MANILA, JULY 10, 2005
(STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - You’ll never know when the Bayanihan dancers are tired because they are forever smiling and you’ll never hear them complaining – even when they have to wear high heels during a flight. When you suggest that perhaps they can cheat sometimes – like wear flats – when the tour director is not with them, they throw you a dirty look as if it had never occurred to them to do that. If you see them at the airport, your first guess would be that they’re flight attendants, with the men in gray suit with a pin of the Philippine flag and the women dressed in pinstripe jacket, skirt and nylons, carrying themselves with dignity even when their feet are killing them.

That’s just part of being a Bayanihan dancer – a roster of protocol they follow even when they’re not onstage. They’re not allowed to show their "morning face" in public, never mind if it’s just to have breakfast at the hotel; when they get up from their plane seat to go to the bathroom, their hair must be in a "pijuan" (tied in a bun, named after beauty queen Aurora Pijuan); they carry their red hold-all a certain way – never slung over the shoulder; they’re not allowed to wear shirts and jeans going to the dance venue – they have a uniform for that and with matching jewelry, too; they should always be friendly with people they meet but not flirt with them; and they have two types of makeup – light one for socials or shopping and heavy for the performance.

Leonore "Leo" Elepaño, 22, says, "The Bayanihan gives us such great experiences that we really don’t mind these rules. They become second nature to us. They teach us Philippine history because when we’re abroad people ask us a lot about the Philippines, they also teach us etiquette and social graces."

When the Bayanihan National Folk Dance Company performs, people get a sense of what the Philippines is – not the chaotic country that’s splashed all over the world media, but a more graceful, colorful and beautiful place.

Founded by Helena Z. Benitez in 1957, the multi-awarded dance company awakens in each Filipino a pride buried under layers of bitterness and a sense of betrayal from his own country. And when you see them perform abroad, engaging spectators in their dance, you feel all the more proud of them.

It’s easy to forget that Bayanihan dancers are just kids, after all. With an average age of 20, they rehearse four hours every day, juggle their time for school or work with the demands of the company.

You wonder why any teenager would want to exchange his free time for the mall and with friends for a very demanding job. The answer, says Melito Vale Cruz, artistic and tour director, has always been "to see the world." It was his own reason when he joined Bayanihan by accident (he just wanted make inquiries and before he knew it he was auditioning) when he was 17, an agriculture student at UP Los Baños, and it’s the same reason kids are joining today.

There are two types of performances the Bayanihan does abroad: Commercial and non-commercial. A commercial one would be a full-blown tour while a non-commercial one would be trips sponsored by the government, like last week’s participation in the Beijing International Tourism Expo, for which the company charges a minimal fee.

"Being the national dance company of the country, we want to do our share in propagating Philippine culture," says Lito. "We have a business office that deals with the bookings of Bayanihan. We make sure the dancers are treated well. As with any artist, they must get allowances because they’re not salaried."

To save their allowances (for some serious shopping!), the dancers pack canned food and noodles. On a trip to Guangzhou a few months ago, they brought frozen food. Senior dance assistant Melvin Manuel, who’s been with the company for 15 years and is now a trainer, relates that in Guangzhou they would go out and buy rice outside the hotel and converged in one room to eat their heated adobo and Goldilocks dinuguan. "It was like having a fiesta every night," he says. At their recent Beijing trip, they brought canned tuna, sausages and noodles, but since they performed at the Philippine food festival at the Hilton Hotel and had dinner there, most of the canned goods were left uneaten.

Outside their lives with the Bayanihan, the dancers are involved in different things. Many of them are still students. Melvin, for one, found an office job some years ago but he missed working with the company that he decided to become full-time. Marielle Benitez, the granddaughter of Helena Benitez, is member of the women’s national soccer team.

"They’re two very different worlds – one is very athletic and the other graceful," she says. A graduate of psychology and marketing management from La Salle, Marielle grew up around Bayanhihan dancers (including her mother) and found it "corny and baduy." She remembers being dragged to the shows when she was young and it never occurred to her that she would one day be dancing, too. On her mother’s insistence, she joined the company a year and a half ago and found herself falling in love with the traditional dances. "It was so awkward in the beginning. When my friends saw me perform, they couldn’t believe it because as a soccer player I’m all tough."

Two of her most memorable tours are to Greece and Hungary. The trip to the Athens Olympics, where the Bayanhihan performed, was where her two worlds came together. "As an athlete you dream of watching if not joining the Olympics and the Bayanhihan made it possible for me." The Hungary trip was for the Folkloriada.

Bayanihan’s most recent and by far biggest international award was the Gold Temple Award in Sicily, Italy. It was the 50th year of the Mandorlo festival, which is traditionally held when the almonds are in bloom, and they were invited along with 53 past winners to compete.

Lito says, "When you see other country’s traditional dances, you realize how varied ours are. They start with one dance and finish with the same dance; we start with one dance and end with another. The Mandorlo was a friendly competition, and we had very good camaraderie since we’ve met our competitors before."

Bayanhihan dancers remember holding parades in the dead of winter, wearing their sheer Filipino costumes, and in the height of a sweltering summer. These inconveniences are just part of the experience.

One of their most memorable trips was their 2001 tour in the US, according to Lito. It was immediately after the world trade center bombing, "when all the Muslims in America felt oppressed. Our board of trustees, even though they were worried, decided we should go. There we became sort of emissaries of peace and love. Our posters were about the Muslim dances. Just to be sure, we brought two sets of programs with us, so that was double the excess baggage right away, because they might say no to the Muslim suite. We requested the management company to see the repertoire first and they told us to go ahead with it, that we should be proud of having such dances."

The company performed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and at the Kennedy Center in New York, and then all the way to the West Coat.

"After each performance, you could feel a change of attitude in the audience," says Lito, "and that’s what the Bayanihan is all about."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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