“It seemed easy enough to do,” I thought to myself as I watched the pangalay program at the Roman Garden on the bank of the Marikina River in 2005. I had already seen Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa give a short demonstration of it at a conference at the Cultural Center of the Philippines many years ago, and given what I thought at the time were only a few dance steps, I wondered how she and her group could sustain a whole hour of it now, even with the Marikina Rondalla joining in to play a few numbers in the same program.
The entire show was mesmerizing, so I decided to accept the invitation of Tita Sicat, my friend and fellow English teacher, to attend the pangalay dance lessons every Sunday afternoon at Ligaya’s studio in Mayamot, Antipolo. As a pangalay performer herself, she believed that, for me to be credible as a Philippine Arts teacher at UP Manila, my experience in doing theater and music on stage should also include dance.
Was I so completely mistaken about pangalay being easy! Coming in cold to the first pangalay lesson, and with no previous exercise regimen to brag about, I was already feeling very tired even when we were just starting our warm-up exercises. Somehow, I survived my first three-hour session, because Ligaya simply made me imitate what the row of dancers in front of me was doing, no matter how awkward I might have looked as a senior citizen trying so hard to look graceful.
But I persisted every Sunday afternoon because I didn’t want the embarrassment of quitting so soon. Besides, the pleasant chatter among newfound friends in the group during these sessions, and the occasional merienda treats, were always something to look forward to. Though I still wasn’t exercising daily as Ligaya wanted us to do, the Sunday sessions gradually became less painful on the knees and thigh muscles. After the “catching up on the latest news” at the beginning of each session, the place would soon quiet down, and the dancing gave us precious moments of mindfulness.
Ligaya always said that it would take three months to learn the pangalay, three years to do it well, and six years to dance it beautifully. I was barely past the third month when Ligaya suddenly included me in a brief performance at the UP Film Institute. I wanted to refuse because I didn’t feel ready, but she assured me everything would be ok. “I will just have to conceal you with props,” she said, referring to the umbrella and shawl she dumped on me. I was amused at the solution, but I obeyed. The walk-in audience said all of us did very well. So, there! I was really part of the AlunAlun Dance Circle now.
The high point of my pangalay life came early in 2009 when Ligaya said we were going to perform in Hanoi, Vietnam upon the invitation of Philippine Ambassador Laura Q. del Rosario. As luck would have it, I twisted my ankle while leaving the dining room on the day before the first performance. My debut on a foreign venue so soon aborted! Fortunately, there was another performance on the second day, which gave time for my swollen ankle to heal, and the group so kindly adjusted one dance step so that I could lessen the pressure on my feet. The audience of foreign diplomats praised the show, with some of them not having ever seen the pangalay in the past. They acknowledged that the pangalay was very similar to some of the dances in their own countries, and they happily and proudly declared that “now you are truly part of Asia.”
I haven’t listed the many other local performances that followed, especially when Ligaya became a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, but I distinctly remember some performance venues like the FEU Theater, famous in the 1950s for its stage productions, especially the opera; the Holy Angel University auditorium in Pampanga where we had three successive performances in one day; the Batangas City Amphitheater, where we were welcomed by Atty. Tony Pastor and treated to his impromptu performance on his Bosendorfer grand piano in his centuries-old home in Batangas; the SM North lobby in Quezon City for the Eidl Fitr celebration, with a walk-in audience of mallgoers; the Riverbanks lobby in Marikina, with an audience that dropped by before attending Sunday mass.
I especially cherish the workshop and performance of the Boys’ Town children and the elderly in the old folks’ home called Luwalhati ng Maynila, both housed in the same compound in Parang, Marikina. It was heartbreaking to hear the children’s stories of abuse that led them to seek shelter there, and the old folks’ stories of being abandoned by their families. They asked “bakit ninyo kami pinag-aabalahan pa eh palipas na kami?” The pangalay workshop-recital was welcome therapy for both the children and the elderly; it was a chance to improve their self-esteem. There was also the series of workshop-recitals of the schoolchildren in Kalumpang, Marikina, showing promise of a new generation of pangalay performers.
I haven’t danced the pangalay for a couple of years now, but I relish the occasional role of emcee/annotator/moderator for performances whenever CB Garrucho and Mariel Francisco are not available. I continue to marvel at Nannette Matilac’s energy in coordinating and managing all our shows and remembering all the choreography details past and present for the sake of forgetful senior citizen members.
I know there is a lot more to learn from Ligaya in her Handog studio in Kalumpang, and I always listen intently to her explanation of the origin and rationale of certain pangalay movements, her deep knowledge of the Tausug culture, her reminiscences of her life in Tawi-tawi. I value the moments when she corrects or changes our pangalay blocking, and I note how her creative touch does indeed improve on the original design, just as I enjoy observing how theater directors also correct or completely revise their earlier instructions to the stage actors, because I learn as much from the rehearsal as from the polished performance.
And so it is, as I watch Ligaya spring from her seat and, in spite of all continuing complaints about this and that body affliction of hers, she becomes magically transformed into a young dancer again. And so it is with pangalay, which—in the way that she has conceptualized its growth and development—will always remain young.
— Pacita C. Gavino