Graceful, elegant, and determined are three words that come to mind when watching the rehearsals of the La Manila Dance Ambassadors in Intramuros. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting with Archie Dema-ala, manager and CEO of LMDA and listening to the enthusiasm in his voice as he recounted the humble beginnings of the dance group. There are cultural groups all over the Philippines and more cultural dancers than you can ever list because the groups keep popping up everywhere. Filipinos are proud of their heritage and the inherent diversity in it, ranging from the colors, the 700 dialects, the cuisine, the dances, and the music. The strong influences from other nations that have contributed to Filipino culture are apparent in the traditional costumes and the dances. You cannot simply ask a Filipino to show up at an event in “traditional attire” because there are several hundreds to choose from, and each would be an accurate representation.
A photography project led me to meet Archie and subsequently his dance group, but got more than I bargained for, and I mean this in a positive way. Formerly a dance and physical education teacher at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM), Archie formed the dance group composed primarily of students genuinely interested in pursuing the craft beyond the academic requirements and outside the school. The group began training and rehearsing, having almost no funds at all to work with, and relying on the own creativity and the generosity of friends and sponsors for costumes, transportation costs, and other overhead expenses. From the very beginning, however, it was made clear that this was a cultural dance troupe with a mission: the promotion of peace through dance and music.
The LMDA and their peace advocacy soon gained favor within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), becoming the preferred cultural performers for VIPs and foreign dignitaries, and continues to enjoy this status to this day. Perhaps it is the relentless pursuit to convey and portray authentic Filipino values, or insistence of authenticity of the dance that makes the LMDA stand out. Archie and the core group of dancers go on immersion trips to the indigenous tribes of the Philippines to learn the dances from the tribals themselves, and not second, third or fourth hand like many other cultural groups. The inculturation of the values and customs of the tribes open up the paths for authentic dialogue, thereby encouraging the tribes to share their music, the instruments, and the dance steps. These are dancers who understand the emotion and respect the tradition, and it shows in their movements. They will not perform the dance unless they have been given the blessing of the tribal elders.
As Archie puts it, you learn to appreciate your own culture once begin to study it in depth. The LMDA has lived among the Kalinga in the north, the T’boli in Cotabato, and is looking forward to organizing an immersion among the Badjao in Zamboanga. This passion to learn directly from the tribes lies at the core of the LMDA, eager to share and promote peace and unity through culture and art. Each LMDA dancer understands and lives by the core values, taking to heart. Their performances are soulful, passionate, profound, and above all, uncompromising.
It was an honor and a pleasure to work with the group who willingly posed as models for the project. I wish them all the best for the upcoming cultural dance festival in Malaysia. They are indeed the best ones for the job as dance ambassadors.
Click here for the article with the full set of photographs.