“You walk, swim, and fly,” coached an amazing lady we fondly call Nanay Charing. At 85 years old she can still out-dance everyone on the dance floor. Her life is a lively, inspiring kuratsa, a traditional dance of the Waray people with roots from the islands of Leyte and Samar.
“Walking, swimming, and flying as dance steps are limited to the girls,” stresses Mana Charing. Indeed, in the dozens of kuratsa dances I’ve watched in my lifetime, the guys’ ability to be graceful lie in their abilities to kee their upper bodies stiff. However, their joints have to be very flexible as they have to bend their knees while doing mincing and jumping steps, all at the same time – especially in that part of the dance mimicking a chase.
Kuratsa has unlimited number of steps and figures, allowing the dancers to be creative. Innovation in the dance, as in life, freshens up this ritualistic workout that blends centuries-old narrative of courtship and celebration of the natives with the music and dance steps that are heavily influenced by their colonizers from Europe. This dance would not be out of place in those islands depicted in the ” Zorba the Greek” movie.
Kuratsa is not unlike the the sirtaki, the Greek dance which combines the slow and fast versions of the Greek folk dance, hasapiko. Kuratsa starts with the “walk”. In the middle part of the dance are the mincing and chasing steps that increasingly go faster. After the chase comes what I’d call the “hostage” phase where one partner is lead to seat down on a chair, signaling those in the camp of the other dancer to throw in their cash into the dance floor. Then the kuratsa resumes with the slow phase, followed by another round of chasing and holding the other dancer “hostage”. This time, those from the other camp take their turn in throwing in their money into the dance floor. The dance could go on forever, until the dancers slow down, bow, and return to their respective seats.
Unlike the sirtaki, kuratsa is danced by two dancers, traditionally male and female. While sirtaki eventually has most in the crowd participating in the dancing, in kuratsa, the crowd participates by opening their wallets and throwing in their cash.
The proceeds of the kuratsa dance go to the newly married couple, if the dance is performed during a wedding feast. However, if the kuratsa is performed during a fiesta celebration, the proceeds are used to finance projects of the fiesta organizers. With this fundraising element of the dance, kuratsa is popularly referred to as a prosperity dance. Imagine if all the members of the U.S. Congress could dance the kuratsa in a way that will allow their supporters to contribute their cash for building roads and bridges?
In many ways, kuratsa is a story of getting most from life – through grace, smarts and rhythm – with the support of family, friends and a whole village that cares. Listening to Nanay Charing’s stories, kuratsa embodies her life. As a school teacher with seven children, she needed to help augment the household income. She needed to help her husband, a military officer, support her brood. She started a peddling business that provided basic consumer goods to her customers through long-term payment schemes. Soon she would branch out into micro lending, and eventually into financing of large scale construction projects. From her stories, the most challenging point of her life was when her husband became fatally ill, even as they were putting four of her children through medical school in Manila. She learned to survive in the most hostile environment in Mindanao, where there was a raging insurgency and secessionist movement. As a military officer’s wife, she was a prime target for ambush. She learned all the security measures she could do to protect herself while keeping her business afloat and taking care of a sick husband.
Today, Nanay Charng takes pride in the successes of her children, four of whom are practicing medical doctors in the U.S., with the rest of the children having successful careers based on their nursing profession. The careers that her children pursued were her choices more than her children’s, she asserts. My niece of high school age, who was listening in to her stories could only exclaim, in teenager fashion, “She’s hardcore!”.
Nanay Charing was called on to dance the kuratsa at the fiesta that night. She didn’t miss a step on that particularly long dance sequence. With every dance step, the past and the future merge like a time machine – tradition enabling the fiesta organizers to move forward with their mission of service. This kuratsa generated over $800 in proceeds that night – and more: an enriched cultural experience for the next generation who participated in the event and saw the feat of keeping one’s balance, even if one has to swim, hop, and fly.