The Pangalay Dance in the Construction of Filipino Heritage

This is an excerpt from "The Pangalay Dance in the Construction of Filipino Heritage" by Joelle Florence Patrice Jacinto. The research discusses how the Pangalay dance of the Tausug people was used as a heritage tool to support the construction of a Philippine culture.

The paper was published on the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, Vol. 22, Issue 1.

The Philippines is distinct from other Asian nations. It is the only country that is predominantly Catholic and in which English is one of the two official languages. In addition, Filipinos have been culturally informed, first, by a colonial mentality and, later, by the desire to establish a revised "cultural heritage" that allows them to emerge as a modern nation-state with a unique, independent Filipino identity. In this nationalizing context, dances of the region have become heritage tools, that is, they function as instruments that support the ideological construction of a Philippine culture as "rich and diverse."

The Pangalay dance is one such tool. A dance form traditionally performed by the Tausug people of the southern Philippines, this dance is distinct because it is characterized by hand movements that resemble the movement of ocean waves, enhanced by long, metal fingernails worn by the dancers. Filipino choreographer Ligaya Amilbangsa, who has done extensive research on this dance form, sees the Pangalay as distinctly "Asian," describing it as resembling Indian, Javanese, Thai (Siamese), Burmese, and Cambodian styles (Amilbangsa 1999).1 In contrast, Filipinos who recognize the Pangalay claim it as a "Philippine folk dance." How then, we might ask, does a distinctly "Asian" dance permit an identification as "Filipino"?

This paper describes how the Pangalay is, in fact, historically related to both southern Philippine dancing and some Asian dances. However, its contemporary positioning is contested, the details of which shed light on the process of using dances to cultivate a "cultural heritage." Some Filipinos separate the Pangalay from the rest of Philippine dancing, while others claim it as such but make its origins exotic. This situation reveals the remnants of colonial thinking, as well as the effects of folk dance classifications used in organizing the repertoire of folk dance companies. This paper does not offer new research on the Pangalay dance itself but interrogates its current positioning as a Philippine and/or an Asian dance.

Philippine Folk Dance

Philippine dances owe their rich diversity to the country's archipelagic landscape. There are 7,107 islands containing eighty provinces, with a documented ninety-two million people spread out over seven major and several minor ethnicities, each speaking their own dialects as well as the national language, Filipino, and with various competencies in English. The English language was taught to native Filipinos by their American colonizers, who stayed for forty-eight years, from 1898 to 1946. This is less than one-seventh of the earlier period, from 1565 to 1898, when it was a Spanish colony.2

The photographs included are noteworthy in that they are of Amilbangsa, considered the expert on the Pangalay after her extensive research with the Tausug community, following her first "discovery" of it in 1969. Amilbangsa herself has since written a book titled Pangalay: Traditional Dances and Related Folk Artistic Expressions (1983). In it, Amilbangsa broadens the reach of the Pangalay dance by stating that the same dance is called by other names among other Muslim groups: namely, the Paunjalay among the Yakan, and the Igal among the Badjao/Sama groups, although more recent research shows that the Igal is actually a different dance albeit with some similar qualities (Santamaria 2005 and 2010) (see Figures 1 and 2). Amilbangsa (1983) also claims that, historically, the Pangalay dance actually preceded the Tausug people's conversion to Islam, but, because they are widely known as a Muslim group, the Pangalay is often characterized by dance practitioners and scholars alike as a "Muslim dance."

Pangalay as a Philippine Dance

Amilbangsa (1999) described the Pangalay as a dance resembling Indian, Javanese, Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian dances and as the "most Asian" of the folk dances. The hands are flexed at the wrists and fingers hyperflexed backward, a feature of Javanese and Cambodian dances. The body is bent slightly at the hips and the knees and, viewed laterally, resembles the shape of the letter S. This stance can be seen in other Asian dance forms, but most especially in the Malaysian form of Pangalay and Igal, which the Philippines share through the kinship of the Tausug and Bajau peoples, who live both in the Sulu archipelago and in Sabah.

Amilbangsa (1999) considers the Pangalay the closest the Philippines has to a classical dance form. This is difficult to comprehend, however, if one compares it with classical forms such as Cambodian dance, where temple dancers are trained from childhood and spend all their lives training to perform at ceremonies. In contrast, ritual dancing in particular indigenous communities in the Philippines does not require extensive formal training and is usually improvised; in effect, the dancers move as they wish within the confines of the genre and are not bound to follow any specific choreography. For example, the ceremonial dances of the Cordillera tribes and the ritualistic healing trance dances performed by the high priest or priestess of a community (known as babaylan, katalonan, or mumbaki) are not formally structured. Unlike the aforementioned Asian classical dance forms, where a few young people in each community are selected to learn an elaborate dance repertoire for specific occasions, indigenous Filipinos did not specialize in refining a formal dance tradition but opted to dance more freely, their bodies "flowing according to the beat of the music and the pulse of the village" (cited in Reyes-Urtula, Arandez, and Tiongson 1994:36). The early accounts of Antonio Pigafetta and Fr. Francisco Colin mention in romanticizing and primitivist fashion that "all the natives danced, as common and natural as breathing" (ibid.).

In contrast to both of the above—the formal Asian classical forms and the unstructured ceremonial and healing dances of the Cordillera tribes—the Pangalay dance has a specific set of postures, gestures, and movements. Practicing dancers develop their own choreography, not necessarily set to a rigid framework but not unstructured and free-moving either. This difference could be what Amilbangsa refers to when she refers to the Pangalay as "closest" to a classical dance form.


  1. Amilbangsa's essay is at, the website of the Alun Alun Dance Circle, the performing group founded by Ligaya Amilbangsa, of which she is the artistic director. On the bottom footer of the website, a copyright is indicated from 1999-2013, although this may reflect the length of time that the Alun Alun Dance Circle has been in operations, as stated on the website's profile page. It would be safe to say that the article "The Pangalay Dance Style" may have been uploaded to the website as early as January 2007, which is the oldest date of the archives of articles on the site, and written before then.

  2. Data on the Philippines was taken from the official website of the National Statistics Office of the Republic of the Philippines and retrieved on June 25, 2012, and from the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines, edited at the Office of the President of the Philippines under Commonwealth Act No. 638, found at . Created during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's term as Philippine president, this report details the status of the country in several aspects. On the current version of the website, it is not clear where an update of this report can be found.


Amilbangsa, Ligaya Fernandez

(1983). Pangalay: Traditional Dances and Related Folk Artistic Expressions. Makati: The Filipinas Foundation for the Ministry of Muslim Affairs.

(1994). "Pangalay". In CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, Vol. 5: Philippine Dance. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines: 95-96.

(1999). The Pangalay Dance Style of the Philippines: An Intangible Cultural Heritage. (last accessed December 21, 2014).

Santamaria, MCM

(2005). Capturing Pangalay. Unpublished manuscript, researched under the Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University. in press. Igal Not Pangalay: Towards New Perspectives in Viewing Sama Traditional Dance. Publication in progress.