Shirley Halili-Cruz: The heart of a dancer

In Photo: Shirley Halili-Cruz with Halili-Cruz Dance Company members

DUMAGUETE CITY, Negros Oriental—“Twyla! Martha! Madonna!” So declares Armand Goldman, Robin Williams’s cabaret-owner character in The Birdcage, a shout-out of the dancers who’ve inspired him the most.

In our country, every choreographer will extol the names “Lucrecia! Lisa! Shirley!” The latter refers to Shirley Halili-Cruz, the most influential at the moment. She’s the current Committee on Dance chairman at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

As such, every dancer’s and artistic director’s “Ma’am Shirley” oversees all dance-related events in the country. The biggest of this, “Dance Xchange: The Philippine International Dance Festival,” closes today in this genteel city after a successful four-day run of workshops, forums and public performances.

Russia—Anatolii Ustimov with Halili-Cruz Ballet Company prima ballerina Gabrielle Alexis Quinto

Dumaguete is more known for its literary and artistic scenes. But with its choice as venue for “Dance Xchange” and Dumaguete City Mayor Felipe Antonio Remullo as project partner, residents and tourists are being treated to a visual and auditory feast.

It’s always lovely to see national or native costumes worn as they should be. They’re not being paraded like in pageants, but as garments that are wearable, functional and more beautiful to behold as they sway, twirl and stretch with the dancing. And I can only marvel at the litheness, grace and energy of the dancers.

“As usual, I’m very very happy. The fulfillment is different. I can see the warmth and enthusiasm of [all participating dancers, teachers and artistic directors]. From morning to evening, the energy is up. Everybody is happy while they are sharing and giving, and the interaction is really wonderful. I felt the love from all of them, from all ages,” Halili-Cruz enthused after a well-received performance at the historic Rizal Boulevard.

The last week of April, as per Presidential Proclamation 154, is National Dance Week, while April 29 is International Dance Day. About 40 foreign and local dance groups are participating in the seventh Dance XChange.

“I founded Dance XChange. How did it happen? For many years, [through] my school—the Halili-Cruz School of Ballet—I’ve been bringing my students to countries all over the world. I saw in them that the growth is different, the joy, the maturity is different when they travel, after their interactions with artists from all over Asia, the US, Europe. To think that I bring 12- to 18-year-olds,” Halili-Cruz recounted.

China—Hengshui Dancing Group

“In the beginning, we had to shorten the trips to four days, but later on the parents understood what I meant; that learnings from books [can be enhanced] through [lessons from] actual experience,” she said. “Most of my students are honor students in their academic schools, like Miriam or Poveda. I think dancing sharpens the minds. All of them are outstanding students.”

So when Halili-Cruz was elected chairman of the Committee on Dance at the NCCA, she asked herself, “Why don’t I do this nationally, not just for my students?” she said of bringing dance students and directors together.

“My first attempt, I invited all my friends who are dance artistic directors abroad. I e-mailed them an invitation and said I needed their reply in three days. Would you believe all of them said yes?”

The first Dance Xchange happened in 2009, also in Dumaguete. It has since traveled to Manila, Cebu, Isabela, Palawan and Roxas City. There are dancers from Russia, England, Poland, Hawaii, Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Korea, Indonesia and Japan teaching and learning from dancers coming from Sulu, Kalinga, Batangas, Bacolod, Cotabato and Pampanga.

Halili-Cruz appreciates that no one has a diva complex, though she knows that everyone gets tired with the tight schedule.

This is not a competition, Halili-Cruz emphasized: “This is not even a showcase. This is an expression of what’s in your heart. There’s respect for each other. We’re one family. Even if there’s language barrier, they communicate. As a founder, that’s what I really want—something beautiful, something different, something uplifting. We’re all dedicated and we’re all passionate.”

Remarkably, Dance Xchange is a first in the world. “In other countries, it will be a hip-hop festival, a ballet festival, a jazz festival or a folkloric festival. I made it different. Dance Xchange is every dance genre together in one festival: professional, indigenous, folkloric, jazz, flamenco, hip-hop, everything,” Halili-Cruz explained. “I wanted all dancers to interact. And there’s always respect for the diverse culture, hence, the theme ‘Cultural connectivity through dance.’ The dance world respects the Philippines now. Nasa mapa na tayo.”

Image Credits: Faith Anne Yangyang

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This writer is a beauty, celebrity and fashion columnist for BusinessMirror, and did fashion editorials and celebrity profiles for D+, its monthly supplement. As much as possible the column, called Tota Pulchra, only deals with the good, the great and the glamorous.

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