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Dancing and Teaching in the Margins: Sa Laylayan ng Lipunan
by Patrick Alcedo
I will never forget, di ko talaga makakalimutan, when Basilio “Steve” Villaruz, my first mentor in dance studies, showed me a newspaper article about the admirable work Tony Fabella, Eddie Elejar, and Luther Perez were doing for the vulnerable children and youth of Quezon City. Isang napakalaking siyudad katabi ng Maynila, an urban metropolis adjacent to Metro Manila. Through the Quezon City Performing Arts Development Foundation, Inc. (QCPADFI), a government-funded scholarship program, these three Philippine dance luminaries, mga sikat sa larangan ng sayaw, whom I have always admired from afar, were empowering them, giving them a chance in life. And they were doing it by teaching them ballet and Philippine folk and contemporary dance! “Ang galing galing naman!,” sabi ko kay Steve. “Wow, that’s phenomenal!,” was all I could say to Steve at that time.
Their incredible project for the underserved had never left me; it gently followed me as I moved from place to place to pursue my own dream of becoming a dance ethnographer. Decades later, pagkatapos ng ilang dekada, when I was already teaching at York University, I had the good fortune of having Regina “Ricca” Bautista, Steve’s former student at the University of the Philippines (UP) that is also my alma mater, as my supervisee for her MA in Dance. Through her, dahil sa kanya, I got re-acquainted with QCPADFI.
Noong bumalik kami, when we both went back to Manila for research in June 2015, she brought me to the Amoranto Complex, QCPADFI’s old dance studio. By that time, Tony had unfortunately passed away and Eddie had since retired. Pero nandoon pa si Luther. However, Luther was still there, proudly at the helm of the beautiful legacy that his late domestic partner, ang kanyang yumaong kabiyak, and gifted dance maker, Tony, and the country’s first ballet danseur, Eddie, built with so much pride and altruism.
Luther immediately welcomed me and my small production team of two people, talagang winelcome kami kaagad, generously giving us permission to document his inspired and inspiring world. Since then, simula noon, I would annually return to Quezon City, to spend hours and hours at QCPADFI—documenting Luther teaching, mounting Tony’s “classic” pieces, and passing on the ballet techniques he himself learned from, natutunan nya mismo kay, Eddie.
Moreover, I became familiar with the challenging lives of, napakahirap na buhay ng ibang mga estudyante nya, his students that are very much predicated on the hope the gift of dance can give them. Like some of the alumni from the scholarship program, they, too, dream of dancing abroad, makapag-abroad, and of becoming professional dancers someday, maging sikat na mananayaw balang araw. This way, they can lift themselves and their loved ones out of poverty—grinding for some of them. Maiahon nila ang mga sarili at pamilya nila sa kahirapan. That “deep hanging out” resulted in the 20-minute documentary, Dancing Manilenyos. Luther and the dancers in the film attended its Philippine premiere at the 2019 Cinemalaya independent film festival in Manila, where it was an opening film.
Before the pandemic erupted, I again went back to Quezon City, bumalik ako ulit doon. I was terribly surprised, nabigla ako, to find out that their old dance studio was demolished due to the past mayor’s plan of constructing a building, tayuan ng bagong gusali, on the same location to generate more income for the city. Joy Belmonte, the incumbent mayor who helped found QCPADFI with her good friend, Rheila Montes-Uy, right away moved their studio, inilipat sila, to a temporary location across the city—in a place called QCX. It was in this temporary hub where I met for the first time 15-year-old student Dax, isang napakabatang mananayaw.
She politely introduced herself, “Ako po si Dorothy, pero Dax and tawag nila sa akin.” “My name is Dorothy, but my friends call me Dax.” Months of going to QCX, Dax and I became friends as well, naging magkaibigan kami. Nakita ko kung gaano sya kagaling sumayaw. I saw how good she is at dancing. When I asked her if she would be interested in us following her and documenting her life, she agreed right there and then, pumayag sya kaagad. My getting to know her outside her dancing world, noong nakilala ko sya sa labas ng sayaw, was most humbling.
In many ways, I saw my old, 17-year-old self, ang dati kong sarili sa kanya, in her. She helped me revisit my undergraduate years at UP, binalik nya ako noong nag-aaral pa ako sa UP, when my parents could not afford to send me to school anymore. Not wanting to lose the opportunity of receiving a degree from this university, some 500 kilometers away from my home province where my parents live, sa Kalibo, Aklan, I decided to support myself, sinuportahan ko ang aking sarili ko. I first worked as a student assistant in the university library and later taught English to foreign students, sa mga estudyanteng galing South Korea. I remember Steve’s goodness, ang kabaitan at kabutihan ni Steve, in later hiring me as a research assistant and in his never giving up finding scholarship programs for me, sa paghahanap ng scholarship para sa akin. So, I could pursue doctoral studies in the United States.
As her mother works as a stay-in house help, isang kasambahay, in another city, Dax lives alone in an urban poor district in Quezon City. She supports herself through the limited allowance her mother gives her and the little scholarship money from QCPADFI, kulang na kulang, barely enough to cover her basic needs. It is only when their group is hired to perform, such as the one at a mall in the film, that Dax and her fellow dancers get paid extra. Swerte na lang kung may palabas silang ganito. Aside from becoming a professional dancer, she dreams of becoming a flight stewardess someday. Para maipasyal nya ang mama nya. She wishes to bring her mother to places she could only dream of for now.
Recently, ngayong September 15 lang, I participated in a Q&A of the San Francisco Indie Short Film Festival’s “Different Perspectives” (Iba’t Ibang Perspektibo) program where They Call Me Dax was screened. It was exhilarating to be in conversation with filmmakers, na makausap ko sila, behind the films in this program. Their films revolve around gentrification, precarity of labour, paltry government support, alienation, and empowerment of the underserved through community initiatives and dance. When asked what message I would want to give to the viewers of the film, I said: grit (katapangan at lakas ng loob) and home (tahanan).
In saying this, an array of scenarios, iba’t ibang eksena, flashed before me: of Dax taking those long, grueling commute—of transferring from a jeepney, to a bus, to a tricycle in a downpour to reach home, habang umuulan para lang makarating sa bahay nya; of her having only a pack of instant of noodles for lunch, noodles lang, wala pang itlog; of her finding in Luther a father, tatay, she never had; and of her being at home in QCPADFI, which despite its instability, is built solidly through Tony’s and Eddie’s generosity of spirit and Luther’s unbridled commitment, taos pusong pagmamahal, to help at-risk youth like her.
After the pandemic, when it is safe to go back to the Philippines, bumalik sa Pilipinas, that now has one of the highest positive cases in Southeast Asia, I will find ways to screen my documentary films, ipapalabas ko ang mga pelikula ko. Their proceeds will go to augmenting the scholarship fund for dancers in the margins, sa laylayan ng lipunan, like Dax. I know it would not be much, alam kong hindi naman ito kalikahan. Yet, it would be a start to pay it forward, a small act that I hope will be picked up and continued by others—para maipagpatuloy din ng iba ang kabutihang sinimulan nina Tony at Eddie at pinagpapatuloy ngayon ni Luther.