The indefatigable 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa danced her way into prominence as a key driver in preserving the pre-Islamic dance tradition Pangalay.  Through her Greatness of Spirit and the graceful movement of her hands and body, she ensured that the tie, or in this case, the dance that binds us to our Asian heritage will never be broken.

Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa remembers the Sulu Archipelago, Tawi-Tawi, when it had no electricity and concrete roads. She remembers being brought there as the wife of Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa, a younger brother of the last reigning sultan of Sulu – Sultan Mohd. Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa.  The couple had met in school and in spite of the reservations of her family, got married and eventually moved to Tawi-Tawi. There, Ligaya stayed for several decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Her move was not only a triumph for love; it became a triumph  for art as well. Ligaya had always loved to dance.  Born to a prominent Catholic family in Marikina City, she took ballet lessons as a child, became part of a folk dance troupe in school, and enjoyed dancing the boogie and rock ‘n roll.  In 1969, during a visit to Jolo, she saw a group of dancers performing the Pangalay and was completely fascinated.

2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa

When she and her husband moved to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi Province, in 1973,  Ligaya found her vocation as cultural researcher, educator, artist, and advocate of indigenous arts in  the Sulu Archipelago.  She discovered how dance was the dramatic expression and entertainment of the geographically isolated inhabitants of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.  In particular, she focused on the dance style called Pangalay. Pangalay is the Sanskrit term for “gift offering” or “temple of dance.” It is a pre- Islamic dance tradition among the Samal, Badjao, Jama Mapun and Tausug peoples of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Among the Yakan of Basilan Province, it is called Paunjalay.

In Ligaya’s words, she was “captivated by the beauty of the Pangalay” and became “passionate in recording and learning it from innumerable dancers in the Sulu Archipelago.” Since there was no electricity, she used a lighted candle  to study her silhouette of various postures and gestures learned from new dancers whom she would meet. She recalls how the habit irritated her husband as she studied the faithfulness of her silhouette to what she had learned, way past bedtime.

2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa

In her studies, Ligaya describes the Pangalay as a dance resembling Indian, Javanese, Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian dances. Among the Philippine folk dances, it is the most Asian. Like the Javanese and Cambodian dancers, Pangalay dancers flex their hands at the wrist with fingers hyperflexed backward. The dancer’s stance is similar to that taken in the Malaysian form of Pangalay and Igal: the body is bent slightly at the hips and the knees, and viewed laterally, resembles the shape of the letter S. The intricate postures and gestures and the musical instruments, ornaments, and costumes used reflect the choreographic tradition of the Asian Region.

Practicing Pangalay dancers develop their own choreography but follow a specific set of postures, gestures, and movements. Pangalay has been described as having the richest movement vocabulary of all ethnic dances in the Philippines. Although it involves considerable technique and dedication to attain mastery, it can be danced by anyone at any age.

At the age of 72, Ligaya needs no beat, rhythmic count, or kulintang accompaniment to perform the Pangalay. She only has to listen to the cadence of her breath.  She explains that Pangalay “follows the internal rhythm, the music within the dancer, not the extraneous music.” She continues, “I follow my internal rhythm, that is, (my) breath.  You count by your knees. One deep breath, one dip. When the dancer flexes the knees, that’s the exhale. “  The dance is a complete integration of the body and the breath and allows no abrupt movements.

2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa

Ligaya says the message of the Pangalay is peace, and the primary mood is serenity.  It is a slow dance performed to very fast traditional musical accompaniment. She describes it as “motion in stillness” and “stillness in motion.” During the time of martial law, the Pangalay became a unifying force. She would organize performances with the permission of the commanding officer in the area; she was even able to bring her Pangalay dancers to Manila using the C-130, a military plane.

The Pangalay also reflects the sophistication of Sulu culture since the dance of a people is a microcosm of their culture.  The 40 or so poses and gestures of the Pangalay are very dignified. Its musical instruments are sophisticated, its embroidered costumes beautiful. Ligaya is its cultural champion. 

 Her lifetime commitment to the preservation and propagation of the Pangalay is truly a “gift offering” to the country. In 1975, together with Dr. Filemon Romero, she formed the first dance group in Tawi-Tawi, the Tambuli Cultural Troupe based in the Mindanao State University in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, with a repertoire of dances based on her field research.  In 1978, with Steven Patrick Fernandez, she established the Integrated Performing Arts Guild (IPAG) in the Iligan Institute of Technology of the  Mindanao State University in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte. It produces dance dramas using Pangalay as the basic movement vocabulary of their performances. IPAG has even toured European cities.

In Antipolo City where she now resides, walk-in students can take Pangalay lessons for free every Sunday in Pangalay Court which she built in 2000 with personal funds.  In Pangalay Court, she has formed a group called the Alun Alun Dance Circle, that has gone through the the Amilbangsa Instruction Method which teaches both traditional Pangalay choreography and choreographic explorations using the Pangalay movement vocabulary. The group takes every opportunity to introduce the Pangalay to all Filipinos.

2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa

Since 1975, Pangalay performances, lectures-demonstrations and workshops have reached out to local, national, and international audiences in Asia, the United States, and Europe. Ligaya’s book on Pangalay: Traditional Dances and Related Folk Artistics Expressions, published by the Filipinas Foundation in 1983, won the Best Art Book that year from the Manila Critics Circle. And in February, 2007, an International Conference on the Conservation and Popularisation of Pangalay and Related Asian Dance Cultures was organized by the Alun Alun Dance Circle in cooperation with the Japan Foundation. The event was hosted by the city government of Marikina, with the assistance of UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Ligaya was named the First Most Outstanding Artist of Tawi-Tawi in September 2011 during the thirty-eighth foundation anniversary of Tawi-Tawi Province and more recently, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “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.”

Ligaya declares that even without these awards, she would have gone on with her work. Her fascination with the Pangalay continues. She explains, “The Pangalay is a “dance in (Muslim) Mindanao, but those who would like to learn it are Christians. . . . It bridges the gap where there should be no gap at all.” Because she believes the Pangalay is the closest Philippine dance to a classical form, Amilbangsa hopes the Ramon Magsaysay Award will bring attention not to her but to the Pangalay as a national symbol.

2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa receiving the Award from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III
2015 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa receiving the Award from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

Meanwhile, Ligaya’s “gift offering” continues with her planned revision of the Pangalay book, new instructional materials for the Pangalay dance set which she is working on, and her memoirs.