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In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 10: Diving Into Dance
Picture a space—a narrow corridor, a hideaway, a cloister—and then picture a flood of darkness filling up the frame. With the striking strum of a melancholy guitar, a figure wakes up in it, drenched in a cascade of water. We get snippets of her body in the dim light, awash in rivulets of liquid, and then the dance begins. She senses the claustrophobic space she is in, and there is a pained acceptance of that on her face—and then she moves in and out of the shadows, her hands and her body in a flurry recalling Martha Graham or Alice Reyes, in an acknowledgement of the confinement and in rhythm to the plaintive guitar score.
The dance is sad, moving, and transfixing. The music is by Dumaguete composer Hendrix Paul Tubil, and the dancer/choreographer is Cheenee Vasquez Limuaco. The short piece is titled “Salom”—Ms. Limuaco’s winning entry to the 2020 edition of the WiFi Body choreography series for the solo/duet form by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which for the first time since its inception held its competition online—an acknowledgment of the pandemic still raging like wildfire in the middle of 2020. WifiBody director Myra Beltran rethought the competition for that year, and decided that 2020’s virtual edition should focus on the domestic space or the lockdown site of their participants—thus “stretching the possibilities and visions of budding choreographers,” as well as “questioned the modes of production brought about by the pandemic.”
Ms. Limuaco’s piece, a thesis on swimming [literally and figuratively] against the odds, was a perfect capsule of lockdown anxiety, but in its magnificent execution provided a light into how dance could be done with all the restrictions—physical, psychological, and spiritual—that the pandemic demanded. In response to her piece, Nes Jardin, acclaimed dance artist, educator, and arts manager, observed: “The piece won for its solid composition, and powerful cinematic imagery based on a concept marked by simplicity and raw emotion. It is also outstanding for its effective and dramatic use of limited space and its innovative interplay of movements, light, and lilting guitar music.”
Innovation was truly the gamechanger for dance artists in Dumaguete during the lockdown. For many of them, the usual performances they had always relied on were suddenly taken away from them. Most of them also relied on teaching for their livelihood—and just like that, their schools were closed down, and the question that loomed for their survival became, “Can I teach dance through Zoom?”
The Kahayag Dance Company, for example, had always thrived as a folk dance group with constant invitations to participate in many festivals nationally and internationally. In Dumaguete, they spearheaded a community program for the City Tourism Office titled “Bansayaw,” which regularly showcased their repertoire through mini-concerts in public spaces around Dumaguete—particularly the Pantawan fronting Silliman Hall. For Arts Month in 2020, they performed for a series of “Bansayaw” presentations, culminating on February 23. And then the long wait for the lockdown to be over began—but if all one needed to dance was space, then virtual space was enough.
By April 29, on International Dance Day, they embraced the restrictions and put on a dance concert, with participants dancing Philippine folk dances in their bedrooms, in their salas, out in their gardens. They would do an encore by the next month, this time together with dancers from the MEV Dance Studio, Dance in Motion, Dauntless Brothers, Skip Dance Family, and others—dancing up a storm in a concert video in their lockdown spaces. Aiken Quipot, Kahayag’s creative director, would say: “This pandemic has greatly affected the dance industry and the artists who solely rely on dance as their means of living. It’s a big challenge to keep our passion burning as we find alternative ways to earn and get through each day at a time. Despite all of this, we continue to dance. We refuse to let this pandemic put out the flame, and we will not allow it to take away the only thing that keeps us happy, alive, and sane. Dance in your room, the backyard, the streets, wherever you want—because when this is all over, we will celebrate and dance together!”
They participated in KapitTinig in June, virtually, and celebrated their 16th anniversary in August with the no end to the pandemic in sight. A break from the virtual realm came in September, when the Dumaguete City Tourism Office decided to showcase Dumaguete culture and the arts in Paghimamat—joining other cultural groups at an empty Luce Auditorium in a videotaped performance to bolster the sagging spirits of Dumaguetnons. They launched videotaped concerts with better production values—such as the Pagliwaliw sa Lupang Hinirang in March 2021, out of the DIY confines of lockdown spaces into venues more attuned to artistic flourish.
But 2021 was also cocooning time, with many elements starting to fall into place behind the scenes—a permanent rehearsal and performance space is finally secured [which also served as venue for classes once lockdown restrictions relaxed] and a continuing alliance with other dance groups and artist collaborators is strengthened, paving the way for a fruitful return to form in 2022.
The Sidlakan Dance Company, meanwhile, had just returned to Dumaguete after a successful participation at the 2019 Horticultural Exposition at Beijing, China [dubbed as the Flower Festival of the World], which closed on October—basking in the flush of that international invitation. The group, led by artistic director Vic June Rich Nocete, would carry that excitement into their participation at Kisaw 2020, the National Arts Month celebration of Dumaguete—and then when the lockdown happened, there was nothing. There was some stirring by November, when the group was included in the Visayan line-up for Dance Xchange on Air 2020, a program by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts—appearing on Episode 11 of the video series. [They would appear again in the 2022 edition.] But by 2021, there was a restlessness to regroup, to take part in shows—which resulted in a video series they produced titled Suroy a tenth anniversary production that aimed to “travel” the various regions of the Philippines via the medium of folk dance. That undampened spirit paid off, and in January 2023, they were chosen to be the official Philippine delegate to the 19th Nova Prata International Folk Festival.
Its institutional foundation has always made the Silliman University Dance Troupe luckier than most dance groups—because for as long as Silliman University exists as an educational institution, SUDT will always be along for the ride as a vital part of the university’s cultural mandate. Led by choreographer Angelo Sayson, SUDT remained a reliable mainstay in many cultural programs put out by the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council, and just right before the pandemic lockdown, it participated in the 2020 edition of Musikapuluhan: Himig at Sayaw the annual cultural showcase of traditional music and dance at Silliman. A lull immediately followed the pronouncement of the pandemic—with SUDT finally surfacing when it took part in the virtual staging of the musical revue The Story of Dumpawa's Lullaby in September 2020, and then at Silliman Performs also performed online. They would participate in NCCA’s Dance Xchange 2021, and launched a virtual dance concert titled Salingtuod in February 2021. They also participated that month in Bailar Sin Arco, a concert featuring the Silliman University Orkestra Sin Arco and Kwerdas. By March, they also participated in CCP’s Tuloy Po Kayo—an online festival meant to encourage Filipino artists to continue to create during the pandemic. Throughout most of 2021, SUDT would also present assorted videos of their repertoire on their Facebook page, with student dancers in full Filipiniana regalia performing dances in various spaces on campus—culminating in a concert of Visayan folk dance and music, Bisayaw, in October, together with the Silliman University Rondalla, and representing the Philippines at the Sarawak International Festival of Music and Arts in November, together with the SU Orkestra Sin Arco. On February 2022, SUDT would up the ante by presenting a rigorously produced online dance concert titled Musika Mo, Sayaw Ko, with a repertoire inspired by Original Pilipino Music [OPM], and then, on the same month, took part in CCP’s Pasinaya, a showcase of various folk dances from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao featuring selected video productions from the 2021 Kalinga ng Sining [KNS] Subsistence Grants Program. This led to their participation in AirAsia Super App’s Fiesta Series in April. They would also perform in Cantate Domino, the 2022 edition of Silliman Performs in August. By November, they would return to a live performance at the Luce Auditorium with Babaylan, billed as their 60th dance show.
Negros Oriental State University’s Kabilin Dance Company, meanwhile, started 2020 in high spirits, with new members to invigorate the group and brandishing new official rehearsal shirts to bolster the vision of artistic director Stephen Labrador Intong. What differentiates KDC from their counterparts in Dumaguete is a repertoire consisting mostly of street/hiphop and contemporary dances, and when the lockdown hit, many KDC members hit TikTok to showcase their dance moves in that vein, often giving messages of hope and resilience through dance. They even opened a dance competition on online video platforms with a nod towards frontliners, and with the organizers recognizing that “dance [can be] used as [a medium of] communication between body and soul.” But TikTok could only do so much, and KDC would soon join other Dumaguete dance groups in participating in various online dance festivals, including NCCA’s Dance Xchange on Air in 2020, and Sayaw Pinoy Goes Virtual in 2021, usually performing “Inagta,” which had become the company’s signature folk dance—and all in the name of perseverance. As Intong explained then: “For the last two years, life has been tough and times are changing. But instead of looking at life hopelessly, let’s continue to give life and colors to our culture and the arts.” In May 2021, they presented a special dance performance titled “Bagani,” in tribute to frontliners during the pandemic. By June, they would host a series of video dance performances in tribute to Jose Rizal, choreographed by various members of the troupe., and in July they would organize a competition, Kabilin Dance Company Got Talent—Goes Virtual, over Google Meets. The group would also open auditions for people with disabilities [PWD], and one of their members would go on to found the Dauin Dance Artists group.
Prime Machine perhaps Dumaguete’s most well-known modern dance group [primarily due to an appearance in ABS-CBN’s Showtime in 2011], had always been a main draw in many local events—such as cultural shows in fiesta, beauty pageants, school presentations, and the like—and 2019 had ended with their slate full of the usual invitations, including a stint for Pasko sa Kapitolyo for the Negros Oriental Provincial Government. There would be more of the same at the beginning of 2020—but by the time lockdown hit, most of the members would spend the long beginning stretch of the pandemic invading TikTok, foremost among them Ralph Allen Piñero, Teamoy Caluscusan, Rock Vincent Viente, and Jay Lou Rapana Merced. [Prime Machine would only officially launch itself on Tiktok in March 2021.] Some dance gigs would trickle in, like school events such as the Silliman University Senior High School Online Acquaintance Concert in September 2020, with Prime Machine sharing the virtual stage with other modern dance groups such as Corps D’Elite and The Lifestyle. By 2021, they went for something a little more polished: dancing in well-polished music videos, such as “The PUNKdemic,” which they launched in Hayahay in February 2021.
The dance video, with the group dancing to Suzi Wu’s “Eat Them Apple” in a routine choreographed by Don Mar Teves, is a full-scale production perhaps never before seen among Dumaguete dance crews, made with assist from the Dumaguete City Tourism Office. The ambition paid off in a handsome production that begins ominously with a stranger walking the lockdown-ravaged Dumaguete downtown at midnight, and then witnessing a facemask-wearing gang converging to do their dance moves. The result was electrifying; it was also a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic. When they posted the video on social media, it went viral. That video led to commissions with the group doing video dances for private parties and other bookings, or doing backup dancing for local musicians such as Chuckoy Vicuña, who would release his “Hilas” music video on July 2021. There were competitions to join, too—not always successfully: that October, they signed up to join the Buglasan Festival Modern Dance Competition [Open Category], but had to back out when one member contracted COVID-19. They would be a mainstay in city-sponsored cultural events such as the Tayada sa Pantawan, and they kept busy with bookings for various gigs, including dancing for an election-related music video for politicians running for various offices in Bacong town and others, or dancing for openings of business establishments like Miniso. On 26 June 2022, Prime Machine would celebrate their 25th anniversary.
Prime Machine, of course, is not the only dance crew in Dumaguete. There are a host of others, many of them priming themselves during the pandemic. For many years they regularly converged to compete in the annual Negros Best Dance Crew competition, which bills itself as “the biggest dance competition of its kind around Negros Island.” But the sixth edition of the competition, slated on October 2020, had to be cancelled “due to a rise of COVID-19 cases in Negros Oriental,” per the statement released by organizers, maintaining that “it is our best interest to prioritize the safety of the community.” Two years later, in 2022, they announced their return, scheduling auditions for both Negros provinces in November—and eventually announcing the following participating dance crews: AOG6100, Super Villains Crew, Skip Dance Family, Chicana, Galaxy Dance Tribe, Prime Machine, The Majesty, BNT Just Vibe, Coco Brandy, Quicksound, The Lifestyle, Menace Dance Crew, Nice One Family, Dauntless Brotherz, SD6 Explosion, Royalty, D-Acceptance, Assassin Dance Family, and Classical Dance Crew—with the first thirteen qualifying for the finals, slated on 28 January 2023 at the Macias Sports Complex. Skip Dance Family, a dance crew founded in 2007 in Dumaguete by Jeffrey Regalado, emerged as the champion.
Skip Dance Family has built a steady fandom before the pandemic by winning many dance crew competitions, and posting dance videos regularly on their Facebook and Instagram pages and YouTube channel, often to songs by local groups like Daro Boyz. They’re savvy online, and produce even their own merchandise [such as print shirts]—and their 2020 began with them expanding to include more members, and had spent January in team-building efforts. When the pandemic hit, they would ramp up the video productions more, like many other local crews—but with a regularity that’s daunting, sometimes 3 to 4 videos a month, in the middle of a lockdown. Most of these would be simple, no-frills dance videos, with the crew dancing on the street and other public places, but they racked up considerable likes and shares, an increasing number of admirers with each new video posted. They would do this for the rest of 2020, culminating in their joining of Domination PH Reload, a nationwide dance competition held online, where they ranked #7 out of 37 dance crews participating. They would do more of the same in 2021, joining online dance competitions when they could, but also making time for community outreach programs. When they would prepare for upcoming competitions—such as the HappyFive DigiTv Hataw Dance Competition and World Supremacy Battle—they would post videos of their progress online, gaining more fans. They would place second runner-up at the HappyFive contest in June 2021, their first pandemic-era award. They would also place the same at the cell division for World Supremacy Battle in August 2021. There will be other competitions, and more placements, including championships—and growth: they would form NEOS, an all-boys hiphop group, and Chicana, an all-girls hiphop group, during the pandemic. In 2022, they would dominate several categories of the World Supremacy Battle Visayas-Mindanao qualifier in Cebu, and started joining competitions in other cities in the country, winning second place in the MassKara Hiphop Challenge in Bacolod in October. When they won the sixth edition of Negros Best Dance Crew, it was like a coming home—they were also the champion in 2018, in the competition’s fourth edition. With the successful return of the Negros Best Dance Crew competition in 2022 also comes the hope that street/crew dancing has weathered the worst of the pandemic, and is back.
It is with such events that we gauge a return to normalcy. In 27 November 2022, the Limuaco-Gaston Dance in Motion Company, the Dumaguete City DanceSport Team, Kahayag Dance Company, MEV Dance Company, Kabilin Dance Company, Sidlakan Dance Company, and the Silliman University Dance Troupe came together at the Pantawan for a showcase of Dumaguete dance titled Hiusang Sayaw, an unprecedented—and live—performance spearheaded by the Dumaguete City Tourism Office. The pandemic was still raging in the world, but the dancing had returned.
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One specific dance showcase borne out of the pandemic is Lapyahan, an occasional performance exhibition spearheaded by the Dance in Motion Company of the Limuaco-Gaston Dance Studio, sometimes in collaboration with Kahayag Dance Troupe. First staged on 27 February 2022, it astounds with the fullness of its conception: a small-scale show by a handful of dancers, often in limited space with limited capacity for audience members who are invited to be in intimate reach with the performers, and allowed to range around the venue, sometimes following the lead of the dancers as they take the audiences to witness specific numbers from one spot in the venue to another. What’s more, each show is virtually performed on the fly, with the dancers armed only with broad strokes of dance moves, some choreographed movements, and the general knowledge of what music will be playing. In one series in 2022, specifically titled State of Limbo, three performances choreographed by Ian Nick Gelladuga Tiba, Jonee Rodriguez Jibes, and Dylzaree Recentes [under the artistic direction of Cheenee Limuaco] were announced—August 27, September 3, and September 10 at their permanent studio at the Catarata Compound along Calle San Jose; but avid audience members would soon notice that it was best to see all shows, because each one was vastly different from the one that came before. That uniqueness was by design—a concept Ms. Limuaco insisted on, bearing in mind the unexpected flows she had to bear to make her dance studio stay afloat in the worst of the pandemic months.
Cheenee Limuaco hails from Bacolod, Negros Occidental—but her parents were loyal Silliman University alumni, which meant going to school in Dumaguete. She had spent her formative years studying at St. Scholastica Academy in Bacolod until high school, and she found herself in Dumaguete pursuing a nursing degree. It was what was considered practical—something her parents insisted on—although Ms. Limuaco knew her heart was not in it. She loved dance. She had studied ballet at the Lydia M. Gaston School of Dance from the age of six, falling in love with it because of how “princessy” ballet was. “I loved the costumes, I loved how I was taught to hold my head up high. I loved the whole package, the ballet experience,” she tells me. The tuition was expensive, but her lola paid for it, and when she finally couldn’t, the school director herself, Lydia Gaston, stepped in. “She saw potential in me,” Ms. Limuaco said, “and she offered me a scholarship.” The intense training did not start until she was in first year high school. She loved the challenge. Remarkably, Ms. Gaston also began training her to teach dance—how to teach it, and what to look for in a ballet student.
She gravitated towards dancing at Silliman, joining the Kahayag Dance Company [which was the new name for the Silliman University Dance Troupe, before Kahayag members left the corps and formed an independent dance company bearing that name in 2013]. Kahayag’s then artistic director, Ronnie Mirabuena, approached her and asked her if she could teach ballet since he knew she had been teaching it in Bacolod. This was in 2006. She agreed. She had fifteen dancers to teach, and persevered with her nursing studies—two extremes that were clashing in her life. After three years, she was sent back to Bacolod, and was given an ultimatum by her parents: if she wanted to dance, she had to come back to Bacolod, where you could continue her ballet training, and study nursing at the same time. She needed to finish her degree and pass the nursing board—and only then could she do whatever she wanted. So agreed, simply because she wanted to continue dancing.
But there was a snag: her heart was in Dumaguete.
“I love Dumaguete,” Ms. Limuaco says. “When I came here for college, I fell in love right away, and I did not want to go home to Bacolod, even during summer vacations. It was just so chill, so me—wearing just shorts and a shirt and a pair of tsinelas. The people here are really more gentle and loving, especially with children. This has been my experience. It’s the vibe that made me want to stay here in Dumaguete.”
As soon as she finished her studies in Bacolod, she ran right back to Dumaguete, and get right into dancing. She found herself teaching ballet for the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Silliman, the ballet studio at the Luce Auditorium her base. But she maintained a dream of founding her own school: “I kept telling myself that with my own company, I would work it in a way that would make Dumaguete truly a center of dance. Manila is already crowded, and many of its dance artists are looking for other places to do their art in. Dumaguete can be that place. And we have many resources here. And it is possible that the dance scene here will really bloom.”
In 2019, she made a choice to quit Silliman University, inching her way to a dream of having her own company. She remembers the instance of conception: “I had a friend who’s from Likha PH, he’s from Iloilo. One time we were talking where I shared that I wanted to set up my own studio because I had so many ideas. They were overflowing. And I wanted to be able to do them na, because I felt I was ready. He asked me: what is it that I wanted to do? What is it that I wanted my studio to accomplish besides just teaching dance steps? And I said that I wanted my prospective students to discover and understand that in every movement that we do we can convert that to dance. Hence, Dance in Motion.”
That conversation propelled her to take concrete steps towards her dream, trepidation aside. She named her studio Limuaco-Gaston Dance Studio, “Gaston” being the family name of her business partner, the son of her mentor Lydia Gaston.
“I was still with Silliman at that time, but I was already looking for a studio,” she says. “I felt like I had to have my own place because I had all these ideas, and I needed to let them out. Or else I was going to explode. And then I saw a sign for a space rental near UCPB [along Real Street, fronting City Burger] and just for a lark, I called the number. And someone answered, and told me he was ready to meet me in five minutes. And just like that, I got a tour of the place—and things just flowed: the tour of the place, the rental agreement, the contract signing.”
The way things happened fast scared her, but she was determined to follow through. “I also asked for things I needed for a workable dance studio, and the owner agreed to everything I wanted,” she says. “And I thought: is this a sign? I couldn’t say ‘no’ anymore. Financially, I saved up a little for this eventuality. But it still remained a challenge—but my partner was very supportive.”
Dwight Rodrigaso, another mentor, also gave her some useful advise because he saw she was overflowing with too many ideas. “You can’t hold it in,” Ms. Limuaco remembers. “You have to share it. If you don’t share it, it will just die. And he really pushed me to open a studio.”
When the studio opened, she was overwhelmed. She was soon overseeing sixty students, so her recourse was just to train, and then to go into competition.
“This was my initial goal when I opened the studio. But then the pandemic happened,” she says.
The pandemic realigned things for her—and Ms. Limuaco realized life was far too short to just keep training people for competitions. “I lost the sense of fun,” she says. And so the pandemic halting everything around her became a kind of a blessing. “I realized how much I was missing when I was so much into just training. I realized the kids would learn more if they had fun. So I had to reset the program. I made another syllabus that would encourage kids to dance and to move, but also to have fun. I knew they would learn better that way. And so we began doing unconventional classes. Sometimes, we use tambourines in class, for example. Classes became memorable. We’re still working on this, but it has been really nice to see the bright faces of my kids.”
But the realities of the pandemic immediately bared its fangs. She had signed a 5-year lease with her first studio, but operations in that venue did not even reach a year because of the lockdown. “All the investments I made were suddenly gone,” Ms. Limuaco says. “I went into depression at that time. Why was this happening to me? Why did I invest in this? But I couldn’t see the full impact of the pandemic yet. We were still renting, but we couldn’t use the space because of the pandemic restrictions—so we had no choice but to close up. It was heartbreaking.”
She ended her contract in December 2020, and then went into depression mode for a few months.
But by March 2021, an unlikely savior came in the form of sound and light designer Jerry Angelo Z. Catarata. “He came to me,” Ms. Limuaco says, “and he was offering me a space—a garage in their family compound in Taclobo which he was trying to convert into a studio. He asked if I could rent the space out—and I cried. I knew it was God-sent.”
Slowly, they made plans for the space—and thought that aside from it becoming a venue for training and rehearsals, they could also use it as a space for public performances. The venue was the spark that started the new Dance in Motion Company. “The pandemic took out a lot,”she says in hindsight, “but it also paved the way for a lot.”
With the Lapyahan series, she has found a new way to connect with people through dance. “It was incredible. Not only were the audience members crying, so were the performers. When I look back to that, I still get teary-eyed. It was our first performance during the pandemic. While we continued havng classes during the pandemic, it came to a point where I began asking myself: What am I doing? What is this for? But because of the discipline that we learned, we just told ourselves: just keep on training, chill lang. But then, when we started preparing for Lapyahan, it felt like we had a purpose again. The studio felt alive again. It was like we were asleep during the pandemic, more or less, but it was really hard to find purpose. But with Lapyahan, we felt like our heart was jumpstarted: this is performance. This is live work. It really was memorable for us, the performers. And it felt good to get people’s feedback.”
The Dance in Motion Company is still in its infancy, of course—but Ms. Limuaco envisions it as a group of artists they can train for the international stage, whether a competition or performance or workshops. “We would like to show the people of Dumaguete that there is a future in dance, because we want to counter the long-held notion that there is no future in it, no career in it. But there is,” she insists. “We want to train dancers so that when they’re ready, they can move on to audition for international companies, for Broadway, for cruise ships, and others. At the same time, we want Dumaguete to be known as a hub for budding dance artists. Who knows, we can soon get young artists from Mindanao, from the rest of the Visayas, even from Luzon to come here and train. Who knows?”
Her dreams for the studio and for the company excite her. “I knew what I had to do: the dance school first, for the training, and then the dance company next,” she says. “Then we can create shows with a regular season, and I want to reach a point that when visitors come to Dumaguete, they can expect shows like this, which they can watch as part of their travel itinerary. And for the locals as well.”
What a journey it has been for Cheenee Limuaco in the pandemic years.
In a way, her WifiBody piece, “Salom,” is actually her story of what she had gone through because of the pandemic: “I felt like I lost everything. I lost my studio lease. But a friend came around, offering another space. And I had a choice: to stay floating in that space where I was, or to dive once more into a new chapter, a new adventure, a new place. I chose to dive. To ‘salom.’ It was my dance testimony. It bore witness to what the studio was going through because of the pandemic. It was a good decision nga ni salom ko. The studio is doing well now. We finally have face-to-face classes. We have programs once again. We have auditions for the dance company.”