Passions and Obsessions

How the unsinkable ‘maestras’ of Philippine dance have kept the art alive

How it survives and thrives on the sheer passion, genius, and hard work of National Artists Alice Reyes and Agnes Locsin, dance pioneers Vella Damian, Shirley Halili-Cruz

National Artist Agnes Locsin: Dance is her life.

Alice Reyes at the CCP in December, before it closed for a three-year renovation: She and the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines even managed to create new choreographies.

For many in the performing arts, the pandemic was a big leveler.

To be exact, the month and year of reckoning was March 2020. Over at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor managed to have full audiences on the last week of January and the first week of February. Then a nationwide lockdown started March 15, 2020.

What followed was something the arts community did not expect. Performing arts venues closed and live audiences were gone for almost three years. Many arts personalities got sick, and not a few didn’t survive the virus.

What happened in the dance world was just a mirror of what transpired worldwide.

National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes was preparing for the restaging of Rama Hari in March 2020 when the lockdown was enforced. Reyes recalled: “The pandemic came to us as total shock, dismay, disbelief, and life disruption in all ways, as it was for everyone else!”

Ballet Philippines announced it was suspending operations for six months. The decision left the dancers with a measly P10,000 each to last six months.

Reyes recalled, “With the help of friends and supporters of the arts and dance, I went into fundraising mode, launched the Adopt-a-Dancer campaign to try and keep as many of the  displaced dancers training, dancing, creating, and earning, to pay rent and utilities, and to buy food.”

The CCP, with then president Nick Lizaso and Margie Moran Floirendo, spearheaded the Professional Dance Support Program which gave grants to displaced dancers. They were also able to set up a dance floor in the main lobby, where the doors fronting Roxas Boulevard could be kept open.

Continued Reyes: “We were able to hold classes, do lecture demonstrations, and make short videos for dance students and dance enthusiasts that we posted on social media. We also worked on new choreographies, which were then streamed online by the CCP to all the regions in the country and beyond.”

Protocol was put in place, and only so many dancers could be in the class at any given time.  Temperatures were taken, masks required, distances kept, and constant disinfecting, sanitizing of floors, barres and furniture done at regular intervals.

Things got worse when the CCP ordered total closure of all its venues. “I brought the dancers to my home, turned two bedrooms into dance studios, and we went on via Zoom, doing ballet and modern dance classes. Our young choreographers worked from their homes with their dancers at different locations. That was something to witness!  It’s proof of the saying if there is a will, there will indeed be a way. New works that were produced under such conditions were put online by the CCP as a very successful series of dance shows called Dance On!”

Reyes: ‘Our young choreographers worked from their homes with their dancers at different locations…It’s proof of the saying if there is a will, there will indeed be a way’

Reyes had to keep dancers busy even after dance hours. She gave her four resident dancers recipes to whip up, such as Greek pastitsio, lasagna, and all kinds of fancy pasta sauces, along with appetizers and sauces and desserts. Soon the dancers-turned-cooks were doing Eggs Benedict Brunches on Sundays out on her patio. “Friends and other dancers lined up to sit at the three communal tables, chairs at proper distances.”

More pandemic episodes: “This kept me busy, surrounded by all that youthful energy. Because we took all precautions, we all stayed healthy and active, though totally aware of and commiserating with the many lives lost, the numerous jobs gone, and businesses closing down.”

When the CCP opened its doors two years later (only to close again for a three-year renovation), her group was able to continue with an expanded Professional Artists Support Program (PASP) designed to give grants to displaced dancers from all professional dance companies.

They worked with dancers from the Philippine Ballet Theater, Ballet Manila, and Steps Dance Center. “We created full dance productions at the end of each six-month program. We added a new regional outreach program that brought in dancers from the different regions of the country. We were able to invite teachers and choreographers from all around Metro Manila. They gave lectures, choreographed, and coached dance teachers and students from all over the islands.”

Dance teacher and choreographer and now National Artist for Dance Agnes Locsin had her share of difficulties keeping her Locsin Dance Workshop (LDW) dance school alive in Davao City.

The dance school was founded by her mother, Carmen D. Locsin, in 1947.  LDW used to be the only ballet school in Davao City, with around 150 students every school year. Locsin reflected on the early years: “I started the summer workshop in 1982 and at that time, we would have 250 to 300 students. Those were  our better days.”

In the late ’40s, her mother started teaching in the sala (living room). The school has changed location several times as the family grew. The name also was changed. It used to be Locsin Ballet School, then Locsin Ballet and Jazz School. “We stuck to Locsin Dance Workshop. During the schoolyear, we concentrated on classical ballet with a bit of modern dance. In the summer, when a dance style was in demand, LDW taught classes in jazz, tap, modern dance, Hawaiian, slimnastics, aerobics, hip-hop, ballroom, flamenco, voice, drama, art classes, among others.”

The dance maestra recalled the perilous first year of the pandemic: “We were preparing for a March 21, 2020 school recital when it happened. Alden Lugnasin and Biag Gaongen flew in to help out with the recital. The day after they arrived, lockdown was enforced. We had no choice but to cancel the recital. Caught by the lockdown in Davao were my teachers Monique Uy and Samantha Martin, as well as Alden and Biag. I followed what dance schools in Manila were doing, and that was to go virtual. I rued that with online classes, teachers could still have a little income. I wanted to close the school, but I was worried for my teachers.”

Locsin’s LDW had about 70 to 80 students before the pandemic. The school has twice that enrolment during summer. During the lockdown, enrolment severely went down. They were left with 25 to 30 students at the beginning of the pandemic. She decided to give 70 to 80 percent of the school’s online income to her teachers.

Quickly, she had to think of another domestic survival project. “We opened Gigi’s Kitchen during the day to cover expenses of the house. The kitchen served food from my mom’s recipes.”

There was a lot of adjustments teaching dance during the pandemic. The online classes started May 2020 and ended September 2022.

It turned out Locsin was the only one who could not handle online classes. “Fortunately, Alden was here to handle the advance ballet class. I only had to teach pointe class once a week.”

But online classes have their drawbacks. Teachers realized that the learning progress of students was so slow online.

Pointed out Locsin: “Without the touch of the teacher’s hands, it was difficult for the students to understand the needs of the proper way of executing the dance movements. But we had no choice. We had to make the most of what we could do teaching during the pandemic. We were fortunate to have Biag, who took dance film courses as part of his MFA at Ohio State University. Because of him, we were still able to be creative with our virtual recitals and showcases during the pandemic.”

Locsin: ‘Without the touch of the teacher’s hands, it was difficult for the students to understand the needs of the proper way of executing the dance movements. But we had no choice’

It was the same case at the Vella C. Damian School of Ballet in Quezon City. They were preparing for a school recital March 29 at the Meralco Theater when the lockdown happened.

Damian recalled, “Dances were all rehearsed, costumes and souvenir program in full color delivered. Then suddenly, we were informed all the theaters had to close, including our venue, with rentals already paid.”

It was good timing that her niece, Elline Damian, and her husband Jojo Espejo, had retired from teaching at the David Campos Ballet School in Barcelona, Spain. (Elline was principal dancer of the David Campos Ballet.) Since Vella is not into online teaching, her niece did the job. She noticed many quit schooling during the virtual classes. “I believe there is nothing like face-to-face group classes.”

The ballet schools were indeed hit hard, especially those renting spaces in malls. Good thing the Association of Ballet Academies Philippines (ABAP) came to their rescue. As many dance teachers were rendered jobless, ABAP offered no-interest loans to its members.

The association also continued its yearly Dance Series online and allowed teachers and students to perform even with pre-recorded numbers as entries.  Moreover, the pandemic opened a new field in dance education for Damian. “I have been invited to be part of a body to review dance curriculum for the academic schools. Now I do one-on-one ballet classes. As one of the founders of ABAP, I work hand in hand with its present board of directors.”

Dance mentor Shirley Halili-Cruz, head of the Halili- Cruz School of Dance and the Halili-Cruz Conservatory, looks back on those years as if they happened just recently.

Shirley Halili-Cruz (seated) and Vella Damian (standing, second from left) with founding members of the Association of Ballet Academies of the Philippines (ABAP): (from left) the late Amelia Garcia Yulo, Nida Onglengco Pangan, Araceli Valera, and Liza dela Fuente-Castañeda

Halili-Cruz said her dance school was not spared, but she responded in a positive way. “While this was not easy, we navigated through the difficulties with dedication and hard work.”

When the March 15, 2020 lockdown was imposed, the school was preparing for its recital on May 22 at  Meralco Theater. For the first time in the history of the dance school, it announced a cancellation of the recital.

The school head immediately thought of alternatives. Recalled Dr. Halili-Cruz: “Fortunately, we were able to learn and design our online classes using Zoom. The transition to a virtual platform went very well from March to May 2020. We offered the online classes for free.”

The school created the Distance Dance Education and established several cycles of classes. They were able to program 30 different dance classes and attracted students not just from different parts of the country, but even from as far away as the US, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Canada, and Fiji.

According to the school director, who is also chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Dance Committee: “Our teachers had to re-sharpen their teaching technique to be able cope with the demands of a technology-driven platform. As it turned out, we didn’t really close our dance school during the pandemic. We shifted easily and fast to the online platform. Our dance programs continued even with strict health protocol. Now our main studio is fully operating, while our Miriam College and Poveda school branches have opened.”

With 730 dance students, the school now follows a 12-level ballet syllabus with a defined promotion and grading system. Dance training covers varied lessons from classical ballet, contemporary, lyrical, and jazz to hiphop, tap, and musical theater.

The Halili-Cruz school has two associate artistic directors, eight full-time senior faculty, four junior faculty and four part-time teachers. In summer, the school has foreign teachers who interact with teachers and students using the latest dance techniques.

Halili-Cruz: ‘Our teachers had to re-sharpen their teaching technique to be able cope with the demands of a technology-driven platform’

Agnes Locsin (third from left) with past artistic directors of Ballet Philippines.

Vella Damian at her dance school in Quezon City

What did the dance maestras learn from the pandemic?

Dr. Halili-Cruz said, “Patience, positive perspective, concern for others, and eyes on our goal. These are the elements that allowed us to persevere through the challenging experiences of the pandemic. Sharing with others our time and resources in this trying time is fulfilling. It gives you a sense of oneness with the community. As a positive thinker, I believe arts and dance have a good chance of complete recovery. The passage of the Philippine Creative Industries Act can boost the potential of the dance community to have gainful and sustainable jobs. In the later part of 2022 and early 2023, we saw the rise in the number of events and festivals in the different parts of the country where dance, theater, music, and visual arts have started to be active.”

Halili-Cruz noted that the NCCA, in the early stages of the pandemic, provided modest financial assistance to 1,029 dancers, choreographers, directors. From her own personal resources, she was able to reach out to about 250 dance artists.

 Reyes keeps a very positive outlook for dance with many theaters now open, such as the Samsung Theater, Solaire Theater and others. “Although I can’t help but wish these theaters were able to provide venue grants to artistic companies for the use of their facilities.”

Reyes is also hopeful the Creative Industry Act (Republic Act No. 11904), authored by representatives Toff de Venecia and Francisco Benitez, can do a lot for people in the performing arts. “I notice more and more mayors and governors are putting cultural activities in their local government plans with budgets.”

Damian remains optimistic, as well.  “It is not easy to kill passion. Ballet schools and dancers were hit very hard, but I believe passion for dance will remain.”

Damian: ‘It is not easy to kill passion. Ballet schools and dancers were hit very hard, but I believe passion for dance will remain’

Throughout the pandemic, Locsin learned to cope. “My teaching load has lessened and lessened. I have long wanted to retire but the school still needs me, the school is turning 80 years old in 2027. In four years, I will think of retirement seriously.”

She is optimistic dance will thrive in schools, at least. “Our enrolment this summer has gone up! We had to turn down enrolees. The change in the academic schoolyear has also affected the summer enrolment. Hopefully, it will be better next year. The recitals feature mostly Filipino original dance narratives for children.”

For now, she is keen on continuing to preserve Filipino-inspired dances. “No national title (National Artist for Dance) is needed to do what I have been doing, and will keep on doing. Dance is my life.”

The 41st Locsin Summer Showcase 2023, Ang Sayaw ng Ibong Adarna at Iba Pa, will unfold on July 14, 15, and 16, 2023 at the Locsin Dance Workshop, Lanang, Mamay Road (near Damosa and Nikkei Jin Kai) in Davao City. It will feature all levels of classical ballet, jazz, hip-hop, modern dance, and tap.

The Sayaw Tanan Visayas Leg of the CCP, featuring the Alice Reyes Dance Philippines led by National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes, starts in the southern city of Himamaylan and will move to other key cities in Negros Island. Her Rama Hari, the highly-acclaimed Filipino rock opera ballet, returns to the stage opening at the Metropolitan Theater on Sept. 15-16, 2023 ,and at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater, Sept. 22-23, 2023.

The Halili-Cruz School of Dance presents Diversifiera with the Manila Symphony Orchestra and the Philippine Madrigal Singers with OPM as theme on July 30, 2023, 6 p.m. at the Newport Performing Arts Theatre, Newport World Resort.

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves film, theater and classical music. Known as the Bard of Facebook for his poems that have gone viral on the internet, he is author of a first book of poetry, Love, Life and Loss – Poems During the Pandemic and was one of 160 Asian poets in the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22. An impresario on the side, he is one of the Salute awardees of Philippines Graphic Magazine during this year’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. His poem, Ode to Frontliners, is now a marker at Plaza Familia in Pasig City unveiled by Mayor Vico Sotto December 30, 2020.

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