Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa: Keeping culture alive through dance

Mara Cepeda
Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa: Keeping culture alive through dance
For Filipina Ramon Maysaysay awardee Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, the pangalay dance reflects the country's rich culture

MANILA, Philippines – Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa enters the room with the aid of a cane, careful in her steps as she settled on her seat.

Amilbangsa is turning 72 this year, but there was a youthful glow in her eyes when she began to talking about the pangalay, the dance hailing from the southern Philippines which she spent more than half her life studying, preserving, and propagating across the world.

For Amilbangsa, the pangalay – which translates to “gift offering” or “temple dance” in Sanskrit – is unique for its ability to unify not just the different cultures in the country, but in the rest of Asia as well.

Pangalay, as far as I’m concerned, is a unifying force. It is something we can call ours,” Amilbangsa says in a mix of English and Filipino.

She adds that while different Philippines tribes have different names for it – pangalay for the Tausugs, igal for the Sama Bajau, mangalay for the Yakans – they all refer to the same dance form characterized by its slow, intricate, even hypnotic movements.

Those who have dedicated their lives studying the pangalay agree that it can be danced to any type of music – from the metallic sound of the kulintang to the beats of more modern songs.

“[Pangalay is unique because of the] the vocabulary itself. You don’t find it elsewhere in the Philippines. And it’s a lot! The vocabulary is very much similar to what we see in the classical dance forms in Asia, say the rombam boran of Cambodia and the lakhon or dance drama of Thailand and then the pakarena of Sulawesi,” Amilbangsa says.

Since 1969, Amilbangsa has been studying and practicing the pangalay to conserve and promote the centuries-old dance tradition, authoring several books in the process.

Her decades-long efforts earned her one of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awards for her “single-minded crusade in preserving the endangered artistic heritage of southern Philippines, and in creatively propagating a dance form that celebrates and deepens the sense of shared cultural identity among Asians.”

A life-long mission

AGELESS ON THE DANCE FLOOR. At 71, Amilbangsa still moves with grace when dancing the pangalay. File photo from the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation

Amilbangsa already had a deep passion for dance and the arts even as a young girl.

Born to a prominent Catholic family in Marikina City in Metro Manila, she  used to be a part of a folk dance troupe that would perform in several of her school’s events. She even took some ballet lessons when she was around 8 years old.

“During my time, it was boogie and rock ‘n roll. We love to dance that. Masarap sumayaw (It feels good to dance). It’s a very good exercise. You feel so free,” recalls Amilbangsa.

During a visit to Jolo in Sulu in 1969, she saw a group of dancers perform the pangalay. “I was taken aback. I was really surprised that it looked very different….It’s mesmerizing!” she says.

Amilbangsa then moved to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi after marrying Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa, the late young brother of Sulu’s last reigning Sultan Mohammad Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa.

The marriage only solidified Amilbangsa’s life-long crusade to preserve the pangalay.

An ‘opportune time’ for dancing

TEACHER. Amilbangsa is a mentor to countless dancers who want to learn how to dance the pangalay. File photo by the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation

The pangalay started to fade in the late 1960s entering the 1970s, Amilbangsa says.

“My husband asked me, ‘Do you want to do this kind of activity?’ [I said] yes because unless I don’t document it now, in 50 years’ time, it will be gone,” she recalls.

Her years of research, which included personally mastering the pangalay herself, coincided with the rise of the Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines as well as the declaration of Martial Law by then president Ferdinand Marcos in 1972.

Two years later, she formed the Tambuli Cultural Troupe composed of students from the Mindanao State University to share her research on the pangalay with some of the natives.

Surprisingly, Amilbangsa calls the period – the same era when holding public assemblies was banned by the Marcos regime – as an “opportune time” to go on tours with her dancers to promote the pangalay.

“Siguro nakikita din nila na this is a very useful thing, very useful for their purposes… para magmukha namang walang gulo doon (Perhaps they saw the pangalay as something very useful for their purposes, to make it appear as if there is no conflict there),” she says.

Still, Amilbangsa says the Tambuli Cultural Troupe stumbled on some road blocks, mostly due to limited funds and the lack of electricity and instruments to dance to.

She had to ask help from her father back in Marikina to help bring the dance troupe to Manila.

National symbol

MISSION OF A LIFETIME. Amilbangsa doesn't see herself stopping her mission to promote pangalay anytime soon. File photo from the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation

Amilbangsa’s perseverance has paid off since then, with various awarding bodies recognizing her resolve to popularize the pangalay.

She also established the AlunAlun Dance Circle in Antipolo City in 1999. Together with the Tambuli Cultural Troupe, they have danced on various local and international stages over the years to promote the pangalay.

Currently, Amilbangsa is focused on popularizing the pangalay in more places in the Philippines

“‘Yung totoo kasi, faddists tayo e! Anything that comes along, parang, ‘Oh wow! I like to dance this na!’ We spend so much time sa ganun. Why can’t we spend some time doon sa ating mga traditional dances?”

(In truth, we are faddists. Anything that comes along, we say, ‘Oh wow! I like to dance this!’ We spend so much time with those things. Why can’t we spend some time on our own traditional dances?)

Amilbangsa firmly believes the pangalay even deserves to be called a national symbol because it is rooted in pre-Hispanic Philippine culture.

“On a bigger scale, we look back to our traditions because that’s what unites us. So we have to think of real symbols of our identity, rooted in our own culture,” she says in Filipino.

With fervent passion, Amilbangsa shares she will spend the rest of her life keeping the pangalay – and the rich Filipino cultural history – alive through the pages of her books and under the glare of a thousand stage lights. –

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.