questions about behavior that I saw during the event itself, since the children were not aware that I was there to take notes for a Sociology-Anthropology project, it is my hope that they acted more or less normally instead of modifying their behavior because an outsider was observing them.
- For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
A questionnaire would be better if a large amount of objective data was needed from a large sample size. It is not time consuming, and it is cost-effective. This information could be used to create generalizations that could help in further studies on specific subjects that don’t focus on human behavior. An example of a good time to use a questionnaire would be a market study, but this would still be more effective if the questionnaire data was accompanied by data collected from a focus group discussion. On the other hand, interviews are more or less controllable situations, you could easily craft questions that give you the information you need right away, instead of having to sit through an entire event. If the event that you have to attend is expensive, time-consuming, or even occurring in another country, interviewing people who have experienced the event firsthand is a good alternative. You can still piece together the similarities and differences between what your interviewees have said to come up with a more complete analysis. Participant observation is also a risk because if you begin to sympathize with the group you’ve observed, the data you present might be biased.
- Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
During the cafeteria observation, my group and I concluded that students go to the ISO cafeteria because they wanted to have a taste of home, a Filipino-style meal that would take them back to their own dinner table. At Tuloy, the concept of a “home” is different from the typical idea of a nuclear family residing under one roof. These children have been through tough times, and they live in dormitories with an adult that they have no relation to. However, living in the Tuloy village has instilled values in them that they might not have learned from the toxic environments that they used to live in. The children supported each other like family, shared with each other, and were genuinely happy for each other. There are places in the Philippines that abound with crime, dishonesty, or murder, and some of these children have come from places just like that. However, it is inspiring to see that little by little, efforts are being made to alleviate children from these circumstances and help them have better, brighter futures. Tuloy continues to be heavily dependent on sponsors and volunteers, and the fact that the community keeps getting bigger goes to show that Filipinos are not ignorant to the state of their country.
Spradley, J. P. (2012). Ethnography and Culture. In Conformity and Conflict (14th ed., pp. 6-13). New Jersey: Pearson.
Some photos taken by Bea Subido