Southeast Asia boasts an astounding assemblage of traditional performing arts, varied in form, style or genre, time or period, and geographical source. Through the performing arts people assert ethnic identity, a dignifying and unifying force in a community.
Tambuli Cultural Troupe in 1976 © LFA photo collection
A performing art tradition conjures continuity; it is history. To lose such tradition is therefore to lose history. Dance, like other performing art traditions, is the expression of a people’s soul captured in motion. To safeguard such forms, they must be studied and documented, including the artistic material resources, oral traditions, beliefs, and practices embodied in them. These traditions are not museum pieces, but art forms that must be nurtured as artifacts that grow or transform as societies change.
Safeguarding such living artistic forms should include keeping a sense of newness, or seeing them with “new” eyes, insights, and viewpoints. Being contemporary simply means adapting the form to the present time, although it may be misconstrued as threatening the preservation of traditional or historical forms. Newness is a response to current needs. The transformation or change infuses old dance forms with newness, but does not necessarily create something new. This demonstrates the dynamism of dance.
Map of the Sulu Archipelago © Census of the Philippine Islands 1918 Geography, History And Climatology
Historical and Territorial Linkages
The Republic of the Philippines belongs to the Asia-Pacific “Ring of Fire,” so called due to the numerous active volcanoes in the area. By virtue of history, geography, ecology, ancestry, race, and culture, the Philippines is firmly linked to its Asian neighbors. This vast region boasts dance cultures as varied as
the physical environment and stages of social, political, and cultural development.
The impact of Indian culture on many Indianized kingdoms that began to emerge around AD 100 in Southeast Asia, and the conversion to Islam of many such kingdoms after AD 1300, was a consequence of the growing importance of the Muslim-controlled trade networks. The Sulu Archipelago, a chain of nearly 500 picturesque islands and islets that links the southernmost part of the Philippines with the northeastern extremity of Borneo, received such maritime contacts within the Asian region, including the rest of the Philippines, which had access to sea trade since prehistoric times. Owing to the dominance of the Sulu Sultanate until the early nineteenth century, the Sulu Archipelago was the center of a large political sphere that extended to the northwestern coast of Borneo.
Seen against this historical and territorial orbit of the Sulu Archipelago, it is apparent that pangalay or igal, also known as pansak in Basilan province, is a mere fraction of the classical dance traditions in Southeast Asia covering more than two millennia.
This living link to Asian dance history, although marginalized, is the closest to a classical form in the Philippines. The rich pangalay or igal vocabulary of postures and gestures affirms a strong linkage with the abundant, consistent, and mature choreographic traditions of earlier Asian civilizations. Evidence of this assertion are tangible records, paintings, tapestry, and statuary that reveal fragments or distinct views of dance (e.g., Angkor, Ayutthaya). Further proof lies in the living legacy of dance heritages and discoveries performed today by a succession of devoted and well-trained practitioners throughout Southeast Asia. Pangalay affirms alliance with Southeast Asia, but also with India—the source of classical dance models in the entire region.
Linggisan (Bird in Flight) documentation of postures and gestures © Ligaya F. Amilbangsa photo collection
Research and Tradition in Dance Performance
Dance research is far from easy and researchers are few. Lesser still is the output of recorded material pertaining to folk dance traditions. To see beyond the living artifact, dance research requires extensive study, observation, and documentation of movement vocabulary, together with the music and related artistic material resources including the oral traditions, beliefs, and practices embodied in them. These values are the soul of a dance.
When I first came to Sulu in 1969, my knowledge of Taw Sug, Samal, Badjaw, and Jama Mapun dance tradition was limited to information gathered from printed material and hearsay, and from much-publicized performances in Manila by the better-known local dance companies. An authentic pangalay or igal performed to the virtuoso accompaniment
of a native gong and drum ensemble left a vivid impression that propelled my interest to study the indigenous dances of the archipelago. The region was then a hotbed of the Moro National Liberation Front, and perceived as war-torn owing to the secessionist conflicts.
As a faculty member and Special Assistant on Cultural Affairs, I organized the Tambuli Cultural Troupe (TCT) in August 1974, at the Sulu College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-SCTO), a unit of the Mindanao State University in Bongao, Tawitawi. The word “tambuli” pertains to a conch shell used as a trumpet. The TCT, composed of high school and college students, was the first such group in Tawitawi. The troupe virtually started from scratch; its only assets were the talent, ingenuity, and boundless enthusiasm of the young members. Since the troupe had no funds, borrowing costumes and musical instruments was a necessity. On the MSU-SCTO campus, mocking students at first dubbed the members “Tumble Down” instead of Tambuli.
The troupe primarily served as a means to revive, stimulate, and sustain interest in local dances, and to rectify certain misconceptions pertaining to their performance. At the same time the troupe gave prominence to the natives as art initiators or tradition-bearers. I felt such an impression would somehow neutralize the image of Tawitawi as a trouble spot. For myself, the troupe served as a testing ground that answered a few personal concerns: Could I impart what I had so far observed and learned? How much of it? How liberally should I invoke artistic license without sacrificing authenticity, or the folk quality of the dance tradition I desired so much to
preserve? Confounding those concerns, the troupe’s performances in Manila in 1975 and 1976 exceeded expectations.
Innovation in Dance and Publication
To attain my goals, I needed to fully understand the dances in context with the local history and culture—from the artistic viewpoint and from the viewpoints of function and history. I had to learn basic dance postures and gestures through lamp-lit “shadow practice” in the evening at home. Later, as a teaching aid for my lecture-demonstrations, I devised a series of hand exercises and a set of stick figures for studying postures and gestures. (In my pangalay book, shadow figures
or silhouettes appear instead of stick figures.) A dance student who has properly learned basic pangalay or igal movement patterns can easily use the figures as a “memory guide” to recreate various posture/gesture/footwork combinations.
Writing up my findings gained momentum in 1979 after an observation stint at the College of Dramatic Arts in Chiengmai, Thailand. Based on a voluminous body of data built up over thirteen years, my book Pangalay: Traditional Dances and Related Folk Artistic Expressions won the 1983 National Award for Best Art Book from the Manila Critics Circle. Its companion volume, Ukkil: Visual Arts of the Sulu Archipelago, was published in 2005.
I underscore that the pangalay or igal tradition has the richest documented movement vocabulary of all ethnic dance forms in the Philippines. Like other idioms or styles of dancing with a strong technique, this tradition requires discipline, dedication, and devotion. Pangalay, which means gift or offering, is temple of dance in Sanskrit. Pure dancing, in essence, it is the child of the period of culture that produced it. When this form or tradition is lost, it would be impossible to dance it as the native initiators did, because it is impossible to live and feel as they did. The imitation or recreated dance will be similar in form, but devoid of inner meaning or without a soul or spark.
The intentional “dressing up” of ethnic dances to make them pleasing to everybody is deplorable; more so if it is intended to deflect attention from deficiently trained dancers. Whenever the avowed purpose is to revive or preserve an
unfamiliar dance tradition, the true character of its movement vocabulary must be accepted, not altered. Revival for the sake of revival maintains the integrity of basic postures and gestures. On the other hand, transformation with relevance—although relevance (to our times) is not always necessary—uses the postures and gestures as a creative device for choreographic works that uphold the aesthetic qualities of a dance tradition. Juxtaposed with different types of music,
innovative costumes or properties, and unusual or imposed ideas, the packaging of the dance looks different, yet the movement vocabulary is faithful to the old form. Reinventing the manner of presentation offers exciting possibilities for transmitting and safeguarding a marginalized traditional performing art form.
Theater and Reinventing Tradition
Not long after coming home from Raipur, India, in January 1978, I was prevailed upon to join the Iligan Institute of Technology, a unit of the Mindanao State University (MSU-IIT) in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte. Wasting no time, I organized the nucleus of a theater company, which I named Integrated Performing Arts Guild (IPAG), from students belonging to fledgling groups: a choir, a combo, and a few dancers in tandem with a drama cluster yet uncertain whether to go folk or modern in its performance style. IPAG became the resident company of the MSU-IIT, and the adoption of pangalay as its signature performance style earned plaudits. The company received national and international endowments for its contributions to Philippine arts and letters.
Two decades later a group of professionals inspired by the beauty and versatility of pangalay founded the AlunAlun Dance Circle, Inc. (ADC). This volunteer nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving, conserving, and propagating pangalay as a discipline and choreographic medium. The Amilbangsa Instruction Method is used for dance training in the ADC studio and wherever the company facilitates pangalay workshops/demonstrations. ADC brings this little-known Philippine dance style to diverse audiences in school auditoriums, town plazas, covered courts, playgrounds, hospitals, mall lobbies, and private homes. It has performed nationally and internationally on various occasions representing the Philippines.
The successful First International Conference on the Conservation and Popularization of Pangalay and Related Dance Cultures, hosted by the ADC in 2007, was a tremendous gift to dance history in the Philippines. Resource persons from Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and the United States promoted intensive cultural sharing among dance scholars, teachers, and choreographers.
The ADC blazed the trail for the principled conservation and practice of pangalay through new choreography with contemporary themes, using different types of music ranging from traditional composition to western pop, classical pieces, and others. Through continuing rigorous dance instruction, field research, cultural exchange, and adaptive performances, ADC hopes to keep pangalay relevant to wider audiences, especially among youth.
Globalization and the fragmentation of traditional cultures, coupled with dance migration across national, regional, and international boundaries have brought about sweeping changes in the field of dance. Traditional dance activity will continue to thrive with proper attention to studying dance in the context of the physical and cultural environment. Because dance is a language captured in motion, researchers need more care in the preparation of verbal documentation to promote descriptive accuracy.
In this age of doing things digitally, cultural research and conservation face a bigger challenge and responsibility. There is growing fear for the safeguarding of Asia’s outstanding ancient art forms, notably the ephemeral performing art forms best exemplified by dance traditions. We must guard against the spread of misinformation via the internet.
The sub-regions of Asia need each other to nurture and protect the living performing art traditions, together with the living human resources that keep such ICH alive.
Dance, the silent language of the body more direct, eloquent, and personal in its contact with the audience, enables us to show our identity and grace of spirit, but also establishes empathy or linkage that allows friendly coexistence within the Asian neighborhood of nations, and the world. Dance traditions are a blessing.