In a time that has seen nations violently torn apart by ethnic and religious wars, it is important to be reminded of the healing power of the arts in showing that while culture is what makes people of various ethnicities, religions, and nationalities distinct, it is also culture that connects them in the awareness of a shared humanity that is enriched by such differences.
This truth lies at the heart of the lifework of Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa. Born to a prominent Catholic family in Marikina, Metro Manila, Fernando-Amilbangsa had always loved dance and the arts. A turning point in her life came when she married a schoolmate and moved to his home in Sulu where, in the next three decades, she immersed herself in the rich cultural life of the Muslim South. In the midst of the region’s secessionist and insurgent conflicts, she turned her love for the arts into a vocation as cultural researcher, educator, artist and advocate of the indigenous arts of the southern Philippines, particularly the Sulu Archipelago.
Her signature involvement has been the study, conservation, practice and promotion of the dance style called pangalay (“gift offering,” or “temple of dance” in Sanskrit), a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Tausug peoples of the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. A highly intricate and expressive dance of many variations, traditionally performed in weddings and other festive events, pangalay has the richest movement vocabulary of all ethnic dances in the Philippines and is the country’s living link to the ancient, classical dance traditions elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Fascinated by its beauty and recognizing its importance in the cultural heritage of the Sulu Archipelago and the entire Filipino nation, she was saddened to see that pangalay was becoming a marginalized tradition. Thus she committed her life to patiently documenting the dance and its allied expressions; teaching the dance using a method she personally developed, promoting it by choreographing and organizing performances, and making it known to the world through her lectures, performances, and writings on pangalay and the visual arts of the Sulu Archipelago.
Working mainly in an individual capacity and using her own personal resources, she inspired the formation of performing arts groups, networked with dance scholars and practitioners in Asia, and presented both traditional and innovative pangalay choreographies in and outside the country. Moving back to Metro Manila in 1999, she formed the AlunAlun Dance Circle (ADC) and lent her own home for a dance studio—to study, teach, and perform pangalay and other traditional dance forms. The group has since done hundreds of performances and workshops throughout the country.
For Fernando-Amilbangsa, traditional dances like pangalay are not museum pieces but something to be nurtured as a living tradition that grows as societies change. Thus she has innovated with pangalay performances done to modern music, conveying contemporary themes like women’s rights and environmental conservation. Yet she has always stressed that art must stay rooted in the basic values that humanize—beauty, grace, a disciplined spirituality, and harmony with nature and fellow humans. “Without looking to the past,” she says, “something really new cannot be created."
In electing Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa to receive the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her single-minded crusade in preserving the endangered artistic heritage of southern Philippines, and in creatively propagating a dance form that celebrates and deepens the sense of shared cultural identity among Asians.
As a youngster in 1954, I shook hands with a smiling, tall, gentleman. He was Ramon Magsaysay, the popular third president of the Republic of the Philippines. I imagine that that handshake more than half a century in advance was a prelude of this stunning event, with me as a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Two decades later in 1975, the Tambuli Cultural Troupe, which I founded the year before, performed on this Main Theater stage, in celebration of Philippine Independence Day. The troupe performed again at the CCP in 1976 at the Little Theater, in conjunction with the first Tawi Tawi Arts and Crafts Exhibits, which I organized. The goodwill performances were simply magical for me and the young dancers from the Sulu College of Technology and Oceanography, a unit of the Mindanao State University in Bongao, Tawi Tawi. Our cultural activities during those Martial Law years served as a unifying force, and painted a favorable image of the Tausug, Samal, Badjaw, and Jama Mapun peoples of the Sulu archipelago. Thankfully, my work gained momentum, inspired by the countless native co-workers whose cooperation enabled me to document their artistic heritage of which every Filipino can be proud. Two National Artists for dance also inspired me: Leonor Orosa-Goquingco and Francisca Reyes-Aquino, herself a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee in 1962.
What else can a cultural worker say while savoring this moment of magic with deepest feeling? Not much, except to emphasize the importance of keeping alive the folk artistic expressions that link us to our past and to one another, and to the rest of Asia and the world. I appeal for renewed efforts to develop a sensible program for dance education and conservation of indigenous dance forms, and to provide facilities conducive to the well-being of dancers. Allied to this, I appeal for more assistance and other incentives for academic research and publication. I wish more government and private institutions in the Philippines would be sincerely responsive to the plight of researchers and authors who need funds—more than sympathy—to carry on with their work. Their findings will enable others in the cultural sector to teach and write better, conserve, create, and innovate for the greater glory and growth of artistic traditions in the Philippines.
Of special interest are living artifacts or records of the past like pangalay, also known as igal or pansak—a dance tradition that affirms our cultural affinities. To see beyond the authentic nature of pangalay is to see the essence of Filipino ancestry: artistically refined, dignified, and profound.
Safeguarding an artistic tradition like pangalay goes beyond sharing its beauty and versatility through changing times. It is promoting respect for tradition which is vital to national identity and unity. A fast-changing world with unstoppable growth patterns needs the silent eloquence of an ancient symbol like pangalay or igal residing in a moving body to express what it feels than what it sees. Respecting such symbols can contribute to the greatness of the Filipino nation.
Honorable trustees, thank you very much. Fellow cultural workers, I share this recognition with you. Mga kalasahan ku, mga bagay ku, mga kakampungan ku, magsarang sukud tuud makaan kamimun. Mabuhay!