Shall We Dance?
Asian “dance summit” evokes dreams of pangalay diplomacy
That’s what we did for three exhilarating days–dance to gongs, drums, and kulintangan–as we joined hearts and minds with our Asian neighbors in the magic of dance. Nothing equals the joy, warmth, good-will, understanding, compassion, and instant friendship that dancing together can bring.
At the first-ever International Conference on the Conservation and Popularization of Pangalay and Related Asian Dance Cultures, held on Feb. 8 to 10 at the Riverbend Hotel in Marikina City, Cambodians, Indonesians, Thais, Malaysians, Japanese and Filipinos moved to the same beat, sans the directive of any government official or diplomat.
The conference was organized by the AlunAlun Dance Circle which propagates pangalay, the traditional dance which took root in Tau Sug communities in pre-Islamic and pre-Christian times. “Pangalay is our most truly Philippine dance because it antedates the other influences that shaped our culture. It is pre-everything!” stresses Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, 65, the foremost proponent and performer of the dance today.
Its striking resemblance to the Asian dances demonstrated at the conference with their accompanying percussive music points to the mother culture of India as common source. Hindu and Buddhist influences are apparent in the gentle gestures and linguistic borrowings that still linger in our intangible culture. Pangalay in Sanskrit means “temple of dance” and is related to “offering” as in our Philippine word alay.
“We want to feel our cultural links with our Asian neighbors and strengthen our sense of identity through the powerful soul connection of dance,” explains conference director Dr. Maria Teresa Sicat with smiling eyes. A retired UP English professor and former Dean of Humanities of the Central Colleges of the Philippines, she has been dancing with the AlunAlun Dance circle for six years now. In a charming talk, she shared her experience of coming under Amilbangsa’s tutelage at age 60. “I have never felt more Asian and more Pinoy than when I started dancing the pangalay,” she attests.
The slow, flowing, meditative dance, performed with intricate hand movements and mincing and shuffling steps, has obvious relationships to Thai and Cambodian classical dance, Javanese wayang wong, and the different types of Okinawan traditional dance collectively known as Ryukyu Buyo. Traditonal martial arts (pencak silat) in the various Asian societies, including our Sulu archipelago, are also undeniably of one family, as are the dance forms that evolved from them.
When we were not dancing we were talking about dance. The perfectly-balanced conference interspersed entrancing dance demonstrations with scholarly papers on dance research and sharing of problems in dance conservation by such eminent academicians as Prof. Esteban Basilio Villaruz, head of the Dance Program of the UP College of Music, and Prof. Mohd Anis Md. Nor of the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Intense attentiveness to the lectures, lively discussions during the open forum, and eager interaction during coffee breaks, indicated the great thirst for new inspiration among the 170 choreographers, dancers, dance students, dance troupe leaders, P.E. teachers, and school administrators who were fortunate enough to have gotten wind of the trail-blazing conference held in an unassuming corner of the metropolis. They came from all over the islands, from the Cordilleras to Zamboanga, seeking re-animation for their craft and mission, and they were touched by the unifying spirit of pangalay.
How to make Filipinos, especially the youth, love their culture and their country through the art of dance was their task as much as learning the dance for their own self-development. Their soaring enthusiasm culminated on the last day in group plans reported through dance for the propagation of pangalay , which Prof. Villaruz described in his book Treading Through 45 Years of Philippine Dance (UP Press, launched again at the conference) as the closest thing we have to a classical dance.
The moving spirit behind the event, and its undisputed “star”, was Ligaya Amilbangsa, whose delicate features and slight figure belie the dynamo of passion that she is when it comes to Philippine traditional dance. She fell in love with the dance during her years in Tawi-tawi as the young bride of Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa (her classmate at FEU), and has devoted more than 30 yrs of her life to mastering and teaching it.
A highlight of the conference was Amilbangsa’s sharing of her AIM (Amilbangsa Instruction Method) using the original stick drawings she devised decades ago as memory guide. Basic instruction begins with breath training along with hands and arms making a figure 8, the cosmological symbol for infinity. These progress to more complex finger contacts, flicking and flipping, also distinctive features of other Asian dance forms, in which they have even more intricate and subtle variations (mudras) and specific meanings.
No one can fail to be captivated by the soft elegance of the pangalay as performed by Amilbangsa. Clearly in her element among the other Asian performers, she displayed a wide repertoire with not a hint of fatigue, leaping and clapping in langka-silat (martial dance), fluttering and swaying in linggisan (bird dance), hopping and skipping with bulah-bulah (clappers) in tariray. The foreign guests, virtuosos themselves, were in obvious awe of her, and every participant wished to dance like her.
Amilbangsa recounted the start of her solitary journey with pangalay in the 1970’s when no one seemed to value it as part of our intangible cultural heritage. Disheartened by her failure to gain support despite offering free lessons, she went into hiatus for 17 years until Nannette Matilac of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) tracked her down in 1997 for an interview. The two have closely collaborated since 1999 in forming the AlunAlun Dance Circle, which nurtures pangalay devotees in Sunday lessons at Amilbangsa’s studio in Antipolo.
The importance of having a system for passing on such an ephemeral art form even in its place of origin was poignantly brought to the fore by Prof. Mahail Hadjan, Head of the P.E. Department of Mindanao State University College of Technology and Oceanography. Leader of the Tambuli Cultural Troupe founded by Amilbangsa in 1974, and still an agile performer, he confirmed that in Tawi-tawi communities today, pangalay is overshadowed by pop culture imbibed through mass media. Were it not for Amilbangsa’s documentation and conservation efforts, he said, pangalay would have become extinct.
A meticulous scholar besides being a riveting performer, Amilbangsa has written two landmark books on Sulu archipelago culture, Pangalay, published by Ayala Museum in 1983, and Ukkil, published by the Ateneo University Press last year. “Pangalay is dying in its cradle,” Amilbangsa and Hadjan lament. Video footages taken by Nannette Matilac in neighboring Malaysia showed children doing the ocho-ocho with pangalay hand movements– which would have been amusing were it not so culturally tragic.
Yet Amilbangsa’s group insists pangalay is not to be viewed as a rigid artifact, for the very nature of dance is that it is constantly evolving in time and space. At birthdays, anniversaries, book-launchings, and NGO gatherings, AlunAlun has performed pangalay to classical, folk, and western and local pop music. “For it to remain alive, it must be kept versatile and adaptable. First, one must master its vocabulary, then one can create and improvise,” Amilbangsa points out.
What about tinikling, itik-itik, maglalatik, and all that we know as “folk dance”? Peter Paul de Guzman, Fil-Am dance teacher of Culture Philippines Folk Arts in Los Angeles, provided some clues in his talk. To Filipinos abroad, engagement with Philippine culture and its conservation is a living issue, he said. Whereas the generation of his parents copied the dance productions of the touring troupes like Bayanihan and the Ramon Obusan Dance Troupe, young Fil-Ams today want to define their “Filipinicity” by drinking from the source–Inang Bayan. De Guzman, 26, already an accomplished performer who would do us proud in any international production, is now learning pangalay with Amilbangsa.
To keep pangalay alive for future generations, everybody agreed, we must simply keep dancing it. And so we did.
High energy filled the hall in jamming of the most elevated kind: Mr. Sukarji Sriman of the University of Malaya, in full traditional Javanese costume, led the dance to appreciative cheers. He was followed by handsome Minangkabau martial arts-dance master Mr. Indra Utama of the Indonesian Arts Academy of West Sumatra. Ms. Kazue Higa, who had danced in Okinawan costume on Day One of the conference with her colleague Ms. Takana Kojima of the Research Institute of Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, took to the floor in her blue jeans. They were gamely joined by Mr. Ben Suzuki, affable director of the Japan Foundation in Manila (the main sponsor of the conference) who graced all three days of the conference with his active presence.
In glides Ligaya Amilbangsa with the undulating arm movements, serene demeanor, and downcast eyes of pangalay, and though the kinetic energy doesn’t diminish, a kind of hush descends at the sight of her, breath-taking despite her being in street clothes. The future tugs at us, symbolized by two cherub-faced boys and a gifted young dancer (Chloe Bernardo of the Makiling High School for the Arts), all lovingly trained in the art by Amilbangsa. To them we must bequeath all the beauty and grace of the Pinoy soul as embodied in pangalay.
It is a dance that we can learn while very young, and continue dancing with dignity until we are wizened and white-haired. It is a dance that we can do from our loob with our Mindanao brothers and sisters, as well as with our kababayan abroad. It is a dance that could connect us with our own leaders–were they to dance it with us. It is a dance that returns us to Asia; it is a dance we can share with the world. It is a dance to bring us home to our true selves.