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A lifelong love affair with an ancient dance

Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa was smitten by pangalay when she first saw it, and her efforts to preserve and document it have brought it to the world stage

Image Credit: Ana P. Santos
Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa demonstrates a pangalay movement; the book she wrote on the visual arts of the Sulu Archipelago
Gulf News

There were two weddings that charted the path of Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa’s life. Interestingly enough, neither of them was her own.

It is early morning and Amilbangsa, animated and refreshed from her daily morning gardening ritual, welcomes me into her home to look back on her life as a dance historian and choreographer.

In 2015, Amilbangsa, 72, was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in recognition of her “single-minded crusade” in preserving the pangalay, an ethnic dance form that Amilbangsa spent her life learning, perfecting and protecting from becoming obsolete.

Her eyes light up as she begins. It is easy to imagine her as a giddy 19-year-old girl struggling to maintain the composure and decorum demanded of women at the time.

The visual arts of the Sulu Archipelago. (Image Credit:Ana P. Santos)

“It was the Foundation Day at our school and a classmate dragged me to see the Muslim booth that was awarded the most colourful,” she says.

At the centre of the booth, two students dressed in full Muslim regalia posed as a bride and groom in a mock wedding. The “groom” caught Amilbangsa’s eye. She asked him if he would autograph her copy of the souvenir programme — he asked for her permission to visit her at home. After more than two years of courtship under the watchful eye of her strict mother who limited visits to 15 minutes, Amilbangsa married Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa, the young brother of Sulu’s last reigning Sultan Mohammad Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa.

Soon after the couple wed, they moved to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi, southern Philippines, about 900 kilometres from Manila.

A dance and an offering

In her new home, Amilbangsa was immersed into the culture that she had caught a glimpse of in a school exhibit booth. She speaks of a region that was once peaceful, optimistic and vibrant, rich in culture and abundant in natural beauty.

At a wedding (an actual one this time) she attended in 1969 in Jolo, a group of dancers performed the pangalay, which is a Sanskrit term for “offering” or “gift”. The dance, which mimics the movement of animals or sea waves through the graceful swaying of the arms, hands and fingers, fascinated Amilbangsa and once again, she found herself smitten.

“It was so prayerful, so different. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” she says. In a swift graceful movement, she stands up from her seat and demonstrates one of the pangalay movements, which mimics a bird gliding as it swoops down to catch a fish. It is usually danced in tune with a kulintang or gongs and sometimes uses accessories such as a “janggay” or metal claws to elongate the fingers and highlight hand gestures.

The enchantment left her with a determination to learn the dance. “I thought it was going to be easy,” she says, chuckling. But similar to oral traditions, the dance was passed on through informal means, with little or no documentation.

With no books or manuals about the pangalay, Amilbangsa set out to “deconstruct the dance and then put it back together again”.

She interviewed village elders to build the dance vocabulary and document its postures and movements. She practised the gestures in what would be her first dance studio — a candlelit room in her home — where using the shadows cast on the wall, Amilbangsa studied, corrected and perfected her form.

Amilbangsa believes that pangalay spread from India to the southern Philippines ahead of the arrival of Islam and Christianity centuries ago. She said classic dance forms similar to pangalay are still found in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

“Dance is living history. It is the dynamic expression of a people’s nature, culture and aspirations and pangalay should be a national symbol,” she says. “It points to everything that were before the conquerors came. It is pre-Islamic and pre-Christianity. When we talk about Philippine antiquity, this is it.”


Dance as a unifying force

Around the time that Amilbangsa formed a pangalay dance group to bring it to a wider audience, martial law was declared and a Muslim separatist rebellion in Southern Philippines erupted.

Bombings and military confrontations destroyed infrastructure and dismantled a way of life. Businesses closed and those who had the means moved to Manila or to other neighbouring provinces.

The conflict lasts to this day, dragging on for more than four decades, throwing the province in a state of limbo, instability and grinding poverty. Divisions deepened, with “Muslim” or “Moro” becoming associated with war and violence.

“Living in Tawi-Tawi opened my eyes to the biases we have against our Muslim brothers and sisters. I became more liberal in my thinking,” she says.

Decades after she started studying pangalay, Amilbangsa hopes that the dance can be an instrument in uniting the country and healing the wounds of a protracted war.

“Words can be misconstrued. But dance — the pangalay — shows us what is beautiful about our culture.”

Popularising an ancient dance form

Far from the early days of a makeshift candlelit studio, Amilbangsa moved on to establish the Alun Alun Dance Circle in 1999. Together with the Tambuli Cultural Troupe, they have brought the pangalay to the world stage, performing before audiences in the Philippines and around the globe.

To attract a younger audience and modernise the dance while not losing its meaning or changing its dance vocabulary, Amilbangsa also teaches adaptations of the pangalay danced to pop music and rock ‘n’ roll.

“It can be danced to any kind of music or none at all. The music is within you — your breathing.” She stands up again, curves her arms and bends her knees. “One deep breath, one dip. You follow the natural rhythm of your body.”

Winning the Magsaysay award is not something she ever aspired for but it has been instrumental in getting attention for the pangalay and helping Amilbangsa with her goal to save it from becoming a mere “museum piece”.

“Dance is ephemeral; it dies with the body. You must not be selfish in teaching it to others and passing it on.” She hopes that by popularising pangalay, it will become an art form that will live on.

Nostalgic but hopeful

Reliving the last 50 years of her life has made Amilbangsa nostalgic and even a touch sentimental.

She shows me a book she authored in 1983, containing dance instructions on pangalay. The book is dedicated to her husband and their children. Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa passed away in 1987.

“I still have that souvenir programme I asked him to sign,” she smiles, again very much the bright eyed 19-year-old. What began as a courtship between two college sweethearts started a love affair with an ethnic dance form known as pangalay — both lasted a lifetime.

If her husband were still alive, what would she tell him? “I have done my best. For him. For my country. For my people,” she says.

Amilbangsa has given her best, dedicating her life to preserving a dance form and a part of her nation’s identity.


Ana P. Santos is a freelance writer based in Manila.