MANILA, Philippines – The nine dancers in long pink dresses were unmindful of the heat of the mid-morning sun.
As they danced and sang their prayers to the Virgen de la Rosa, one of the patron saints of Barangay Poblacion in Makati City, they tried to ignore the audience
In this barangay, the yearly prayer through dance and song is both an act of penance and thanksgiving done by nine highly-esteemed dancers or mananayaw.
Known as the baile de los arcos (dance of the arches), the dance is performed on June 29 and 30, feast days of the Poblacion’s patron saints Peter and Paul and the Virgin of the Rose or Virgen de la Rosa.
Devotion to the Virgen de la Rosa began in 1718 when a Jesuit priest brought the image of the Virgen from Acapulco to the Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Poblacion.
But not just any girl can join the yearly baile, whose origins are unknown even to oldtimers.
“The dancer must be beautiful inside and out. She must be sincere in doing the penance because she will undergo rigorous training for the baile,” says Edna Samarista, whose mother and sister were once dancers in the baile.
In the old days, fair-skinned girls of good reputation (not necessarily from rich families) were picked as dancers.
But an unblemished reputation, physical beauty and heartfelt desire to do the dance prayer are not enough. One of the requirements for any dancer, says the 76-year-old Samarista, is to be a virgin.
“Dapat virgin. Kapag may nobyo, tinatanong kung may nangyari na ba. At saka dapat mataas ang boses ng mananayaw,” she adds. (The dancer has to be a virgin. If she has a boyfriend, nothing beyond courtship should have transpired between the two of them. She should also be able to reach the high notes).
The reason behind the “virginity requirement” is that the nine dancers pray and give thanks to Jesus Christ’s mother, who is a virgin. Some of the old folks even believe that if there is heavy rainfall on the day of the feast, it means one of the dancers lied about being a virgin.
Samarista was pledged by her mother to become a dancer, but was rejected because she couldn’t hit the high notes and was a bit dark-skinned in her youth.
The dancers are usually aged 14 and above. The oldest now is in her mid-20s. Most of them had mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who were also dancers.
“It’s been our tradition to pass on the dance to the next generation,” says Samarista. The family in charge—or encargada—of teaching the dance are the Venturas and Atilons of Brgy. Poblacion.
The present encargada, Linda Atilon-Reyes, was a former capitana or lead dancer.
Girls wanting to become part of the baile are screened as early as two years before the event. Training for the dance begins in April. The nine girls are taught the turns, bows, and twists passed down for more than a hundred years.
The baile de los arcos is performed at the plaza in front of the Sts. Peter and Paul Church.
Atilon-Reyes says there are three parts to the baile—the diccho or simultaneous chanting of prayers, the trono or singing of prayer, and the baile, a combination of prayer, dance and song.
The audience can “join” in the penance by praying intently with the dancers, Samarista says.
Clapping or hooting at the end of the two-hour prayer-dance is a big no-no, even for tourists who want to show their appreciation.
“It’s not for entertainment. It’s not for the people who are watching. The dance is for patrons alone,” points out Dwane Samarista, Edna’s nephew and kagawad for education and culture.
Both Samaristas note that local interest in and awareness of the baile de los arcos had diminished over the years. Girls no longer want to join the baile, and are setting their sights on beauty pageants.
But Dwane says the baile will go on even if there is no one left to watch. “Whether or not there is an audience, the baile must go on. As long as the present generation passes on the tradition, it will remain part of our heritage,” says Dwane.
This year, Atilon-Reyes’ own niece, Michelle Atilon, was capitana.