by Maria Carmel A. Rimpos
[NEWSFEATURE] A group of Pagsanjan youth dancers will represent the country in the international folk dance competition in South Korea’s Cheonan City on September 28 – October 5.
The Sining Katutubo Dance Assembly (SIKADA) is composed of 65 student members. It is managed by Delto Michael Abarquez, Jr. who is also the head of the Laguna Trade, Cultural, and the Arts Tourism Office (LTCATO).
Given the troupe’s list of international competitions and awards, it is hard to believe that SIKADA is not a professional dance company. In 2010, the group amazed the judges of the Cheonan World Dance Festival when they brought home their first international win.
Abarquez explained that their earlier mentor Bayanihan asked SIKADA to compete on behalf of the Philippine National Dance Company which was on a world tour that year. SIKADA took the opportunity to perform in an international competition and showcased the Philippine culture without holding expectations for winning. That year, SIKADA brought home the silver medal. Not bad for the first international competition.
According to Abarquez, Governor Emilio Ramon Ejercito, then mayor of Pagsanjan, conceptualized SIKADA in 2001 as a project to promote culture and arts to the youth. It aimed to divert the attention of the younger generation from doing vices into dance.
During that time, cultural arts was not popular among the Pagsanjan youth. Modern dancing was the “in” thing. The lack of appreciation for cultural dance was a challenge for Abarquez. He shared the the youth viewed cultural dance as soft and effeminate.
Romeo Bungabong Jr. has always had a passion for dancing but his dance crew have gone separate ways so he could not practice as much he used to. He wanted to continue dancing so he looked for a new group. On his birthday, January 29, 2001, his prayers were answered. SIKADA was formed.
Bungabong was one of the assembly’s first few members. He admitted that he did not like performing local dances at first because he was more into hiphop. But, he changed his mind after a few months. He did modern dancing at the same time with folk dancing allowing him to he see the difference, most notably in terms of discipline.
Passion for dancing was what made Ledveni Penido also join SIKADA in 2004, but, like Bungabong she didn’t appreciate the ethnic dances until much later on. She even felt very shy performing them at first because she wanted to dance something fit for the era. “It was already the modern times,” she said.
As she continued dancing for the group, she saw the beauty of ethnic dancing that she did not notice before. She added, “You’re not just able to express yourself, you’re also able to promote the Filipino culture.”
It was not easy to recruit new members, especially since the youth usually see cultural arts as old-fashioned. “Before, we have to go from school to school to recruit members, but no one took notice of us,” Bungabong shared.
However, the people slowly began recognizing SIKADA as a group since they started winning in competitions, most notably the one in South Korea. Abarquez proudly shared that the perception of the kids had changed. More youth nowadays see the team as hip and in. SIKADA already has 65 active members and more wanted to join.
“Now, almost all young people of Pagsanjan, whether they are the masculine type or the macho type or the modern dancers, they want to be part of SIKADA because of the success of the group,” he said.
Anyone can join the group, as long as they have the passion for cultural dances. Bungabong shared that their president is not particular about the talent, but more on the hopeful’s willingness to learn. Abarquez screens the applicants through interviews with the parents and the kids. The applicant and the parent must also know the sacrifice that come along with being a member of SIKADA. He describes it as a “partnership between the parents.”
“They have to know what they’re facing because it’s not easy,” Abarquez said. “It’s more of a sacrifice for their part.”
Majority of the members are still students who have to worry about balancing school and group activities. However, Abarquez thinks that the members’ ages are into their advantage. “What makes the SIKADA different from other dance group is that it is a mixture of elementary students, high school, and college students,” he said.
Off stage, most of the members are students who go to school every day. They worry about their homework and upcoming tests. Unlike other students though, they think more than just about their school life. SIKADA is part of their priorities, especially now they are going to compete again.
At six o’clock every Friday and three o’clock every Saturday, SIKADA members gather at the Cultural Center of Laguna. Sometimes they would practice in the abandoned Pagsanjan Rapids Hotel. The place of practice does not matter. They will go through their routines with or without an upcoming performance. Abarquez claimed that the kids know 80 dances, and they can do them on cue.
Now that they have an upcoming competition, they practice more than the usual. They would often meet at least four times a week to perfect their dances. The smallest mistakes would be noted and corrected. According to Bungabong, the current resident junior choreographer, the group has been preparing for the festival for almost six months already.
They would do this every week. Their focus and determination to do something is really intense. Their ages don’t matter, even if they’re just four years old or seventeen.
“At the start of their training, we already force them to be disciplined,” Bungabong said. [Umpisa pa lang ng training nila, finoforce na namin silang maging disiplinado.]
No matter how busy their schedule for the dance group is, the members are not to neglect their fromal education. Olav Olivar, a college student and a peformer for six years did not have to sacrifice his academics. “In SIKADA,” he explained, “their priority is the school.” Whenever there’s conflict between a performance and an examination, SIKADA recommends that students with exams should not take part in the performance. Passing their exams is more important than making a great performance. As much as possible, the students must refrain from being absent in their classes to make up for the possible absences they might get because of performing for SIKADA.
Time management is one of the most important things the people will learn from their membership. It isn’t easy to practice and study with equal amount of focus.
“You have to stand up for what you do,” Bungabong advised. Because of the discipline and time management the kids learn, they didn’t have a hard time coping with their studies. Marinel Salvitiera, a member for nine years, thinks that her passion is also what keeps her going. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll be happy. You can balance your time between enjoying and studying,” she asserted.
Because members do not get anything from being part of SIKADA, Abarquez identifies them as “volunteers.”
“When I say volunteers, anytime they can leave,” he explained, “and anytime also we can remove them from the dance group if they are misbehaving or if they’re not following our rules and regulations.”
Despite not having a solid contract with the assembly, many of its members didn’t leave the group, because they’ve become very loyal to it. Some were even already with it ever since it was formed.
To recognize hard work, Abarquez said that they have something they call “Lifetime Achievement Award.” A member would be granted this achievement after that person had served the group for five years, without any bad record. They become “permanent members” already. Once the award is received, the member would then have an option whether to continue performing with the group, or just perform when they want to.
Bungabong and Penida, both college graduates already, decided to stay with the group. They already had received some offers to work someplace else, but they are still there. Bungabong could work abroad, but he declined each and one to serve the group more. He currently choreographs for the group.
Meanwhile, Penida had to stop participating in the group for a while after graduation. She had to move to Manila, where she found work. After two months, she decided to go back to her hometown. SIKADA was a big factor to her decision.
“It was difficult for me not to dance,” Penida commented. However, staying with SIKADA meant more than just dedication. It requires a lot of sacrifices. If happiness and satisfaction would only be enough for their needs as a group, then they won’t have any problems. Unfortunately, the dance troupe needs money for their activities.
The subsidies they get from the government would only suffice for their props and costumes. At times, what they receive won’t even be enough for their things. They still need to cut expenses.
To help in saving money, the members would sometimes create their own props. They would also wash their own costumes on the riverbank. During a performance, they would fix their own stage. They don’t hire a professional choreographer, too. They rely on research instead.
For the kids, the little chores they do are irrelevant. Performing, rehearsing and being with the other members are what’s worthwhile. Cane Carandang, a dancer for two years thinks that being part of SIKADA is fun because of the presence of his peers. They rehearse and enjoy dancing together.
The group does everything out of love, not expecting anything from return. They don’t have any allowances, or even regular free merienda.
To motivate them even just a little, Abarquez also had something to give. “I have ten of them as my scholars, elementary and high school, out of my own pocket,” he said.
Usually they can get through the problems, but there are times that they couldn’t. The most remarkable event that happened was three years ago. It was just around the time when they won their first medal.
In 2010, they were supposed to represent the country and Asia in the International Folklore Festival in Europe. Abarquez said that they were supposed be one of the main performances of the show. It was not a competition rather a tour around Europe. The organizers were very impressed of SIKADA’s performance during the World Dance Festival so they were invited for the tour.
The group was excited to go. They had already collected the right amount of money, processed their visas, and prepared the luggage. However, they weren’t even able to step on the airplane. The government took back their financial assistance from the group. The newly-elected president disapproved the financial support because “expenditures for those kinds of purposes are not allowed,” Abarquez explained.
The event had left the members downhearted. There were tears of diasappointment and frustration shed by the members. For Olivera, Bungabong, and Penida, it was the most unforgettable and saddest experience they had in SIKADA. Penida shared that it felt like their world almost fell apart.
To prevent a similar situation, the dance group organized “SIKADA: Journey to Success,” a series of shows that aim to fund their competition expenses through the shows’ proceeds. The performances would be held in three venues, namely: University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), San Juan de Letran-Calamba, and Laguna State Polytechnic University-Sta. Cruz. Last August 5, 2013, the group had already showcased some of their dances in the DL Umali Auditorium, UPLB.