How ‘pangalay’ brought ‘ginhawa’ and helped me through the pandemic

How ‘pangalay’ brought ‘ginhawa’ and helped me through the pandemic
Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa dances "pangalay" with the song "Pokpok Alimpako," —PHOTO COURTESY OF ALUNALUN DANCE CIRCLE

I found health in conscious breathing and wave-like movements.

The Covid-19 pandemic affected all aspects of our lives, not just our physical health. The lockdown and stay-at-home policies closed businesses, cancelled social gatherings, and caused shifts in working and studying setups. 

As the pandemic is more than a health crisis, we strived to be well holistically, taking care not only of our physical bodies but also of our hearts, minds, relationships, and environment. Holistic health is the goal of wellness, a concept that pertains to an individual’s pursuit of quality life through self-awareness, self-integration, and lifestyle decisions.


In the Philippines, the Tagalog term ginhawa is an indigenous concept related to wellness.

Maginhawa, or having ginhawa, means “comfortable, easy, tranquil.” The linguist Consuelo Paz found that maginhawa means “to breathe” in other Philippine languages, such as Hiligaynon, Romblonon, Cebuano, Kapampangan, and Waray, to name a few.

Beyond breathing, ginhawa pertains to a comfortable life and being free from physical, social, financial, or environmental difficulties. One may see ginhawa in a bountiful harvest, harmony in the community, restored relationships, and cured illnesses. 

Lacking ginhawa in one’s life may be seen through expressions such as naghahabol ng hininga (gasping for air) that could lead to paghihingalo (death at one’s doorstep) or having the huling hininga (final breath). 

As ginhawa is breath, it is also the life we have and the life we share with others. Ginhawa is healing beyond the physical, emphasizing the integration of body and mind and the interrelation of people and nature. Ginhawa is personal and communal.  

Attaining ginhawa differs from person to person. It may be through acquiring a material object or joining social or religious gatherings. Some have ginhawa in creative practices. In my case, I got through the pandemic and its consequences through pangalay, a traditional dance style practiced by ethnolinguistic groups in the Sulu Archipelago.

Mimicking the waves

“Pangalay” dancers Nannette Matilac and Joy Cruz perform in California last year. —PHOTO COURTESY OF MALAYA

In Tausug, pangalay means “dance.” Its movements—the slow motions of curved limbs and fingers—mimic the waves, wind, and birds. It is traditionally performed on special events such as weddings and birthdays. The fast rhythms of graduated gongs, called the kulintang, accompany the dancing. It is improvised, based on the occasion and the dancer’s movement vocabulary. 

Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa is the most prominent researcher of pangalay. She fashioned a mode of teaching it—the Amilbangsa Instruction Method, or AIM—from her 30 years of studying and dancing. The AlunAlun Dance Circle (ADC), a nonprofit organization aiming to preserve and professionalize pangalay through performances and workshops, uses AIM. 

I learned pangalay from the ADC. I joined its “Salimbayan: Dance for Wellness” in 2019 and the “Pangalay Quarantine” during the first lockdown in the country in 2020. When I encountered pangalay for the first time in 2019, I felt comfortable with my body while dancing. With such an experience, I decided to explore how pangalay gives me ginhawa through research that focuses on my experience with the dance, and that is also informed by ADC members’ experiences.

3 principles

I found that learning pangalay through AIM brought me ginhawa based on three principles. First, instead of counting, Fernando-Amilbangsa teaches that one should breathe through the movements of the dance to maintain a flow of energy. 

Breathing should be a purposeful expansion of the belly when inhaling and fully deflating it when exhaling. Such breathing relaxes the body and expels toxic carbon dioxide to yield the essential oxygen in our bodies. Deep and mindful breathing, in contrast with shortness of breath, is a practice of ginhawa. 

The second principle is maglingat-lingat, or the act of looking at one’s limbs while moving. Maglingat-lingat makes me absorbed in what I am doing, synchronizing my breath to my movements and feeling all the sensations in my body. It enables me to practice mindfulness, to focus on the present moment. It cultivates an attitude of gratitude that replaces worry, giving me ginhawa.

Lastly, pangalay taught through AIM values balance. The traditional way of dancing pangalay requires magdambila, or the act of doing the same movement on the left and right sides of the body, balancing the sensation in the body while recognizing the differences between each side.

Balance is also essential in achieving the seemingly floating body, which makes the dance more fluid. The idea is that when you exhale, the body goes down and the arms go up. In contrast, when inhaling, the body goes up and the arms go down. 

Furthermore, balance is also in a basic posture of pangalay: knees bent and the torso slightly leaning forward. The posture keeps the dancer grounded, stable, and peaceful, cultivating ginhawa.

Breathing gave me ginhawa the most. After all, ginhawa is all about the breath. Pangalay taught me how to breathe throughout the pandemic that distressed our breathing and life.

When we forget to breathe deeply and mindfully, we feel drained, anxious, and hopeless, which can eventually lead to death. And so, pangalay fosters ginhawa, teaching me to value the constant flow of breath in and out of the body, giving life to me and those around me. 

This essay is based on Rachel Siringan’s thesis “Stories from/of My Body: Pangalay in the Context of Ginhawa through the Amilbangsa Instruction Method (AIM).”  She graduated with a degree in art studies from the University of the Philippines Diliman. —Ed.

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