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The Pangalay Folk Dance of the Sulu Archipelago - Meaning, Music, Design and History [Traditional Yakan Dances of the Philippines]

Pangalay aka igal, and pansak/pamansak specifically refer to a traditional dance form popular in the Sulu Archipelago among the Tausug, Sama/Samal, Sama Dilaut/Badjao, Jama Mapun, and Yakan. It is also known as gandingan among the Yakan. Pangalay comes from the Tausug verb mangalay, meaning “to dance.” It is identical to the igal of the Sama and the Sama Dilaut, igal being the generic term for “dance” in the Sulu Archipelago. 

Among the Yakan who speak Yakan Bahasa, a language variant of Sinama and Tausug, this dance is known as pansak which also means “dance.” Another term for pamansak in Yakan Bahasa is “gandingan,” coming from the word ganding, which is a style in playing traditional instruments. The steps in gandingan is formal and regal compared to pamansak, characterized by slow and flowing movements performed during the ceremonial gatherings of the Yakan elite and members of the royalty. In Tawi-Tawi, the term pamansak is synonymous with pangalay or igal performed on top of two bamboo poles, popularly known as igal/pangalay ha taas patung.

In Basilan, the gandingan or pamansak performance is accompanied by the tagungguh, a gong ensemble consisting of three gongs of different sizes, a set of kwintangan tumbaga, five knobbed gongs in graduated sizes, and the gandang, a split bamboo tube. Yakan dancers wear the sawwal or loose trousers from an intricately woven fabric called sinelu’an. The sawwal has tight-fitting legs from knee-down, with a knee-joinery line called bakiyaq and leg tassels made of silk threads called jambu. The badju is the tight-fitting top with long and tight sleeves made of woven material and decorated with gold buttons called batawi. The male badju is usually open at the front with a pair of jambu sewn at the collar while the female version is closed by string or by a pentagonal chest covering called lapi. The women wear the olos or tubular skirt fastened around the waist. The men wear the kandit or belt made of gilim or red cotton cloth tediously coiled around the waist. To symbolize bravery and strength, men don a pis or head-cloth.

dancing the gandingan, a Yakan variant of pangalay, Lami-lamihan Festival
Lily Cuevas-Manggusan dancing the gandingan, a Yakan variant of pangalay, Lami-lamihan Festival, Basilan Province, 2015 (Earl Pasilan) 

In Tawi-Tawi and Sulu provinces, the kulintangan ensemble provides accompaniment, which is very fast and in contrast to the meditative and slow pangalay movements. Female dancers customarily wear a sablay (loose blouse) or a biyatawi (tight-fitting blouse). This is paired with either a patadjung (wrap-around skirt) or a sawwal kantiu (loose trousers) in which a siyag (sash of folded patadjung) placed on the shoulder is mandatory to cover the crotch for modesty’s sake. Male dancers wear a badju (loose shirt) or badju lapi (shirt with tight-fitting sleeves) ornamented with brass or silver buttons similar to those on the biyatawi. The lower garment is either a sawwal kantiu or a sawwal kuput (tight-fitting trousers) also ornamented with buttons at the cuffs. A sabitan (belt) or a kandit (sash) fastens the trousers to the waist. A matching scarf placed on the shoulder or wrapped around the head completes the male attire.

Pangalay, like the langka or martial dance style, bears close affinity to the Thai, Cambodian, and Balinese forms. It can be danced in open spaces like beaches and community plazas, or small confined spaces like the boats and houses. It is a meditative dance executed with downcast eyes and a dignified facial expression. Performed by both men and women of all ages on celebratory occasions, pangalay consists of the deceivingly simple but intricate postures and gestures basic to the traditional dances of the Sulu Archipelago. Knees are perennially bent with a slow and subtle bouncing motion that achieves the appearance of lightness and undulating motion of gentle waves. Knees of male dancers are apart while female dancers are close together while dancing. Hip and torso movements are very minimal. The torso is relaxed and slightly bent forward to a point of equilibrium, similar to stances in Asian martial arts and Asian traditional dances. The dancer’s arms and hands express images and feelings combined with various footwork. Arms and hands placed above the head may express joy, and over the face and chest may express resistance or protection. Gestures of arms and hands may convey visual metaphors of the wind, sea waves, flowers, butterflies, and birds.

It takes constant exposure to the numerous pangalay variants to distinguish the levels and lines of the direction of movement, the subtle dance flourishes, the peculiar entry and exit stances, the creeping or shuffling footwork, the seductive flip and flutter of hands and fingers. For instance, before doing the traditional hand turn that consists of outward-inward or inward-inward motion from the wrist, the dancer may execute several gesture variations: flicking, flipping, or cupping the fingers; abruptly flicking the hand itself from the wrist; or pressing the tips of thumb and index fingers together, leaving the three other fingers in the usual upturned position.

Courtship and wedding dances are included in the pangalay dance style. The pangilok and the eringan are similar Sama courtship dances, although the latter uses janggay or metal claws, which are also called sulakengkeng and saling-kuku. The igal ha agung is a subtly teasing dance where a man rolls, crawls, kneels, and follows a woman about, all the while beating an agung. In the pangasig, a Sama male plays the tungtung (the smallest gong in the kulintang set), teasing and dancing around a female partner who pretends not to notice his advances. The pangalay pangantin is performed by a bride shielded with a bridal curtain called a tabil. The bridegroom follows behind the curtain to signify his readiness to defend the bride. The highlight of the dance is the flicking of the janggay used by the bride. The over-vigilant groom quickly retrieves every janggay that falls to the floor, and then ceremoniously returns the whole set to the bride at the end of the dance. When performed in the open, this dance has the backdrop of colorful flags called sambulayang, which is also another name for pangalay pangantin.

The pangalay/pamansak is also part of the Yakan wedding ceremony called pegkawin or pagkawin. At the start of the elaborate ritual when the groom enters the bride’s house, a female dancer performs the pamansak/pangalay along with skillful tumahik martial dancers to the accompaniment of tagungguh musicians playing the megtambul or tumahik rhythm. After the wedding ceremony, the couple will sometimes be requested to dance the pansak pagkawin or wedding dance. The bride and groom execute pamansak movements without any body contact, even as the groom pursues the evasive bride. The groom then uncoils a part of his kandit using some tumahik movements like floor-scratching footwork. He tries to catch his bride with his long belt. The bride tries to slip away from the coil but the groom persists. In the groom’s third attempt, the bride dances in place to signify her acceptance to be the wife. The groom then encircles the bride, twirling half the belt’s length around her waist as a symbol of the groom’s obligation to protect his wife and children at all times.

Pangalay ha pattong by the Melengas Dance Ensemble of Zamboanga del Sur National High School
Pangalay ha pattong by the Melengas Dance Ensemble of Zamboanga del Sur National High School, Indak Pilipinas, CCP, Manila, 2017 (Aya Maglines)

Tawi-Tawi’s pamansak or pangalay/igal ha taas patung is a difficult dance that requires balance, alignment, concentration, strength, and stamina. This variant originated from the Sama of Simunul, Tawi-Tawi. The female dances atop twin bamboo poles borne on the shoulders of two men. One or two male partners join the dance simultaneously or alternately, performing a langka or martial dance while the female dancer is lowered to the ground.

There are also pangalay/igal dances that are performed for entertainment. The bula-bula is a Sama Dilaut version of dancing with bula or clappers made of bamboo, hardwood, or shells. Both male and female dancers click the bula to the beat of percussive ensemble music. The tariray is a Sama Dilaut version of dancing with clappers to the staccato accompaniment of brass percussion. The igal ha panyu is performed by young Samal and Tausug men and women seated in a circle, singing a lively folk tune. It is similar to other drop-the-handkerchief games where a dance-chase ensues with a handkerchief or a stick used to touch or “catch” a girl or boy. The pangsangbay or dalling-dalling is a Tausug song dance performed by male and female dancers wearing fantastic makeup, pasteboard crowns, and capes. The lyrics of the song accompaniment are interpreted comically with the aid of a fan.

Ritual dances also employ simple igal/pangalay movements, postures, and gestures. The magjinn or pagjinn from the Sama Dilaut of Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi is performed on the fourteenth moon to appease or to drive away an unfriendly jinn or spirit. The performers take turns dancing until some of them go into a trance. The ritual ends when the ritual leader whips the possessed performers with his yellow headscarf or pis to revive them. Early the next morning, another prayer is recited by the ritual leader before a miniature lepa festooned with miniature flags and laden with food offerings is set to sail. It is believed that the well-provided spirit will be appeased during its long voyage. The magjuwata from Tabawan, South Ubian, Tawi-Tawi, is a Sama ritual dance to drive away spirits that cause illness. All performers are female except the ritual leader. Toward the end of the ritual, the leader whips the patient in the belief that it is the jinn or spirit which receives the blows. Another version from Banaran, Tawi-Tawi, is performed on a Friday evening when the moon is full, either to foretell the future, drive away busung or bad luck, or invoke the help of spirits in recovering stolen property. Magpugot from the Sama of Musu, Siasi, Sulu, is a dance ritual to drive away evil spirits. The ritual performers gather around the patient lying before a ritual accessory made of woven nipa ribs wrapped in yellow cloth with multicolored flags attached to the four corners. The ritual leader’s pis and ritual costumes are hung on a stick tied across the woven ritual accessory. After chanting prayers and performing other preliminaries, the ritual leader dances about, impersonating several spirits, complete with rapid costume changes imitated by all ritual performers. After the patient’s affliction is identified, more frenzied dancing ensues. The ritual leader, now seemingly in a trance, hits the patient with his pis to drive away evil spirits. Dancing slows down when the patient kisses the hand of the ritual leader. The magsalba is a Sama dance ritual from Bulikulul, Siasi, Sulu. One of the six all-male performers officiates as a medium, remaining seated before an incense burner while the others dance around him. Later, he rises and dances in a circle several times each way, followed by the other performers. The ritual ends when the incense smoke peters out.

The pangalay/igal tradition also has mimetic forms imitating animals or humans in various occupations. The igal kussa depicts a wild boar tossing about a coconut that will not crack open. The dance, which also invariably elicits much laughter, is danced by a man. The linggisan is a Samal-Tausug interpretation of a bird in flight. Kaba-kaba is a Samal imitation of mating butterflies, and pagkamun of a sea mantis, performed by a man or a woman. The pangasik portrays a mating rooster; this Samal and Tausug dance is usually performed solo by a man and complements a female pangalay performance. The langka baluang is a Samal-Tausug dance that mimics an angry monkey. Postures and gestures in the pangalay and langka—a combat dance sometimes integrated into the pangalay—are humorous and always performed by a man. The igal buwani is a Samal-Tausug dance performed by torch-bearing male dancers who comically depict the hazards of honey gathering. The tawti, originally from Tawi-Tawi, amusingly portrays the difficulties of catching tawti or catfish. The dancer wears a bahag fashioned by securely tucking to the waist the rolled trouser legs of the sawwal kantiu or patajung. In one version, the fisher poisons the water and scoops up the dazed tawti with his bare hands; his big toe is pricked when accidentally stepping on a tawti. He thrashes about in pain, paddles for shore, and skips and jumps home. In another version, fishermen try to put the wriggling fish in a basket, get pricked in the big toe, and make their escape in a boat.

The Yakan of Lamitan have a variant called pansak si karendehan or dance of the maidens. This variant is an all-female dance exhibiting languid arm and hand gestures of the pangalay. However, one distinct hand gesture that gives the gandingan/pamansak a Yakan identity is the eddek or hand movements that mimic rice planting. Eddek movements and gestures are indicative of the Yakan’s culture as planters tilling Basilan’s interior farmlands, in contrast to the seafaring cultures of the Samal, Tausug, Sama Dilaut, and Jama Mapun.


Amilbangsa, Ligaya Fernando. 1983. Pangalay: Traditional Dances and Related Folk Artistic Expressions. Makati: Ayala Museum, Filipinas Foundation Inc., and Ministry of Muslim Affairs.

———. 2012. “Method of Instruction for the Preservation and Conservation of the Pangalay Dance Tradition of the Sulu Archipelago, Lecture demonstration.” 29 September, Mindanao State University, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

Pasilan, Earl Francis C. 2014. “Pansak Iyakanin: A Descriptive Movement Study and Documentation of Yakan Dances.” Philippine Folk Dance Society.

———. 2015. Phone interview by Rosalie S. Matilac from Metro Manila to Lamitan, Basilan, 3 January.

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