A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; . . . — John Keats
Birth and beginnings are great moments, they open avenues and foster hope and promise—just like January, first month of the calendar year that rings as the favoured month to start new things or promises, time to make plans and projects, or simply commit oneself to be a better person anew, in a set of New Year’s Resolutions. What is a promise? The dictionary defines it as “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified,” or “reason to expect something (little promise of relief), especially ground for expectation of success, improvement, or excellence (shows considerable promise)”. This leads me to share the narrative of a promise on how an endangered but promising gem of a dance called pangalay that originated from the southwesternmost tip of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands is restored back to its people by the vision and passion of an artist after a long journey.
The amazing story of pangalay, or temple of dance, gift-offering (in Sanskrit) was researched and documented into an award-winning book, Pangalay: Traditional and related Folk Artistic Expressions (1983), by Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, a recipient for 2015 of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, considered the “Asian Nobel Prize.” It began like a fairytale romance, in the promise of love between two friends who met in college: Ligaya Fernando, a Christian, and Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa, a Muslim, who braved all odds and decided to settle, for better or for worse, in a faraway kingdom-sultanate of the Sulu Archipelago (groom is younger brother to last Sultan). It was in the context of this place with a rich historical and cultural background, the Sulu Archipelago which once belonged to the Majapahit empire [“a vast archipelagic empire based on the island of Java (modern-day Indonesia) from 1293 to 1527. . .considered to be one of the greatest and most powerful empires in the history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia” (Wikipedia)], that the young bride Ligaya, as she’s fondly called, first discovered and instantly fell in love with the pangalay dance. In her Pangalay book, Ligaya relates how the dance utterly fascinated her on end, a penchant that must have produced a strong aesthetic awakening and impact on the young artist as she watched pangalay communal dancing, especially on big weddings and feasts. But what caught her fancy and imagination more than anything else were those performances at night held in homes that were lit solely by oil lamps, not electricity. She confesses how mesmerized she would become watching pangalay dancing figures—that grounded posture with extended arms, twirling wrists, and fluttering fingers cast as shadows on the wall as slender dancers performed. It was like a child under the spell of shadow puppets projected against a backlit cloth screen, like the traditional “wayang kulit” in Java or Bali in next-door Indonesia.
In 1974, after a full immersion and mastering of the pangalay, Ms. Amilbangsa founded the Tambuli Cultural Troupe (TCT) to nurture and test her teaching methods. Two years later, despite lack of funds, she brought the troupe to perform in Manila. Those first seeds of a promise have now yielded fruit in the yearly Pangalay Festival, held in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu. In 1978, her services were sought by the Mindanao State University, and she organized the Integrated Performing Arts Guild (IPAG) in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte. This arts guild pioneered the use of artistic and communal expressions in Mindanao—pangalay included—to depict its unique culture. After over 40 years of existence, it has become the premier Philippine performing arts company in Mindanao. Thus, ends Part I of the story.
Enter Part II: a pressing clamor to learn pangalay from a core of 5-6 aspiring dancers, myself included, in June 1998. Why pangalay? What the motivation of each learner at that time was, I never bothered to ask. The most vivid memory of those moments of discovery was our excitement to learn the beautiful and exotic dance from Sulu. What’s more, the pangalay that was being unveiled before our eyes by our graceful guru was all too different from what I had ever seen before—all was novelty! To begin with, we were more familiar with the more fast-paced Spanish-influenced folk dances learned in school. Getting used to its slowness, breathing coordination, tension of the hands, twirling wrists, curling and flicking fingers on a well-grounded posture was not easy. We were told that a three-year training was necessary to master the dance vocabulary due to its classic form with strict rules and codes to follow in structure, form, and movement. But we had a patient and eager Master with inspiring lessons punctuated by loud interjections of ohhhs and ahhhs, grabe, ang ganda-ganda!, napaka-graceful talaga!, ang hirap naman nito! Street passerby and neighbors at that time must have wondered the “why” behind such outbursts of excitement from an otherwise silent abode. I guess we were just “pangalay-struck” as we danced our way into learning.
Pangalay, no doubt, resonated and struck a deep chord within us. First, the beauty of the dance: its aesthetic appeal, spirituality, refinement, and gentle movements that are executed with downcast eyes on an expressionless face. It is the neutral countenance preparatory to prayer. Its slow rhythm, in sync with the exact beat of the breath, its alternate inhale-in and exhale-out pulse as the body gently springs up and down sideways is the symbol of life itself. Like an internal monologue I would tell myself, isn’t this gentleness and slowness the epitome of Oriental grace and refinement? Doesn’t it equate with Asian identity, the starting point that answers the question, “why pangalay”? Though unarticulated, such invisible “promises” are powerful on their own. The fact remains that pangalay is the unique classic Philippine dance that has the closest affinity to the Indian, Javanese, Burmese, Thai, and Cambodian styles of classical dance.
Many who learn pangalay for the first time equate it with the act of meditation. Indeed, whenever I dance the pangalay, I think of Zen Buddhism, which is an inward experience, a spiritual discipline focused on calmness and serenity with breathing, and “the breath of life” as its key. That inward-outward movement of the hands seems like a metaphor of that meditative act of reaching enlightenment by looking within us (inwards), while interacting with the external world (outwards). Again, Zen’s love for nature is also echoed in pangalay’s rich movement vocabulary, as if revealing life’s innermost secrets in different shapes and forms—the active hands with fingers curling-inward and unfurling-outward alternatively, one finger at a time, toward its complete release of force as hands end in a swift, sudden flick, like the rose bud whose gentle petals suddenly burst at the first light of dawn (journey to enlightenment); the gliding, mincing steps like the moving caterpillar walking steadily on a twig towards its next metamorphosis (life’s ephemeral nature); or fluttering fingers miming butterflies; or birds in flight in dance gestures with raised shoulders supporting dangling arms. Pangalay is, in fact, an experience of life’s wonder, where the dancer is both actor and poet in movement.
That blatant “Asian-ness” of the dance—pangalay’s iconic posture, with one hip flung to one side of the body with slightly bent knees—is a replica of sculptured deities found in the Indian temples of antiquity, as in those of Hindu-Buddhist traditional cultures of Southeast Asia. Undeniably, it points to the religious origin of pangalay (and dance, in general), as its meaning “temple of dance” suggests.
Pangalay’s promise took one big leap forward when its resident dance company, the AlunAlun Dance Circle (ADC), founded in Marikina City in 1999, decided to participate, following my suggestion, at the 2001 Onassis International Cultural Competition in Athens. This information was serendipity right at my door, whispered to my ears by a Greek theatre friend attending the Philippine Centennial Celebrations in June 1998 shortly after our first pangalay lessons. The “right timing” bonus afforded ADC ample time to prepare an interesting repertoire, aided by our managing director Ms. Rosalie “Nannette” Matilac’s suggestion: Gawa tayo ng magandang presentation, kaysa naman lamon na lang! (let’s prepare a beautiful presentation for a change from the usual hearty-eating dance breaks). This effectively produced a beautiful series of new choreography that was received, even sans award, with great enthusiasm and encouragement from the Organizers. This re-confirmed the potential quality and power of pangalay for stage performance, conferring increased self-confidence to ADC. It was on this occasion that the mystifying Stillness in Motion was born. It appeals to me like an artist’s transcendental vision of life, rendered hauntingly surreal by the use of masks and an amazing instrumental indigenous music from Mindanao. As one watches the show wonderstruck, it recalls the young Ligaya caught in utter fascination before those moving evening shadow figures in Tawi-Tawi. This time our turn to be hypnotized, fulfilling the creative impulse of an artist’s promise.
With the newfound confidence and pangalay’s unfaltering promise came more invitations for demonstrations and performances in schools and other public and private cultural institutions and television. Then invitations to perform at cultural events in Taipei, Paris, and Hanoi followed. The International Conference on the Conservation and Popularization of Pangalay and Related Asian Dance Cultures was organized by ADC in Marikina in 2007 to find cultural linkages with other dance cultures in Asia. This growing interest for the dance has brought an increasing number of dance professionals abroad to train with Ms. Amilbangsa. Using the AIM (Amilbangsa Instruction Method), the ADC also gave workshops to teachers in the provinces. Films and videos for documentation and educational purposes were also produced by Ms. Matilac, who is another spirited, multitalented artist.
With pangalay festivals being held regularly in Tawi-Tawi, the Tambuli Cultural Troupe continues to receive advice from Ms. Amilbangsa. To crown and seal her legacy, the Handog Center, dedicated to the conservation of pangalay and ADC’s new home, was inaugurated in March 2015 in Calumpang, Marikina. It is a postwar Art Deco cultural gem, purchased and restored by the Guru, thus another gift offered, or handog, in Tagalog. It serves as a community arts center as well.
Five months later, the unsuspecting “surprise, surprise” came: an announcement of Ms. Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa’s conferment as a Ramon Magsaysay awardee for 2015, in recognition for her “single-minded crusade in preserving the endangered heritage of southern Philippines and in creatively propagating a dance form that deepens the sense of shared cultural identity among Asians.” Those who knew her work weren’t surprised at all. This big news suddenly brought to mind the premonitory remarks of Prof. Fe Mangahas, historian and feminist, who, at the launching of Ms. Amilbangsa’s second book Ukkil: Visual Arts of the Sulu Archipelago in 2006, said, “Something grand will come out of this!” (definition of promise above)! But what was soon to follow was even more awe-inspiring as if to affirm the saying “when it rains it pours”: a few weeks after the awards night at the CCP, the people of Sulu happily expressed their gratitude to the Philippine Senate for having approved the bestowal of the R.M. Award to Ms. Amilbangsa which she fully deserved. But more specifically, because she had given them back their identity—another fulfillment of a great promise. Like they say, a strong identity is the bedrock of a better society.
The grandeur is in the dimension of that quality of intangible heritage restored, for memory lost is irredeemably lost forever. Vibrant once more, it is a living organism and a lasting legacy to a people and future generations.
The pangalay story is about a flame of a promise that is lit and brought to fulfillment. All this began with the vision of an artist and made possible by the unconditional support of the pangalay family—a strong rock from which the embers of passion and dedication keep glowing, like another ‘stillness in motion,’ composed of a passionate body of living creatures, who, once captivated by pangalay’s beauty, have made it an integral part of their spiritual journeys.
The grandeur is in the nurturing, the gift-offering of oneself, a pang-alay!
— Trinita Evangelista-Derbesse