Steps, skips, sacrifices behind PH dancesports prowess
MANILA, Philippines — After winning three gold medals in the dancesports competition of the ongoing 30th Southeast Asian Games, it took Ana Leonila Nualla three days to finally feel the elation that comes with victory.
“It suddenly dawned on me — the sacrifices, exhaustion, dancing despite a fever, practicing even if hungry — and I felt like crying,” she said in Filipino in a phone interview.
Nualla, dazzling in a white translucent gown with a flared skirt and sleeves, and her real-life partner Sean Mischa Aranar wowed the crowd at the Royce Hotel in Pampanga in the opening hours of the 2019 SEA Games on Dec. 1.
(The Philippines won 10 out of the 14 gold medals, along with three silvers, in dancesports. It first joined dancesports when it hosted the 2005 SEA Games, where it won a gold and a silver in the Latin American category, and another gold and silver in the Standard category.)
Like flowing water
Aranar and Nualla moved like flowing water as they danced the tango, the Viennese waltz and All Star Five standards.
A licensed chemist, the 27-year-old Nualla has a day job examining samples of tilapia, bangus and salmon for residues like banned antibiotics at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
After work, Nualla rushes to a dance studio. Dancesports requires athletic discipline. “We practice six days a week, three to four hours each day. We have cross-training just like other sports,” she said. In some evenings, she accepts “raket” (or side jobs) for extra income.
“Dancesports is expensive,” she said. “You need costumes, shoes. Lahat ng galaw, kami ang nagbabayad (We pay for everything). The government does not subsidize our expenses if we are not part of the Philippine team.”
“I tried ballet, hiphop, but I felt destined for something different. Then I was told about interviews for the Manila chapter of dancesports,” said Nualla, who started dancing in 2008 at age 16.
She met Aranar in 2013 — and their chemistry “eventually became real” soon afterwards.
They favored the tango, where “I give all my emotions, my ‘wow,’” she said. “But our coaches had other ideas.”
Invoking “strategy,” their coaches noted the pair scored better in the Viennese waltz. “It wasn’t our favorite,” she said.
The quest for gold has taken Nualla and Aranar to dance hotspots like Hong Kong and Taipei.
“We toured Asia first because it’s cheaper,” she said. “Earlier this year, we competed in Europe — Lithuania, Sicily and Estonia — for exposure and more training. Competitors in Europe are so good — sobrang galing — world-class.”
Recalled Nualla: “We never reached top spot but the Europeans were shocked. ”˜We didn’t realize Filipinos can dance!’”
The couple spend an average of P500,000 for each trip abroad.
Nualla said their participation in the 30th SEA Games was a “thankful” break because of financial assistance from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and Philippine Sports Commission.
“They provided a budget for us and [we really made it fit],” she said. “That was our motivation to get gold medals.”
In Cebu City, Pearl Marie Cañeda received the homecoming-queen treatment after bagging three gold medals in the same dancesports event with her partner Wilbert Aunzo.
“What makes our SEA Games win really special was representing the Philippines,” she said in a phone interview. “We were usually assigned as reserve couple in other competitions.”
Cañeda, 22, was only nine years old and taking swimming lessons when she and her grandmother would pass by a gym where students of the local dancesports grassroots program practiced. Her lola thought it would be a good idea for her to join.
“I didn’t really know whether I liked it. The dance lessons were free,” she recalled. Two years later, she joined competitions and was hooked.
Cañeda, now a junior psychology student at the University of Cebu, said her partner Aunzo, a sophomore in the same school, had other motives for joining the program. The then 13-year-old boy wanted a girlfriend, and, as he matured, a partner who can dance a mean tango.
“I honestly love the standard disciplines more, but Wilbert likes the Latin dances better. The boy is always the leader, so we focused on the Latin disciplines,” Cañeda said.
The pair won a gold medal each for slow samba, cha cha and rhumba. Spectators cheered while watching their forceful and dramatic moves.
Until the last minute, Cañeda said she and Aunzo were anxious about his knee injury. While preparing to compete in Japan last year, he tore a ligament and had to skip practice for eight months. He also gained 20 kilos.
Although doctors said Aunzo had fully recovered when the dancesports selection process began in March 2019, “we were still worried that his knee would give in again,” Cañeda said.
Their victory in the dancesports category has now inspired the real-life couple to dedicate more time in teaching the new generation of grassroots participants in Cebu City for free.
“I see many children with a lot of potential — the x-factor you cannot find in everybody. Their movement is different. The energy, the grace, the footwork. They are fast learners,” Cañeda noted:
“I tell those I now look after to keep practicing and not let their achievements go to their head. To be original,” she said. “Filipinos are innately expressive and graceful; that is our edge, along with our fighting spirit.”
Nualla said she hoped the dancesports victories would inspire SEA Games organizers to take advantage of the momentum they set and invest more in their athletes.
“We’ve taken the sport to another level, we’ve brought attention and exposure,” she said. “Hopefully, we can pass on all these skills to the next generation and allow us to be at the same level with other dancers worldwide.”
Nualla said Filipinos were at par with the world’s best when it came to dancing.
“It’s just that we don’t get enough chances to learn, and a budget that would support us [comfortably]. Once we get the support, kayang-kaya talaga,” she said.
The National Athletes and Coaches Benefits and Incentives Act (Republic Act No. 10699) provides a P300,000 cash reward for each Filipino gold medalist in SEA Games individual events.
On Nov. 13, the POC vowed to double the cash incentive for gold medalists. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives plans to raise at least P10 million from members’ salaries for gold medalists in the ongoing SEA Games.