The UP Mindanao Dance Ensemble performing Ugat, Sanga, Dahon atbp. (Music: Dasal at Katutubong Musika (Asin)) Choreography by R.Dy, K. Morales and J.Delgado
Ira Sisa A. Apara, a UP Mindanao BA Communication Arts graduate, has been dancing all her life. She joined dance groups and ensembles as a child; then her love for dance really took off in high school when her mother enrolled her in a jazz dance class.
As a self-proclaimed dance “fangirl,” she found other venues where she could learn other techniques and dance styles besides her jazz class. “Whenever I went to class at the dance school, I would observe the classes before ours or the dances of the other classes, like modern dance, hip hop, ballet,” Apara shares. “I kept watching dance videos on YouTube as well. And I would take notes, and I would try to recreate or mimic the moves on my own. Ultimately, I found my own groove, which I felt is really more in the neo-ethnic style.”
Her passion for neo-ethnic dance was enhanced when she entered UP Mindanao in 2012. At the time, she had only one goal: to join the UP Mindanao Dance Ensemble (UPMinDE). “I remember it clearly. June 6 was our first day of class then a week or two weeks later, I auditioned for the UPMinDE. The Office of Student Affairs advised us freshmen not to join any orgs yet and to let ourselves adjust to UPMin life. But I was certain: I was going to join that ensemble. So I became a member from 2012 to 2016.”
A portion of the UP Mindanao Dance Ensemble’s 2012 Concert, showing the Kappa Malong-malong.
19 years and counting
The UP Mindanao Dance Ensemble, founded by Prof. Alma Flor M. Brigole, is the resident dance company of UP Mindanao. The UPMinDE or the Ensemble focuses on exploring social commentaries, advocacies and experimental performances through neo-ethnic, contemporary dance and improvisation techniques. It holds yearly full-length dance-concerts, the most recent being “Baylanan” held on May 10, 2018, which celebrated the UPMinDE’s 19th anniversary as a resident company by portraying through dance a story inspired by the life and culture of the baylans or community healers, priests and priestesses.
Apara refined her skills throughout the four years she spent dancing, learning, teaching, training and choreographing with the UPMinDE. In 2016, the year she graduated, she became a finalist in the World Championship for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, California. She was chosen for her interpretation of a Tausug version of the Pangalay, a traditional dance in Sulu.
Still, the lessons she learned over the course of her journey as a UPMinDE member go beyond dance. Over the years, the UPMinDE has overcome challenges that other UP performing groups have gone through at some point. The experience of overcoming these challenges has instilled within her and her fellow members qualities that prepared them for life, whether onstage or in the real world.
Initiative, resourcefulness, and teamwork
One challenge is functioning as a student-driven performing group in UP without an official coach, artistic director or adviser. UPMinDE has gone through times when they had no coach, sometimes lasting years. Apara recalls how hard it was: “It’s very difficult when a varsity team or school organization doesn’t have a coach or adviser. It’s hard to get a budget or to have your proposed events approved because there’s nobody to sign for them. There were times when we got suspended or couldn’t join competitions because having no coach or adviser was not allowed according to the rules.”
During those coach-less years, the UPMinDE’s members found ways to keep on doing what they had to do. “We trained on our own. Whatever techniques each of us learned, we just shared with one another. We just repeated the techniques and ultimately, we even managed to hold a concert.”
Respect for indigenous culture
The UPMinDE is known for its performances that showcase the dances and culture of indigenous people. However, the research that goes behind every piece is just as much a trademark of the Ensemble. This was discipline its founder, Prof. Brigole, instilled in the group.
The Ensemble’s research process includes visiting the communities and immersing themselves in the indigenous culture, learning the dances directly from the tribal members themselves. “Research really plays a big part, because we cannot perform something that is not well-thought of,” Apara says.
After Prof. Brigole left the group around the time of Apara’s freshman year, the UPMinDE shifted more toward modern dance and jazz. “The ethnic spirit was still there, though, so during that time, it was like the Western-style dances and the ethnic dances were kind of mashed up.”
This commitment to indigenous cultures, now combined with touches of the modern, was kept alive by Arch. Gloryrose Dy, herself a UPMinDE alumna, when she became UPMinDE’s coach and artistic director during Apara’s third year in college.
Passing on the torch
Seeing UPMinDE members develop and improve themselves, and seeing the Ensemble explore indigenous cultures and create something new, are things that Apara deeply appreciates, because she’s seen it from both sides. In May 2017, she visited the Ensemble again to give a workshop on contemporary dance. There, she learned that, due to certain circumstances, the group was again falling into that same predicament of having no coach.
“So I applied as coach. Because I was thinking that I should help, in a way, because I know how it felt. That’s why I came back, and I’ve been a coach for over one year now. And I’m still planning to continue,” she says.
Besides coaching the UPMinDE, Apara works as a PR officer in a young advertising agency, and on the occasions when she has to focus on work, she calls on the officers of the UPMinDE to take the lead during practice sessions. This way, she, like Arch. Dy before her, is continuing another long-time tradition of the UPMinDE—training the next generation of leaders.
Looking to the future, the UPMinDE has lined up certain projects, such as joining competitions outside the University, aside from their usual performances in UP Mindanao.
“We hope that this year, we can immerse ourselves in an indigenous community, because we will be getting new members and they have to know what the group is all about. They have to know that if you do an ethnic dance, you have to do it right. You have to know not just by the movement, but by the spirit, by heart, what that dance signifies. When the UP Mindanao Dance Ensemble performs, especially the ethnic or neo-ethnic dances, we always make a stand that this is not just about entertaining you, it’s about educating you. This is what the lives of the indigenous peoples are about. This is a part of their culture—our culture—so you have to know it. There is a spirit to it. This is what life is,” Apara asserts.
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