This article is the 1st of 3 in a series entitled, Dance to Live: Decoding a Culture, which explores the intersections of dance, culture, history, and identity in the 21st century Philippine context, aiming to scratch the surface of an ever festive, ever gyrating culture and probe into the nuances and contrast with its Hispanic heritage, and its continental incongruity. This article offers an overview of the Filipino dancing culture as the world sees it, and attempts to peel the layers to reveal an ingrained permission culture.

The sun, bright and fiery than ever, burns mercilessly. Its rays seem to stretch out to the opposite poles of the earth, spreading and engulfing like wildfire. Wildfire of a tropical summer, burning as bad as it drains.

And at the heart of this noontime spotlight—of smog, traffic and road rage—is a solitary figure, with a large grin and limbs that swing, wave, and gyrate to an esoteric beat. The person is in uniform, almost-easily recognized by the general public as a traffic enforcer. A public servant. A civil officer. He looks like he’s having fun, as he twirls and beckons to one side of the thoroughfare. His hips don’t lie; you can almost hear him vocalize, as he signals to your car to move along and make it snappy.

Enveloped by thick layers of fumes, vehicles, and tension, this officer maintains his routine of standing—dancing—in the middle of the road to ease the traffic and your nerves. And so far, it seems to be effective. The decrease in horn honking is noticeable, as well as the minimized tendency for gridlocks and counter-flows, not to least mention the steadier traffic flow—perhaps not the smoothest, but nonetheless calm and cooperative.

Perhaps it can all be attributed to the pleasant distraction, an intermission that serves to diffuse some amusement or entertainment—a breath of comical relief—into this congestion. Or, perhaps the display of positive disposition in the midst of such uncomfortable conditions simply rubs off on civilians and motorists within the perimeters, albeit fleetingly. A smile can be infectious, especially when combined with some feisty dance moves. If he can be jolly, why can’t I?

Or, it could boil down to the fact that it’s all part of the job, this dancing drill is just another in the daily grind, and proof that some enthusiasm can make everyone’s life a bit easier—regardless if he truly enjoys it or not.


Filipinos, without a doubt, love to dance.

Most of them will sing and dance their way out of complicated situations. And the world is no stranger to this. This festive, kinetic energy has placed the country on the map (or on headlines, the social media radar, and YouTube’s viral list) on numerous occasions.

In April 2007, some 1,500 men clad in identical orange jumpsuits danced in choreographed unison to the beat and rhythm of Michael Jackson’s Thriller for nothing more than a routine exercise. These men, inmates of a maximum-security prison in Cebu, Philippines, practiced these dance routines on a daily basis as a form of physical and psychological therapy exercise. What was initially an experiment program, turned into a global viral sensation when the uploaded video generated 266,000 views in 48 hours.

It also proved to be a highly effective and successful PR stunt. In 2010, the dancing inmates were taught by Michael Jackson’s choreographer and associate director, Travis Payne, to perform a choreographed dance scene to the song They Don’t Care About Us on a video for the global DVD launch of the movie, This Is It. The video was a hit, boosting sales for the DVD and making MJ the richest music artist not alive. It also turned an obscure band of incarcerated men into international celebrities, which of course doesn’t hurt the image of Cebu Provincial Rehabilitation and Detention Centre, or that of the province of Cebu.

While the video attracts hits and fans all over the world, it has had its fair share of criticism and throngs of naysayers. Many disagree with the detention center’s integration of choreographed dance into the inmates’ daily exercise routine, with opinions ranging from abuse to plain inefficient use of energy.

As for the inmates themselves, they seem quite happy about it. It is said that there was some reluctance in the beginning, when the dance program was first introduced in the daily routine. Since then, many have expressed their enthusiasm and appreciation for the dancing program, as shared with various local and international media. Crisanto Nierre, the inmate who played Michael Jackson’s role, reportedly told the Associate Press in an interview:

“I hope that all the people who see us will be happy in knowing that we, despite being prisoners, we were able to do this. Before the dancing, our problems were really heavy to bear. Dancing takes our minds away from our problems. Our bodies became more healthy. As for the judges, they may be impressed with us, seeing that we are being rehabilitated and this could help our case. We are being rehabilitated in a good way.”

As they move in clockwork precision, with footwork perfectly timed thanks to countless hours of practice, the words of Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us echo throughout the maximum security facility, through the iron bars and beyond the thick, concrete walls. But for this band of dancing inmates, most of who will never again taste or smell the freedom that lurks beyond the fortifications, all that matters reside within the 4 walls of the prison courtyard. Within these walls, somehow, there is purpose.


I’ll say it again: Filipinos love to dance.
Put them anywhere, right under the sun or in the middle of traffic, just give them the green light (and a looping playlist of the latest party beats), and they’ll be grooving, swaying, and shaking like there’s no tomorrow.

But, see, there must be a green light. There must be a directive, a prescribed set of moves, and a familiar tune. There must be a purpose.

 

In a country known for a calendar full of holidays, towns of all sizes regularly hold fiestas where in the only order of business is to eat, dance, and be merry. Street dance competitions reign the festival activities, as participants undergo tedious preparations and intensive rehearsals with choreographers, usually a serious production investment. Their dances depict history and folklore, choreographed moves that reenact ancient battles or rituals of thanksgiving, all executed in well-rehearsed syncopation. Nowadays, it is a rarity to find a street-dancing fiesta that is not choreographed, practiced, or mimicked. And if in the event you do stumble upon one, the chances that there would be any sort of spontaneous, freeform dancing are nil.

This prods me to wonder: without a prize to battle for, would Filipinos dance on the streets?

 

With all that unmistakable kinetic passion, where is that intuition to dance that is so prevalent in other Spanish colonial cultures like Cuba and Argentina? Where a dance party on the streets can start with a single person, where people connect and communicate through the language of movement, where people dance for themselves.

Why do Filipinos dance?

Amidst the bright smiles and fervent enthusiasm, in an archipelago where every town finds a reason to throw a party and a culture that feels like a never-ending music video; its people dance for a purpose. Its people, known to be incredibly emotional and will find all reasons to stay cheerful when the going gets tough, dance to survive. It is just one of many survival strategies.

So, why are they rarely seen dancing for themselves? While the tendency seems to be ‘dance like everybody’s watching’, I think it would be safe to say that to the average Filipino—ever driven by a sense of community and kin—that simply isn’t enough. [Note: I don't wish to postulate that the other Spanish colonial dancing cultures are not motivated by meaning (existential or duty). I simply hypothesise based on my observations of my own cultural context.]

Filipinos love to dance and they dance to live. But not all of them live to dance.

Chiara 150x150 Staying Alive: What Moves A Country

Chiara Maria de Castro

Editor in Chief at OpenBrief
Chiara navigates digital and gritty spaces.
Chiara 150x150 Staying Alive: What Moves A Country
Chiara 150x150 Staying Alive: What Moves A Country

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