Dinagyang 2007 in Iloilo

During the last week in January, 2007, Frances was invited to a conference in Iloilo at the South-East corner of Panay Island. The conference lasted until the weekend when Iloilo's major festival, the Dinagyang, was going to be held. Frances was a guest of honour at this festival, and I was fortunate enough to hang on her coattails.

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When I arrived on the Friday evening, the streets were already crowded and the street in front of our hotel was on the route for an informal "Opening Salvo" parade of the festival participants. The driver who had picked me up from the airport made several abortive attempts to drive me to the hotel but finally parked the van and escorted me on foot. The parade continued for several hours with a variety of drumming and dancing groups and just the occasional wild costume to whet our appetites.

Saturday morning we were escorted along the main parade route to the judging grandstand where we took our places among the VIPs. Frances had to meet and greet various other dignitaries and even got interviewed on the local cable TV channel; I sat behind the judges and took pictures. Naturally the event started with a prayer, a cheer for "Santo Nino" and the national anthem. Festival mascot Dagoy showed the proper hand-over-heart form for listening to the anthem. Then with a roar of drums the Kasadyahan competition began and the angels battled with the devils.

According to the rules, the "tribes" competing in the Kasadyahan must consist of 70 to 90 dancers/performers and up to 35 instrumentalists. The performance must depict Filipino culture and tradition, especially from the Western Visayas Region. I afraid I don't know very much about the history of the area, but from the performances we saw, farming and fishing villagers had to overcome various natural and supernatural calamities, always rescued in the end by Christianity in the form of Santo Nino (the Christ child). The costumes were brilliantly coloured and were generally stylized animals, demons, Malay or Spanish in style. The instrumentalists were almost exclusively percussionists, but the bamboo tubes, like giant Pan pipes or marimbas, added melody to the complicated drum rhythms.

All the competing tribes used giant rolling sets and backdrops out of which all kinds of new costumes, new players and papier-maché symbols sprang: perhaps a mythical monster or a large Santo Nino. In between the competitive performances, the parade went on with various non-competing groups. It seemed like every club and business in town wanted to have their part in the parade. The boy scouts and Sanicare were only two of MANY groups represented. Five hours of competition were followed by more festivals in the streets surrounding the hotel. We won't soon forget the four, four-by-four towers of immense speakers anchoring each corner of an intersection near our hotel. If you stood in their focal point, your body felt like it was going to explode. Even at the distance of our fourth-floor hotel room, it was easy to keep track of the karaoke street party that went on till the small hours.

Sunday's competition was for Ati Dance -- inspired by Antique Province's Ati-Ati festival on the other side of Panay Island, the Ati dances commemorate the arrival of Malay chieftains in the 1300s to cement alliances with Panay tribes. To show solidarity with the local dark-skinned Negrito people, the Malays are said to have painted themselves black and danced with them. These warrior dances also end by saluting the Santo Nino, or Holy Child, whose feast falls at the end of January and whose statue, now housed in Cebu City, was critical in creating the first converts to Christianity on Panay and Cebu Islands.

We were impressed by the fast, energetic, tightly choreographed dancing; the lightning costume changes -- many group members added to or changed their costumes four or five times in a seven-minute performance; and the gorgeous rolling, folding sets that served to hide costumes till needed, or hide new groups of dancers. This is all the more impressive when you realize that most of the dancers are high-school students or other young women and men from Iloilo's barangays (neighbourhoods) who have been practising after school for months. The group that took first prize deserved every centavo of its 100,000 Peso ($2,500) award.

The body painting, feather headdresses and animal-themed dances seemed at times close to Papua New Guinean Highlands body decoration, New Ireland costumes and some of the Madang story dances; but the choreography, music, stories and symbolism taken all together could only have been created in the Philippines. While some of the dancers just had black paint on their bodies under the feathers , loincloths and headdresses, many wore black leotards or exercise shorts to preserve modesty. Each group ran through a bewildering range of themes in their short performance, but always included a spear dance and a salute to the Holy Child. 20 groups performed in all, and each group had to perform five times in front of judges in five different staging areas around the city; yet the last group seemed as fresh and fierce as the first.