‘A Month in Manila’: Local dancer featured in new dance anthology
Learning a dance that was born by the sea, Kara Nepomuceno was able to connect to her Filipino heritage and to her surrounding environment in a way she had never expected. The Carmel Valley resident’s written experiences about her time dancing in Manila, Philippines will be part of an upcoming anthology, “Dance Adventures: True Stories About Dancing Abroad.”
“It was an important experience for me,” said Nepomuceno, 22, of the trip made possible by an Oberlin Shansi grant from Oberlin College. “It was a starting point for interrogating my desire to ‘return to roots’ through dance.”
The book will be published on Dec. 1 and is currently available for pre-sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Nepomuceno grew up surrounded by dance as her mother was a professional dancer and ballet teacher in the Carmel Valley area. Kara trained in ballet and became a part of the dance Conservatory program at Canyon Crest Academy. She went on to study dance and biology at Oberlin College in Ohio, graduating in May 2020— she attended graduation virtually from her home in Carmel Valley where she has been since March.
Nepomuceno’s chapter, “A Month in Manila,” details her time learning a form of pangalay dance from professional performance group Alun Alun Dance Circle. She traveled to Manila when she was a third-year student at Oberlin in January 2019, inspired and curious about the pangalay style of dancing.
As she said, the dance form can be difficult to define—it is affiliated with communities in the Sulu Archipelago, a chain of islands at the southwestern edge of the Philippines. The codified form that she learned is known as Amilbangsa, a form specific to Alun Alun by the group’s founder Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa. Fernando-Amilbangsa spent time in Sulu and during her time there experienced pangalay, observed the gestures and deconstructed them so communities outside of Sulu could experience the forms.
In a video chat with “Dance Adventures” editor Megan Taylor Morrison, Nepomuceno talked about how in pangalay, feeling is conveyed through hand gestures, fingers curving through the air. It was a unique experience to learn the hand gestures, stretching her hands and feeling the full expansion of her fingers—she said it was a different way to sense her environment. As she danced, she conjured up “romanticized” visions of the Philippines and her hometown of San Diego: cool breezes, birds flying, palm trees, and the ocean waves and seaweed swaying.
“Each time I raised my arms and bent my knees, I saw myself dancing before a wide horizon of sand and water,” wrote Nepomuceno in her chapter. “As I glided slowly across the floor I could be swaying on the sand or balancing on the bow of a long fishing boat.”
Nepomuceno has a lot of family in the Philippines and she had been there before several times to visit—one of her aunts is actually a dancer with Alun Alun and during her time there, they were able to dance together. Over the four weeks, she learned basic movements in the Amilbangsa method and attempted a performance of a full dance at the end.
She said it meant a lot to her to be able to connect with her family through dance and to learn more about the nuances of Philippine culture. The experience became the foundation for her 30-page senior thesis in dance at Oberlin and motivated her to explore dance studies as a Shansi Fellow. It was that thesis that was shared with Taylor Morrison in what Nepomuceno calls a “happy accident.” She was selected to share her experience in the anthology.
“It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a writer,” said Nepomuceno, who had to learn how to write for an audience rather than for an academic paper, weaving together her personal experiences in Manila with her research as a dance scholar.
As a Shansi Fellow, Nepomuceno was awarded a post-graduate fellowship to teach in Southeast Asia for two years. Due to the pandemic, she was not able to physically be at her post at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia so she is currently teaching her students from her home in Carmel Valley. She is teaching English to first-year English learners and is co-teaching a reading and writing course for masters students.
“It’s definitely not ideal,” said Nepomuceno of the very long-distance learning, “But I’m incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity.” She hopes she will be able to teach her students in person in 2021.
Nepomuceno continues to write about dance and performs with the Samahan Filipino-American Performing Arts and Education Center in Mira Mesa. In getting the advance copy of the book, she said it was exciting to see her name in print and to envision the story getting into other people’s hands. She is happy to spread a message about returning to one’s roots, sharing how she was able to fully immerse herself with the arts and culture of the Philippines.
“It’s so rewarding to share this story,” said Nepomuceno “I hope it resonates with other Filipino Americans and other young Filipino people in the diaspora.”
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