MASBATE CITY ? Living beside the Masbate Bay all his life, 45-year-old Amerigo Barcelonia has been dancing the ?lapay? since learning it from his mother, who like him and the rest of the villagers of Bantigue in Masbate City have been captivated by the graceful movements of the lapay bird.
The dance imitates the behavior of the lapay, a heron that feeds on Bantigue?s waterfront. For many years, flocks of herons flying above the village have been a common sight, and women waiting for their fishing husbands have had the chance to observe the birds and imitate them.
Barcelonia?s mother, Felisa Tupas, who is now in her 70s, was among the first women in the village who turned the movements of the birds into the steps of the lapay. She was eventually honored and recognized as a living treasure for the performing art.
Another dance came to be known as ?bantigue? after the village from where it was first performed.
Roberto Guhilde, 56, former chair of Bantigue, said the performance was in honor of the patroness, Saint Philomena, a martyr who, according to devotees, had a gift of healing.
?There was this story of a mother who promised to dance for Saint Philomena if her son, who was afflicted by a mysterious disease, would be healed,? Guhilde said. The son recovered, especially after an image of the saint touched his body, he added.
Word of the supposed miracle spread, and since then, people hoping to be cured of their sicknesses have flocked to the village at the mouth of the bay to dance for the patroness.
The bantigue is danced to a tune similar to that of ?Magtanim ay Di Biro,? a Tagalog folk song translated as ?Planting Rice?? in English ? a plea for good harvest and healing from Saint Philomena and an expression of gratitude to the patroness for bountiful fishing.
Dancers sway their arms, bend to the ground, and look upward to the sky, wearing the baro?t saya and camisa de chino.
National Artist Ramon A. Obusan noticed the uniqueness and ingenuity of the lapay and the bantigue while researching native dances in the country, according to Ezperanza Danao-Carullo, designated city tourism officer.
She said it was Obusan who combined the movements of the two dances into the lapay-bantigue.
That blend was formally introduced as one of the original folk dances in the country during the National Folk Dance Workshop at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and Folk Arts Theater in 1997. It was launched during the first Lapay-Bantigue Festival on the second anniversary of the cityhood of Masbate in September 2000.
Soon, the lapay-bantigue emerged as a culturally distinct art of the city. ?Just in time when we need to establish a festival that will be unique to our city,? said Danao-Carullo.
Over the years, Masbate city and province have been known for Rodeo Masbateño, a festival celebrating the life and exploits of cattle raisers. ?But Rodeo Masbateño is attributed to the province at large. Masbate City is just one of places in the province where there are cattle-raisers. City folk wanted something that would be exclusively identified with our city,? the tourism officer said.
Since its launching, the lapay-bantigue has raised the people?s cultural awareness, according to Jose Cookie Medina, chair of the provincial and city tourism councils.
?To be one of the performers of the lapay-bantigue in regional and national competitions has become a status symbol for the people of Masbate City,? he said, adding that parents were very eager to let their children join auditions.
?Masbate City is losing many of its cultural landmarks, good thing we have the lapay-bantigue. That is why the city government has been promoting the dance,? he added.
Danao-Carullo said the dancers had either won top prizes or received citations in their first years of joining street dancing competitions, including those of the Gayon Bikol and the Sinulog Festival in Cebu City.
Lapay birds still fly over and feed in the waterfront of Bantigue. And the villagers still perform the dance as a form of offering to Saint Philomena.