PLEASANT HILL -- As a little girl, Isabelle Bollas had been curious about her Filipino American heritage and when she had the chance to join a Philippine folk dance troupe when she was 8, a new world opened up for her.

Now 17, the College Park High School senior not only knows how to dance the complicated "tinkling," coordinated steps amid moving bamboo poles, but she is versed in the customs, cuisine and language of the country of her parents.

"I've learned more leadership skills and about Philippine culture as well as the different areas of the Philippines," Isabelle said.

"At first, I was nervous about performing," Isabelle said. "But since I have been for many years, it's been a lot easier and a lot more fun. These dances help people see what we do. It's been a really nice social event."

Since Maharlika was formed in Martinez in 1992, children and teens have learned the various folk dances from the different regions of the Philippines, but also get acquainted with Tagalog, the Philippine vernacular.

They learn about Philippine customs and history, music, cooking, and the various costumes worn during different historical periods. Maharlika has helped foster social skills and performing arts talents while preserving the Filipino heritage, said Liza Bollas, Isabelle's mother and the event chairwoman.

"Isabelle grew up a shy child," Bollas said. "I'm amazed at how this experience has helped build character."

Rehearsals at the Seafood City shopping center in Concord help prepare the young dancers for public performances. Before the May 4-5 "Filipino Culture Night" fundraiser performance, Maharlika performed at Great America and Filipino Heritage Night at a San Francisco Giants game two years ago, she said.

"Our dance practices leads to exposure of the culture," Bollas said. "Some families have seen us and approached us asking what we do."

For the dancers, the troupe has been more like family as many of them have grown up with the group performing at events such as church gatherings and private parties and fundraisers. The performers said they're happy to entertain for a good cause.

Gina Alvarez, 17, has danced since she was 8 and considers Maharlika her second family.

"I've become more aware of what the culture is like. I didn't know much about Filipino culture before," Gina said. "We've had to learn Tagalog words and learn the costumes and the Philippine national anthem."

Ralph Jimenez, 11, a student at Sequoia Middle School, started performing two years ago.

"This helps me connect with my culture," Ralph said. "I got to meet more friends and like to practice being a good dance partner."

At 18, Christian Salvosa looks back at the decade he's been with the troupe.

"When you've been together for the longest time, you've forged good relationships," said Christian, who attends College Park High School. "I'd say it's been one of the strongest relationships I've had."

Christian said he believes the group's bond will last through college and beyond even when dancers "retire" after age 18.

"They say you don't stop being a member of Maharlika," Christian said. "We'll always have reunions with the younger and older members. We will be together for a long time."