Dancing with Ligaya

Ligaya Amilbangsa at the CCP (Photo by Milo Paz)

Ligaya Amilbangsa at the CCP (Photo by Milo Paz)

I first heard of Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa when I was in my 20s, through my PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) friends. I was recounting a visit to Bali, where I sadly had to forego an invitation to learn Balinese dance with a master teacher, when Maribel Legarda, artistic director of PETA, told me about Ligaya. Shortly after, I found myself working alongside a charming assistant director who turned out to be Ligaya’s daughter, and I recall telling her how much I wanted to learn from her mother. At the time I still had vague intentions of studying dance anthropology, but the twists and turns of life swiftly intervened. Only now, nearly 30 years later, have I been able to fulfill my pangalay dream.

Between November 2014 to February this year, I was fortunate enough to attend eight of Ligaya’s Sunday group lessons, and about as many lessons with her lead dancer Nannette Matilac on a private basis. I came to the Philippines on several missions, but on the dance front my main aim was to learn pangalay, at last. Pangalay is a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun and Tausug people.

Being Asian but trained in the European tradition of Cecchetti ballet—a legacy that is, like pangalay, on the verge of being lost entirely from mainstream consciousness here in Europe—I felt it was high time to experience an Asian classical dance form. As I started my first sessions, I wondered how much my ballet training might get in the way of learning a new Asian vocabulary of movement. After the first lesson, I thought it would take me years to get the hand, arm, leg and foot movements anywhere close to satisfactory. But by the second lesson, I found myself adopting a different approach to learning each movement, so much so that I began to feel that I was dancing, however awkwardly still, in the spirit of pangalay, and not just assimilating steps or technique.

Drawn to and mesmerized by Ligaya’s dancing, I intuitively allowed myself to feel as though I was inhabiting the body of Ligaya or Nannette. It was then that I clearly felt my movement and coordination begin to flow and make kinaesthetic sense. It was amazing to be learning this way—through imitation and a sense of devotion as children naturally do. Enthralled by the beauty of their dancing, I sought to breathe it in, to become it. Such is the quality of this dance that reaches into your senses like a beguiling scent.

Ligaya at the Handog Center (Photo by Shiela Nicolas)

Ligaya at the Handog Center (Photo by Shiela Nicolas)

Learning from Ligaya, watching her dance, were the most enchanting and inspired moments of my visit to the Philippines. And if I were to name only one reason to return tomorrow, it would be to continue receiving the blessing and privilege of learning from this master. The impact she has made on my consciousness as a dancer and as a Filipino woman is simply immeasurable.

To me, pangalay is about embracing an essence rather than mastering technique. To dance pangalay is to enter into a timelessness, a state of mindfulness of one’s being and doing, with no fixed beginning or end, like a still point within a circle…a very Eastern experience. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the linear, sequential, strongly measured and highly technical demands of ballet and Western dance forms. Through pangalay I came home to the Asian soul in me, and it’s about time.

Most of us Filipinos—raised on a mother tongue and educational system inherited from the Americans, and on the Catholic faith imposed by the Spanish—still struggle to connect to and appreciate our Asian roots, do we not? The deeper I delve into questions of Filipino heritage, the more I feel that it is in the nonverbal, nondiscursive forms of art and culture (traditional dance, music, food and crafts) that we can still find commonality with our Asian neighbors, where we can experience the “oriental” in us, that part of our soul so often drowned out by the Westernization of daily life.

Since coming home to England, my experience of Ligaya and pangalay continues to influence me in unexpected ways. On my first week back to my usual ballet class, my teacher noticed such a breathing quality to my dancing that she stopped the class more than once, asking me to show others how a certain movement is done. To this day, I notice that I breathe more consciously and fully through my dancing, something I only learned from Ligaya. This is a fundamental part of pangalay training, which is so beneficial to anyone’s health and wellbeing, not just dancers’. Ballet dancers tend to hold their breath when the body is in tension, even though they know they shouldn’t. It makes total sense for movement and dance training to address the breathing, or how can one achieve that sense of lightness and fluidity?

These days when I feel stressed or in need of inner spaciousness, I dance pangalay. It is my way of finding stillness. Watching Ligaya dance is like meditation. In London, I met and joined a classical Thai group who, like Ligaya’s group, learn and dance together on Sundays. The similarity between pangalay and classical Thai hand and arm movements made me feel quite at home within minutes. I, being the only non-Thai person in the room, was given the warmest welcome. It was lovely to walk into their space feeling every bit Asian myself, and that, after so many years of seeming too Western and not Asian enough, is something pangalay has given me.

A version of this story was published in Manila Bulletin on September 7, 2015.

GURU OF PANGALAY Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa, 2015 Ramon Magsaysay awardee, committed her life to the documentation, preservation, and development of pangalay, presenting both traditional and innovative choreographies in and outside the Philippines. Her group, AlunAlun Dance Circle (ADC), has done hundreds of performances and workshops throughout the country. 

Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa talks about Pangalay:

Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa dances:

Sarri Tapales

Sarri Tapales

Sarri Tapales is the great great grand niece of our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, and the great granddaughter of the katipuneros Gregoria de Jesus and Julio Nakpil. She is a dance researcher and design consultant based in Brighton, United Kingdom. Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa developed a methodology for teaching pangalay called Amilbangsa Instruction Method (AIM). The dance pangalay originated from the Sulu Archipelago and is known as igal among the Samal and Badjao or pamansak among the Yakan. 

Special thanks to Nannette Matilac of the AlunAlun Dance Circle