Dancing her life: Rosalia Merino Santos
“I would like that very much, yes.” Dance teacher Rosalia Merino Santos, a dainty woman of 94, said this in reply to the Philippines Graphic’s query about whether she would like to be named National Artist for Dance.
This gracious nonagenarian consented to a face to face interview at her residence in Sta. Rosa, Laguna and, during the course of the interview, demonstrated the dancer’s grace she spent her lifetime learning and teaching.
Her daughter Romina has taken up the efforts begun by her father, lawyer Ruben F. Santos, to get Rosalia Merino Santos named National Artist for Dance, efforts that came to an abrupt stop when he passed away in 1994, shortly after his wife was conferred the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining award by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
“Dance is about the emotions and expressing these emotions,” Rosalia said during the interview. “It is also about knowing human anatomy, because you must know how the body moves and works in order to know how to express yourself with it.” She proceeded to demonstrate this by making her hands and fingers undulate with the unmistakable grace of someone who has spent a lifetime honing every muscle to dance with effortless fluidity—this is no mean feat for a 94-year-old woman. She carries herself with the grace of Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance. Rosalia can still execute, while seated, the perfect ballet high-kick en pointe.
This small, bird-like woman is one of the pioneers of modern dance in the Philippines and she contributed to the growth of dance as a performing art in the country by pushing forward efforts for experimental choreography.
She was trained by the pioneers of dance in the Philippines across several genres: Ballet under Russian classical ballerina Luva Adameit, and, later, Ricardo Cassell and Joseph Sztemberski; folk dance under Francisca Reyes Aquino, Spanish dance under Conchita Sotelo and; modern dance under Trudl Dubsky-Zipper.
Rosalia set up the first modern dance company in the Philippines: The Far Eastern University Modern Experimental Dance Group. She was one of the choreographers of “Dularawan: Ang Salakot na Ginto”—the inaugural dance performance of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 1969 where 2014 National Artist for Dance and Ballet Philippines founder Alice Reyes played a lead role. Rosalia was Reyes’ first dance teacher, as documented by the Philippine Daily Inquirer: Reyes “toured early on with her father, and trained at a young age with Rosalia Merino [Santos] while studying at Maryknoll College.” (From “A Legacy of Filipino Dance” by Paul Alexander Morales, PDI, April 30, 2016)
This tiny powerhouse of dance threw herself without reserve into life as a dancer, choreographer, director and teacher. Dance is her life’s work, the air she breathes, and all of this is well documented at the CCP, in various news articles, television reports, theses and curricula on dance history in the Philippines in several schools. She taught generations of Filipino dancers.
“My mom also introduced aqua ballet in the Philippines,” Romina said during the interview with her mother. Besides being an accomplished dancer, Rosalia excelled in sports like swimming and track and field. She also, according to her daughter, plays the piano.
FIRST DANCE STEPS
Rosalia was born on Nov. 7, 1923 to Gonzalo Merino and Enriqueta Ramos. She lived in California with her parents from her toddler years until she was seven years old, while her father was finishing his Master’s degree in agriculture. “I used to see people dancing on their tiptoes on TV then. I was so intrigued by it,” she said, speaking of the first time she watched a ballet performance on TV in California. “I wanted to do that.”
Rosalia’s voice was soft but clear as she spoke of her lifelong love of dance. “My earliest memories were of moving my body to music,” she said, her eyes dancing with remembered glee. “I must have been three or four years old. My parents would invite house-guests to watch me dance. I also remember insisting that the audience watch me as I danced,” she said, laughing at the memory. “After all, I was dancing for an audience. I was dancing to communicate with the people who saw me.”
She’d been an ace student, and her academic excellence had earned her the gift of ballet lessons from her proud parents on her eighth birthday. “At the time, it was not easy to find a ballet teacher,” she said. “I told my parents I wanted to learn how to dance on my toes, like the ballet dancers I’d seen on TV.”
Rosalia began learning ballet under Madame Adameit, who owned the Cosmopolitan Ballet and Dancing School. Adamaeit gave her a scholarship and she completed her dance diploma for technique in 1936, at the age of 13. It was at this tender age that she became Adameit’s assistant and began teaching at the ballet school. She also took private lessons in folk dance under National Artist for Dance Francisca Reyes Tolentino (later Aquino).
As a high school student at the Philippine Women’s University (PWU), Rosalia was introduced to the PWU Physical Education Department head at the time, Helena Benitez. Benitez, also known as the founder of the Bayanihan dance troupe, asked Rosalia to teach folk dance to PWU’s college students.
DANCE IN FLIGHT
Rosalia made a career as a teacher of different dance styles, from ballet in St. Paul College in Manila and with Cassell, to folk dance at the FEU PE Department and creative dance at the Centro Escolar University.
Rosalia became so well-known among the community of dance teachers and their students that she became the subject of theses on dance history and teaching in the Philippines. Romina said during Graphic’s interview with her mother that “it was a regular thing, having people seek mom out in our house in Quezon City for interviews for this thesis or that one.”
She completed her Bachelor of Science in Education, major in Physical Education, at the PWU in 1950, after which she worked with Reyes-Aquino at the Department of Education (DepEd), teaching folk dance to PE teachers.
She applied for and received a Fullbright scholarship to study at the University of Wisconsin under Margaret H’Doubler. These lessons involved “incorporating the intellect, emotions, spirit/soul into the understanding of dance, as well as the body,” Rosalia said. Doubler’s approach to teaching dance, according to her, was for the student to explore concepts and movements that were grounded in anatomical, physiological and psychological theories. During her time in Wisconsin, Rosalia was part of Orchesis, a student organization that gave her an outlet for performing and choreographic experimental dances.
While she was a Fullbright scholar, Rosalia seized the opportunity to experience modern dance, which was still new in the US. She took classes with Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Hanya Holm, Jose Limon and Charles Weldman—as well as auditing composition classes with Doris Humphrey during summers spent in Connecticut and New York. She gained the notice of Horst, who encouraged her to continue her innovative choreography, one result of which was the dance “Tantrums,” which Rosalia presented informally to her workshop peers and where she danced to music composed by Horst.
“Mom also spent her breaks teaching our folk dances to her classmates in the US,” Romina said. Rosalia added this to Romina’s statement: “Well, they were very interested in the tinikling and the cariñosa.”
When she completed her Fullbright scholarship in 1952, Rosalia went to Switzerland to attend workshop classes with Harald Kreutzberg and Mary Wigman, then known as giants of the expressionist dance movement in Europe.
BRINGING HOME DANCES
When she returned home, Rosalia resumed her work of teaching PE teachers Filipino folk dances with the DepEd. She also taught modern dance classes at the University of the East and PWU. She also became a member of the Francisca Reyes-Aquino Filipiniana Dance Troupe, and she restaged many folk dances for them.
Rosalia had this aim in her work with DepEd: To teach modern dance to public school teachers from Apparri to Jolo. It was a goal that was shelved for lack of funds.
Undeterred, she responded to requests for lectures about modern dance by making a lecture-demonstration with tools and techniques for teaching modern dance and presented it to the University of the Philippines, UE, Philippine Normal College, the National College of Physical Education and PWU.
This was when Rosalia met and married the love of her life, lawyer Ruben F. Santos. They made their home on Macopa St. in Quezon City, where she opened a small ballet studio. Her husband was teaching law at FEU, and she eventually began teaching folk and creative dance there in 1957, and she formed the FEU Modern Experimental Dance Group.
In 1958, her expanded lecture-demonstration grew into the stage performance titled “What is Dance?” This evolved into a presentation that was in demand among many educational institutions and offices, especially during cultural affairs.
Rosalia choreographed the dance performance “Of Cocks and Kings” (1958), the dance interpretation of the story by Alejandro Roces, who was named National Artist for Literature in 2003. The music for this dance performance was composed by National Artist for Music Lucresia “King” Kasilag. That same year, she choreographed the abstract works “Fanfare” and “Feminine Gender,” as well as “Opus 17” in 1959.
In 1963, Rosalia put Filipino customs and mores onstage in a performance titled “Ugaling Pilipino.” She also choreographed “Portrait of the Filipino as Seen Through Philippine Folk Songs and Music” for the FEU Folk Dance Group, a piece that was performed by the troupe in Europe.
Rosalia also pushed the boundaries of choreography at the time by creating the battle scenes of the “Dance of Tyrrany” and the “Exchange of Panay” segment of the play “Dularawan: Ang Salakot na Ginto,” the inaugural performance at the opening of the CCP to the public in 1969.
“Dularawan” was directed by poet and, later, National Artist for Literature Rolando Tinio, and produced by Lamberto Avellana, later named National Artist for Film. The script for this inaugural performance was written by Jose Larizabal, with music composed by Kasilag. The different dance performances of the play were divided among choreographers of two dance genres: Anita Kane and Inday Gaston Manosa for ballet, and Rosalia for modern dance.
Rosalia had been quoted in news reports immediately following the CCP opening as saying that the collaboration between modern dance, folk dance and ballet for the inaugural performance could “very well mark the beginning of integrated efforts towards the formation of a national dance company in the country.”
Those words came true in 1971, when Reyes was the artistic director of the Alice Reyes and Modern Dance Company—now known as Ballet Philippines. Reyes sought to mount a work at CCP to celebrate Filipino-themed choreography, so Rosalia created and presented “Halina’t Maglaro (Come and Play)” based on the traditional games Filipino children play.
Rosalia was a consultant to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), and was recognized by the Ballet Federation of the Philippines for her contributions as a teacher and choreographer at the National Ballet Festival in 1978. She received the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinagan Award from the City of Manila in 1981 and the Gawad CCP for Dance in 1994.
Her list of solid contributions to the evolution and continuity of dance performance and teaching is as long as the lady is petite. These things are part and parcel of the country’s national patrimony in the field of dance performance, as well as physical education. She worked with and gained the respect of several National Artists—and not just for Dance, but for Literature and Music, as well.
Yet the woman sitting with the Graphic during the interview did not show even a jot of the hubris one would expect from an accomplished artist with a lifetime of extremely notable achievements.
The woman facing this writer exuded simplicity and a very deep and abiding love for dance. Her love for dance and teaching touched the lives of many students, performing artists, and yes, helped shape (and intersected with) the works of several of this nation’s National Artists.
Her love for the terpsichorean arts is only eclipsed by the love she bears for her late husband and their children—that much was apparent during Graphic’s interview with her. Rosalia’s strong drive to learn and teach varied dance forms has enriched the local treasury of dances and brought our folk dances to many foreign audiences.
“As a performer, you want the world to watch you, to listen, to bear witness to your expression of who you are and what you feel,” Rosalia said softly as the interview drew to a close. “That is what dance is all about. It is about life and your place in this life. When we dance, we want the audience to be part of that, to listen to that.”
THE NEXT LEVEL
According to the website of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the selection of a National Artist by the panel of experts and jury of experts tasked with doing this so the President can confer the honor upon the candidate must be based on these criteria: The candidate ”(a) should have achieved authority, credibility and track record in his field(s) of expertise; (b) should have extensive knowledge in his field(s) and his views on Philippine art and culture must be national in perspective; (c) should be a recognized authority in the study or research of Philippine art and culture; (d) must be willing to devote sufficient time and effort to the work of the Council; (e) must be willing to sign a non-disclosure statement in order to safeguard the confidentiality of the deliberations.
Rosalia’s extensive resume and achievements, under these criteria, qualify her as a candidate for National Artist for Dance, something that her late husband pushed to give to his wife—an effort her children are now continuing.
Yet, while Rosalia has said she would “very much like” to be named National Artist for Dance, she added that, “my life has already been a dream. I dance because I love dancing and that is the best thing in the world.”
This woman’s lifelong love for dance is amazing, and her story serves as an inspiration to artists who love their craft. G