This is a long read, but an interesting one. Here goes:
THE DAY WE DANCED BEFORE THE UNIVERSE
By: F. Victor G. Manangan, based on the stories narrated
by The Miss Universe Ryan Luis Singson Dancers (A trimmed version of this article was published by Business Mirror’s Health and Fitness Magazine on its April 27, 2017 issue)
Like many Filipinos, we met with great interest the speculation that the Philippines will host the 65th Miss Universe pageant. After all, we avidly watch it on television year after year. When it finally became official in November 2016, we only imagined that we will enjoy the telecast more because the beauty of the country will be showcased. Never in our wildest imagination did we expect that we will become part of the spectacle, that in no less than the Miss Universe stage, we will have the experience of a lifetime.
We knew that former Governor Chavit Singson of Ilocos Sur was one of the pageant’s sponsors. Gov. Chavit, as we call him, is not only a legendary figure to us; he is also a familiar face because we were part of his campaign dance troupe. Many of us are his college scholars in the University of the Northern Philippines – Vigan as well. When his son Ryan Luis ran for Governor and won, we became the “Ryan Luis Singson Dancers” (RLSD). Gov. Ryan did not just make us staple performers in provincial events; he also generously entrusted to us the annual “Kannawidan (Ilocano term for “Traditional”) Dance Craze,” a competition aiming to develop talented dancers out of young Ilokanos. Yet we believed that our so-called “Singson connection” will only allow us to get fleeting glimpses of the candidates if the rumors that they will visit Vigan will come true.
In early January 2017, the rumors became a certainty. Not only that; it also carried with it an exciting news: We were informed that we will perform a folk-dance number in the Terno Show in Plaza Salcedo, the cultural fashion gala where selected candidates will showcase magnificent Maria Clara costumes. We were quite giddy about it, and we reveled in that balmy Vigan evening where the colonial streets of the city saw the magical sight of beautiful candidates parading in their lavish ternos, while a chorale sang to the stars. We really savored our dancing, thinking that it shall be the only time that we will get so close to the candidates. When we took our final bow, we thought that our Miss Universe experience was over. But a few days after, our manager called and told us something that is truly the stuff of dreams: The Miss Universe Organization (MUO) wants us to perform again. This time, in the finale’s three segments, namely, the opening, swimsuit and evening gown competitions. It means that we will be part of the global television special viewed by a billion people around the world.
To say that we were dumbfounded was an understatement. But the explosive news came with lots of bangs. First, only six (6) out of the eighteen (18) RLSD members were to perform, chosen on the basis of a video of our performance during the Terno Show. Second, the chosen dancers were to leave for Manila on that very same day, unleashing a frenetic pace of packing activity and of putting some semblance of order to the lives that we will temporarily leave behind. The drama intensified even more when the MUO sent word that in addition to the three pairs they originally requested, two more were needed. That put a bit of a snag because while all RLSD members were extremely willing (come on, it was Miss Universe!), saying “yes” was not as simple as it seemed. Many of us are students and working people so availability was not a cinch. In fact, one of those originally chosen, Gianluca Arce, had to regretfully decline because he had school exams. The final ten (10) was formed only a few hours before we left for Manila: Saiza Khate Laguesma (24), Jhu-anna Irylle Maribay (23), Regina Torrijos (24), Maryanne Villegas (22), Maryelle Villegas (21), John Paul Cariño (25), Joemar Codilla (19), Hexelon King Freezy Gayadan (22), John Vince Louinne Marquez (25) and Nhowel Maglanoc (28), an alumnus of the group who agreed to take a leave of absence from his job in Manila to become the one-time tenth member.
It was only when the bus started speeding away from Vigan that we were able to gather our breaths and collect our thoughts. In the space of weeks, the monotony of our daily lives suddenly gave way to a dizzying explosion of excitement. But there was sadness too. We expected that the entire group will perform, but only nine (9) of us were leaving for the city, with the tenth dancer waiting there. Our years of performing together have made us not just the closest of friends but practically siblings. The happiness would have been more intense if all eighteen (18) of us were chosen and available. But then, as we have come to learn, life indeed moves in mysterious ways and we take what we can take while giving what we can give.
After a few hours, the soaring buildings of Manila came into view. Seeing the nation’s greatest metropolis is always a wonderful experience for us, as it is such a contrast to the tranquil idyll of the seas and mountains of our provincial surroundings. We marveled at the pulsing lights, sounds and motions of the city, syncopating to a choreography that only they know and understand. But speaking of choreography! The call that we will perform in the pageant was so sudden that we really had no time to create one. MUO’s higher-ups informed us that they will take charge of it but just in case, our group had tentative discussions of what steps to form and use.
We were right about having those discussions because upon arrival, we were told that we will form our own choreography after all. Thus, during the first day, we did not join the candidates yet. We were on our own, collaborating on steps and on polishing them together. There was a fair amount of pressure but we were more than motivated by the news that we will be Flo Rida’s back-up dancers and that we were to be the only Filipino talents. In that capacity, we were among the first to learn the pageant’s background music and guest performers, tidbits that the MUO usually keep under wraps until a few days before the finale. In addition to Flo Rida, we learned that the group Boyz II Men was also coming. Through the rehearsals, we also came to know that the following songs will be used: Flo Rida’s “In The Ayer,” “Low,” “My House,” and “Zillionaire” for the opening; Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” (Seeb Remix) for the swimsuit competition” and Kiira’s “Gold” for the evening gown parade. Boyz II Men will perform a medley of their greatest hits during the “final look” segment but we were told that we will have no part in that.
We did not only come to know the songs. We took them to our hearts and feet because we have to create dances from them. Fortunately, the MUO choreographers, Stefani Kammer and Victoria Pizzo, were so easy to work with. They definitely knew what they wanted from us but they were also approachable, amiable and warm, making the long process of creating and finalizing the steps a breeze. Their subsequent approval gave us the keys to finally join the candidates on the first rehearsal place, the SMX Convention Center, in one of its massive exhibition halls.
We knew that we were dancing for a beauty pageant, but we were still stunned when we had our first glimpse of the ladies. Without exception, all of them were truly gorgeous, remarkable in their own ways. Black or white, tall or short, stocky or slim, even in our unseasoned eyes, they embodied the pageant’s official tagline: “Confidently beautiful.”
It was truly a surreal experience when Flo Rida’s music boomed through the loudspeakers for the very first time and we began dancing while the ladies started strutting. At that moment, it became as real as it can be that we were indeed a part of the Miss Universe pageant. There were butterflies in our stomachs; we felt that it seemed we were dancing for the very first time. In every sway, twist and turn, we surrendered to that rare rhythm coming from the knowledge that we were part of something far bigger than ourselves. It was an exhilarating experience, but also a humbling one. The MUO could have hired any dance group, including more prominent ones, but there we were, a bunch of probinsyanos, performing for the greatest pageant on earth, the universe rather.
2. From that moment on, our lives took on a new rhythm. We were engulfed in rehearsals from ten in the morning to five in the afternoon. The succession of days removed our timidity and boosted our confidence. The shy, furtive glances that we gave to the candidates became full smiles and hearty waves. The long rehearsal hours made us aware of this truth: True, they are famous figures in their own lands and are women with amazing accomplishments but they are also human, just like the rest of us. We saw them get pressured from wanting to win, get exhausted from the grueling schedule and all the while, amazingly maintaining their grace and poise. Soon, the barrier was broken. Our mobile phones started to fill up with our twofies and groufies with them. The rehearsal breaks witnessed us exchanging small talk, along with the MUO staff, choreographers and technical people. We could not believe our luck. It was really amazing and we never got tired talking about it at night in Bileg, the dormitory house owned by Gov. Chavit where we were billeted, a thirty-minute ride from the Mall of Asia (MOA) Complex.
Many candidates made their marks with us but we were really captivated by the serenity of Miss Myanmar, Htet Htet Htun; the sassiness of Miss Colombia, Andrea Tovar; the gorgeousness of Miss Mexico, Kristal Silva; the exotic looks of Miss Brazil, Raissa Santana; the elegance of Miss Thailand, Chalita Suansane; the regality of Miss Venezuela, Mariam Habach and of course, the breathtaking beauty of Miss Philippines, Maxine Medina. Miss France, Iris Mittenaere, also began growing on us, because of her bubbliness and undeniable charisma. She was well-liked by her fellow candidates and always lit up the room with her radiant smile.
As the pageant’s finale drew near, the rehearsals were moved to the actual venue, the Mall of Asia Arena, a futuristic-looking colossus of concrete, glass and steel. There, for the first time, we saw the fabled Miss Universe stage, a painstakingly assembled solid slab of gleaming black and divided by several runways, bathed by hundreds of lights, surrounded by cameras and mounted with gigantic screens that continuously displayed amazing backdrops. It looked almost unreal, unlike anything we have seen before.
Admittedly, the pace of activities really increased the time we moved there. Rehearsals hours were extended; we were only given our leave to go at around seven in the evening. It was also there that all the participants – from the pageant’s staff to us talents to the candidates themselves – truly began feeling that Miss Universe was really a competition. A rush of electric excitement and suspense always permeated the air. It became clear more than ever that the opportunity of a lifetime, the prospect of instant global superstardom, awaits the next wearer of the sparkling crystal, diamond and sapphire DIC crown. It was somewhat scary and downright heady at the same time.
More than that, we also began seeing the pageant as how it really is, compared with the extravaganza that we see in television. Miles and miles of electrical wiring snaking to and from everywhere; multitudes of cameras recording every unfolding; a never-disappearing throng of professionals making sure that everything is in place and thus, TV-ready – from the hair and make-up of the contestants to where we, the dancers should stand. Every minute was accounted for and no detail was too small, mandated as they were by a script that everyone must follow. Security was also quite tight; access was restricted only to those who have credentials (IDs) like us, and even then, there were varying levels of access for each holder.
We have many memories from the rehearsals but these are among the most vivid: The stately figure of Lu Sierra, the pageant’s official catwalk trainer, gliding across the stage, showing the ladies how a Miss Universe should strut; the unexpected sense of humor possessed by the country’s pride, the radiant Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, who readily demonstrated in every single rehearsal why she won Miss Universe; how the ever-smiling Steve Harvey seemed larger than life; the kindly countenance of Ashley Graham; the thrill of grooving around the stage as Flo Rida actually sang; and the strange sensation of dancing to “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” before a practically-empty 20,000 seater, surrounded by eighty-six (86) women from around the world, their eyes intent on the prize.
We were only dancers but we admit that we also felt some pressure. We were sobered by the fact that as the only Filipino talents in the competition, we, in a way, were representing the country to the world, the universe rather, during the telecast. The moments that we were going to spend onstage were to be brief but we still wanted to be at our very best. We also wanted to justify why we were chosen. To who? We did not exactly know but it only added to our determination that we will dance as we have never danced before.
Fortunately, many in our group were blessed with excellent senses of humor so the pressure of performing before an international audience and the fatigue from the long hours were dispelled by repeated laughter. Because we have been such close friends for years, we had a limitless supply of inside jokes that never failed to energize us. Our dressing room witnessed our running gags – from mimicking singing babies to photographing our tired co-dancers who unknowingly left their mouths open as they drifted on to dreamland. But there was one person who really inspired us: Gov. Chavit himself. As we began our final round of rehearsals, he visited the arena and was gracious enough not just in posing for photos with us but in telling us that we should not be pressured and just enjoy the whole experience. We really appreciated his kind words and it helped fuel our final performance.
Then, just like that, the day of the pageant, January 30, arrived. It dawned cold and gray but our hearts were warm with excitement. We boys arrived at the venue at about five in the morning. The girls even went earlier so that they will have ample time to do their hair and make-up. We presented our dancer IDs to the security people and had our bags inspected. Our hands were stamped with the official pageant mark. Finally, we were given the “go” to enter the seldom-seen part of the arena – its inner sanctum, a labyrinth of corridors and passages, escalators and stairs, dressing and rehearsal rooms.
It is funny now, but two hours before the biggest performance in our lives, we were fretting not about being onstage but on trivial things: “Where are the other dressing room chairs? We want to sit too!” “Who ate the apples that I packed? You should have eaten the chocolates instead. I’m on a diet for God’s sake!” “Is this shade of red (lipstick) just right? Or is it too dark?” “How come you’re wearing sunglasses? How can you see?” “Oh my gosh, it’s so cold here!” “Excuse me, this is not beer belly; it’s abs!” And the banter went on. But soon enough, after donning our costumes of denims and hoodie jackets, we were signaled to take our places onstage and so we went. Time for someone’s life to change. Time for us to dance.
Plenty of people watched the dress rehearsal the day before but nothing could have prepared us for the actual show. As we climbed the stairs leading to the stage, we were met by a deafening roar. The arena was filled to capacity by people who sported the flags of participating countries, banners and pictures of candidates, and each was determined to give the loudest chant and shout of support in his/her native language. It was a startling sight; really amazing, and in many ways, truly moving. The fact that it took so many years for some of the contestants to get to that point, and us through a quick and mysterious move of Fate, was not lost on us.
We took our places and stood in the darkness, waiting for the stage lights to be lit. Our hearts were thumping, whether out of fear or excitement, our heads were too hazy to ascertain. We were thinking, “Out there in Ilocos, in Pangasinan, in Nueva Ecija, in Abra, in Mandaluyong, our families, friends and officemates are watching us. Out there, a billion people are sitting in front of their television and computer sets. Out there…Out there!” Then, the lights exploded and the voice of Flo Rida boomed in the air… “Oh, hot damn, this is my jam/Keep me partying till the A.M…” We began dancing, and everything just passed in a blur of dance movement, music and costume changes.
Three hours later, sitting inside our dressing room, we watched on the television screen as Miss France’s eyes glowed with pleasant disbelief, and through the doorway, heard Steve Harvey’s correct announcement that she was the 65th Miss Universe. Someone had won the crown. Someone’s life was changed forever. Our Miss Universe journey has come to an end. It was time for us to go home. But before that, us ladies had to go to the comfort room and who else should we meet there but Gloria Diaz, Miss Universe 1969? It was a fitting end to a week that was filled with nothing but the extraordinary.
From the beginning, we did not expect that our Miss Universe sojourn will bring us stardom. We only danced for a few minutes and only in the background. Yet, the experience is something that we shall always deeply cherish because it was indeed the opportunity of a lifetime. Besides, it brought us the rich blessing of our families and friends being proud of us. It strengthened our already strong friendships. It made us learn many things. It enabled us to be a part of something historic. Such rewards are already more than enough.
All of us were truly honored to have been chosen, and to be in the service of the country, however brief. Yet the biggest thing that we shall take from our week in Miss Universe was the fact that we were able to do what we love most: dance and dance well. After all, that is the essence of being a dancer. That is the primary reason of this vocation that we have chosen. Whether the occasion is simple or monumental, a dancer always does his/her best, not really to impress but to express, and that is the ultimate meaning, the profound significance of our moments in Miss Universe.
Now that we are back in the lives that we have temporarily left before the magic of the universe descended upon us, as we have returned in our worlds of office desks and scientific calculators, school books and dancing in village auditoriums, this light shall always brightly glow inside: There was that one day, that one unforgettable day, when we danced before the universe, for the universe. It is a memory that will certainly last a lifetime.