Dinagyang Festival: Dancing the Dinagyang one more time

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Every year in Iloilo City, rows and stacks of giant loudspeakers—some 100 or so of them—occupy the stretch from La Paz to JM Basa Street in Jaro. They close the length to traffic for the Dinagyang festivities.

At the same time, people—mostly men—flock to these speakers, staring at the big, black, blaring boxes a mere foot away as if in a trance. I had noticed this a year ago—my first time in Dinagyang—and I was amused to see it again.

Ilonggos must love the heart-thumping, hair-raising sensation these speakers bring. This much I could surmise after standing in front of Gaisano Mall, the one with the most speakers and therefore with the loudest sound. And boy, was it loud—so loud I thought my eardrums were going to explode if I stayed any longer.

And as Dinagyang’s biggest day comes, more and more people troop to these speakers, each beat adding to the anticipation of the day’s tribe performances. Elsewhere in the city, locals and tourists blend together along the streets, donning warrior headdresses and necklaces, having Iloilo’s chicken inasal (roasted chicken) in one of the al fresco dining areas put up especially for the festival, or else getting inked in one of the tattoo stalls that were seemingly as numerous as the tourists themselves.

When Dinagyang weekend comes, everything and everyone come to a standstill as people await the fierce-looking, soot-covered, feather-donning warriors and colorfully clad kinky-haired women.

Having seen—and been amazed at—Dinagyang the first time I had seen it, I was itching to reconnect with that same feeling in the same streets of Iloilo, with goose bumps and all.

The fiestas of Panay, plus more

Dinagyang, Iloilo’s biggest festival, is religious in nature, just like most fiestas in the Philippines. The image of the Santo Niño or The Child Jesus is the central figure in the Dinagyang, which recounts the Christianization of the Ati tribes in Panay Island. The veneration for the Santo Niño is especially fervent in the Visayas region, where Christianity was first introduced by the Spaniards.

The performances during the Dinagyang weekend—the Kasadyahan Festival and the Ati-Ati Tribe Competition—portray this conversion to Christianity in an intense combination of dances, color and drumbeats.

The Kasadyahan—which means “celebration” in English—is an extravagant amalgam of colorful dance fiestas from Antique, Guimaras, Capiz and nearby Iloilo towns. Seeing the first of the drums being rolled in front of our area brought back the giddiness and excitement I had felt when I was sitting among camera- toting festival fans a year ago. Just as the first few drumbeats pierced the air, women in pastel-colored baro’t saya came in running, and then the dances had begun.

Dancers dressed as giant crabs and prawns gyrated as the team from Roxas City, Capiz—known for its abundant seafood—gave us a taste of their thanksgiving festival, the Sinadya sa Halaran (sinadya means ‘celebration,’ while halaran means ‘offering’). Each of the 12 other teams gave us an idea of Panay Island’s rich fiestas, arising from their indigenous and colonial past and their largely coastal lifestyle. Kahilwayan Tribe of Santa Barbara, Iloilo presented a parade of Philippine flags. The town is the site of the first flag-raising outside Luzon, and waving high and mighty at its town center is the biggest Philippine flag outside Luzon as well.

This year’s Kasadyahan Festival was also extra special because of two of its guest teams—the MassKara Festival from Bacolod City (an hour’s ferry ride to Iloilo) and the 800-year-old Ati- Atihan from Kalibo, Aklan (six hours’ bus ride to Iloilo). Between being awed at seeing the masked men again in their eyepopping garb and finally seeing the soot-covered dancers that started it all, I did not have much time to think about anything else, not even the scorching heat.

Sunday’s activity, though, was even louder and definitely more crowded. It was Dinagyang’s biggest day. People who haven’t seen Dinagyang would most likely have seen elsewhere the thin men, their skin blackened with soot, their shoulders and heads garbed in ornate feather trimmings, and their waist enclosed by hundreds of colorful stringed beads. These are the Ati warriors, Dinagyang’s most widely recognized icon. They represent the Aeta tribesmen, Panay Island’s earliest occupants.

The battle of the tribes

Anthropologist James Amsua of Museo Iloilo describes the earlier Dinagyang celebrations as no more than a drumbeat-andwarrior affair, the intense dances a reenactment of the barter of Panay between 10 Bornean datus (tribe leaders) and Negrito King Marikudo—the same origins as the much older Ati-Atihan in nearby Aklan province. This was why before having coined Dinagyang—Ilonggo for merrymaking—this celebration was known as the Iloilo Ati-Atihan.

The pomp and pageantry that characterize Dinagyang of late, particularly the much-awaited Ati-Ati tribe competition, are no less welcome to spectators. The performances are a profuse exhibition of ingenuity, creativity and intense discipline.

The 13 eight-minute performances had been as hair-raising and heart-thumping as the 20 seconds I spent in front of the giant loudspeakers. But they were more than that. They were also awe-inspiring and emboldening.

Hips swaying here and there, mouths wide open in a smile and feet doing an impossibly quick series of steps that it was difficult to keep up—I was having the goose bumps again. I put my camera into burst mode to capture the dance. Apparently they had been too quick for me to even think about composing properly. I was torn between clicking away and simply watching—I didn’t know which one allowed me to not miss the perfect moments. The ferocious beat of the drums were partly to blame for the intensity with which the eight teams wowed their audience. There was simply nothing like it elsewhere I’ve been, including Sinulog in Cebu, Masskara in Bacolod, Kadayawan in Davao, and Panagbenga in Baguio.

Crowd favorite Tribu Pan-ay from Fort San Pedro National High School left us cheering and clapping, forgetting our cameras for a moment, with its extravagant production—eagle-inspired garb of some 70 dancers, the giant egg headdresses of just as many women, the humongous three-dimensional eagle backdrop. It was such a powerful dance production of the Aetas’ animistic life, concluding in their Christianization and reverence to the Santo Niño. The 12 other groups who competed for the title—Tribu Pan-ay later emerged the champion—carried the same theme, gave us the same goose bumps, and left us in awe every time.

But it was the amount of effort put into these annual performances that were the most admirable. As early as October of the preceding year, high schools joining the competition will have started rigorous daily rehearsals that usually last to the night.

Amsua tells me that everything we see in a tribe’s performance every year are a collective effort of the school and organizations from outside—the drums, costumes, props, choreography, and everything else. To put together an eight-minute performance, each team needs millions of pesos, part of which it sources from the Iloilo Dinagyang Foundation, and the rest from the private sector and non-government organizations. Each team has roughly 200 performers, including the drumsmen who give the Dinagyang its beat and soul.

Amsua tells me being one of the tribe warriors—nay, being part of the competing team—is a source of pride for local kids—something their families look forward to every third weekend of January. In the two years I had seen this festival, I had felt exactly the same—I was proud to be of the same race with such world class talent and rich culture. As I left Iloilo City with the same high I had felt a year ago, I knew Dinagyang will continue to be a yearly affair from then on.

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