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PRESERVING THE MEANING AND

MAGIC OF PANGALAY
By LIGAYA FERNANDO AMILBANGSA
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee
Presented at the 57th Ramon Magsaysay Awards Lecture Series
2 September 2015, Manila, Philippines

PRESERVING THE MEANING AND MAGIC OF PANGALAY


My lifelong commitment to document and preserve the pangalay
tradition, an indigenous intangible cultural heritage of the Sulu
Archipelago, started serendipitously.
At a wedding celebration in Jolo, Sulu in 1969, I saw for the first time an
authentic pangalay performance by a native dancer. I was truly
fascinated. Learning the dance was a challenge since there was no
systematic or methodical form of instruction. Practicing alone before a
blank wall at night with a lighted candle or gas lamp magnified my
shadow cast on the wall. It proved to be a useful practice device in the
study of postures and gestures. The magical learning process unleashed
insights into a cultural milieu quite different from where I grew up.
Familiarity with the pangalay tradition, also known as igal or pansak, is
the outcome of years and years of unconscious absorption to borrow
the words of Mark Twain. My research was simultaneously performed
and persistently documented through the Tambuli Cultural Troupe
which I founded in 1974 and directed until 1978 at the Sulu College of

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Technology and Oceanography, a unit of the Mindanao State University


in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi province.
All along I considered my work as art for arts sakeuntil I
participated in the Asian Folk Performing Arts Workshop held in
Raipur, India in 1978. This was sponsored by the Asian Cultural Forum
on Development in Bangkok, in association with the Naya Theater (New
Delhi). The workshop coordinator declared that development work can
take a short time, ten years, or a lifetime. In December 1978 until
January 1979, I observed Thai dance instruction at the Dramatic Arts
College in Chiang Mai, Thailand. That exposure changed the course of
my research, giving me more than what I bargained for. I realized the
need to learn more than technical skill or movement vocabulary. Context
had to be studied because dance as a cultural and aesthetic practice
involves values, judgment, and perspective as it educates the sensibilities
of the performers and spectators alike.
WHY DANCE?
Dance is living history. It is the dynamic expression of a peoples nature,
culture, and aspirations. To disregard dance is to lose history. Because
aside from the precious movement vocabulary and music, dance is
costumes, accessories, properties, and contexts within its place of origin.
Earlier civilizations left tangible records, painting, and statuary which
captured discrete views or fragments of dance; others left a living legacy
of their dance heritage and discoveries to a succession of devoted and
well-trained dancers and musicians (either descendants or disciples).
In the Sulu Archipelago learning pangalay has always been through
ocular demonstration and repetition, rather than by written symbols or
formal instruction. Sensitivity is the key to learning and gaining mastery
of the movement patterns or schemes, and nuances. Such a learning
process is a far cry from the more complex process involved in the very
exacting classical dances of Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and India

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with their so-called Alphabet of Dancing. The mastery of such


movement vocabulary requires years of good training, leaving no room
for public performance by amateurs. This is the reality in those places in
the Asian region where the abundant, consistent, and mature
choreographic traditions serve as typical symbols of the cultivated arts.
ROOTS OF EVOLUTION
The cultural communities of the Sulu Archipelago are fortunate to
possess a living artifact like pangalay which insinuates a continuity of a
dance heritage allied with the classical dance traditions of Southeast
Asia. Such living links are vital to establishing the antiquity of the
pangalay tradition. To cite a few: pakarena in Sulawesi, pendet in Bali,
and legong in Java, Indonesia; lakhon or dance-drama in Thailand;
robam boram in Cambodia; and the highly elaborate opening dance of
Mak Yong (also Ma Yong), an ancient dance-theater form certainly
predating the 14th century arrival of Islam in the Malay Peninsula. This
allegation by Prof. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof of the University of Malaya
coincides with the assertion that pangalay existed before the arrival of
Islam in the Philippines. Notably, Mak Yong also survives in the Riau
Islands of Indonesia, in Northern Peninsular Malaysia, and in Southern
Thailand.
Furthermore, the Indian link in the pangalay genealogy is established by
the name of the dance itself. Pangalay means temple of dance or
temple dancing in Sanskrit or writing of the Gods, the holy language
of most of India. The affinity of pangalay to the Southeast Asian
classical dance forms or styles which are derivatives of ancient Indian
models, lends credence to the hypothesis that pangalay is a Hindu or
Balinese legacy. One such model is bharata natyam, considered as fire
dance with its incredibly abundant movement vocabulary resembling
dancing flamesthe same sinuous or flowing quality seen in pangalay.
The generally fluid, expressive movements reflect integration between

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body and soul, sensuality and spirituality, refinement and mature sense
of style.
Economy of pangalay movement creates the illusion of serenity, infinite
distance, and timelessness: motion in stillness, stillness in motion.
Pangalay manifests strong technique, giving emphasis on the skeleton,
the joints, and the underlying bone structure, rather than the muscles of
the body. Primary emphasis is in the perfect pose and time, rather than
space.
PANGALAY PRESERVATION: A LIFELONG ADVOCACY
To stimulate and sustain interest in preserving pangalay is a big
challenge in this century. Dance specialists who informally transmit the
vocabulary, technique, and aesthetics of pangalay are almost just a
memory. When they die, the pangalay tradition dies with them. Modern
inventions cannot duplicate the fluid beauty of form, subtlety of nuance,
the profound and abstract quality of feeling inherent in pangalay.
After a considerable lapse of time, the pangalay legacy could slip into
oblivion. The more difficult task of revival and reconstruction of such an
ephemeral cultural treasure can be avoided with the aid of a viable
method of instruction and transmission: simple yet precise, consistent,
comprehensive, flexible, and realistic. In the transition from a nonformal to a formal or academic setting, much dance vocabulary and
context are lost. This is critical to a dance style recognized to have
strong technique, but of an increasingly diminished importance in its
place of origin. Thus it is absolutely necessary to examine teaching
methods and materials. Pangalay, together with similarly endangered
dance forms, can be lost forever due to poor instruction or failure of
conservation.
In aid of pangalay preservation I devised the Amilbangsa Instruction
Method (AIM). It affirms a deep sense of purpose and inculcates respect

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for tradition. These ideals are desirable among cultural workers:


educators, researchers, dancers, choreographers, designers, musicians,
technicians, established dance theater groups and companies. Before
thinking global or world class, their goal should be to assert their
creativity based on the reality of being Filipino and Asian. They would
do well to train first their memory before their imagination before doing
improvisations. This means learning the basic movement vocabulary of
pangalay.
CONCLUSION
Contemporary history tells that folk dance has won international
recognition for the Philippines and placed the country on the world map
of the arts. This came about in the 1950s with the trailblazing
performances in foreign lands by the Bayanihan and the Filipinescas
dance companies.
Today there should be a significant increase in the functional use of folk
dance beyond entertainment; for instance, for cultural and physical
therapy, and to teach discipline and foster national unity. To this end,
folk dance should be given more time in the grade schools, instead of
being a mere adjunct in Physical Education. There should be more
truthfulness in the presentation of indigenous dances while harnessing
contemporary techniques in its theatrical packaging. There should be
more accurate description of such indigenous forms in souvenir
programs; the documentation helps to cultivate interest and provide an
enlightened knowledge of folk dances. Peddlers of cultural exotica who
casually invoke artistic license should uphold traditional values and
ideals to avoid hurting the image or sensibilities of their native sources.
On the other hand, it is a real tragedy when the impressionable native
performers or sources of misrepresented dances imitate the versions
alleged to be stylized.
And how about a nationwide cultural reorientation to sustain the efforts

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generated in our schools? Other vehicles for mass education, like TV


and movies, should provide a counterpoint to the cultural wastefulness
acutely felt and seen in developing countries where tourism is a
flourishing industry. Lest we forget: culture is the most basic to
humankind, while dance is the most dynamic expression of culture. Let
us preserve pangalay as a national symbol and a living link to our Asian
neighbors.

Copyright 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation