Why do people still dance at the Obando festival?

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The Obando festival in Bulacan is said to grant couples an offspring. We talked to devotees on the supposed power of this fertility dance and why they continue coming back. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Anna*, a teacher from Bicol, got pregnant a year after getting married in 2013. But she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, and has not been able to bear a child since.  

Originally from Bicol, she, together with her husband Joey*, travelled all the way to Bulacan to join the Obando festival, a yearly three-day festival every May 17 to 19 that honors San Pascual Baylon, Santa Clara, and Our Lady of Salambao. Joining in the festivities has been said to grant couples an offspring.

“‘Yun na lang, ‘yun na lang ang kulang sa amin para masabing family talaga diba, kailangan may anak,” says Joey. “‘Kaya pumunta kami dito para sa fertility dance,” adds Anna.  

The fertility dance supposedly originated from a pre-Christian celebration called kasilonawan. This was before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, and it was believed that women who cannot bear children were part of the lowest class of society. It was considered Paganistic in belief as women would offer dances to the deities of nature, and when Spaniards introduced Catholicism in the country, Franciscan missionaries introduced the three saints to replace Pagan gods.

Photo-15 (3).jpg Both teachers from Bicol who have been married for over five years, Anna and Joey travelled all the way to Bulacan to join the three-day festival. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Nag-offer nga kami ng mass for one month diyan,” Anna* says as she points to the San Pascual Baylon church, the venue of the five-step dance, which was formalized in 1993 through the help of a local choreographer and a national folk dancer who had memories of the dance they used to see from years past.

The dance is held inside the church, and one would expect a more solemn celebration, but the dance is more a lively production rather than a sacred prayer. There is a host (or sort of hype man) who pronounces what kind of petition one is asking for (“Sa mga gusto magka-anak… Sayaw!” he shouts), and the crowd proceeds to waltzing.

If one wants to learn the dance, there are videos online about the proper way to do it, and even the parish church’s Facebook page has a dance tutorial that outlines the meaning behind each step.

Photo-23 (5).jpg The festival honors San Pascual Baylon, Santa Clara, and Our Lady of Salambao. The fertility dance is held in the San Pascual Baylon church in Obando. Photo by JL JAVIER

Khristine Oronea, a dentist from Mandaluyong, learned the steps on Youtube. She also went to Bulacan with her husband, as they’ve been trying to have a child for over seven years now.

“We have no chance na … Naka-ilang OB na kami eh,” she says, referring to the impossibility of her getting pregnant.

But her husband, Marlon Oronea, quickly responds, “They always say na it's about faith so no one's stopping us from doing it. It's just about what you want to do. And there’s no scientific explanation, but it's faith. That's it.”

Photo-3 (10).jpg The fertility dance supposedly originated from a pre-Christian celebration called kasilonawan. It was considered Paganistic in belief as women would offer dances to the deities of nature, and when Spaniards introduced Catholicism in the country, Franciscan missionaries introduced the three saints to replace Pagan gods. Photo by JL JAVIER

While the San Pascual Baylon church is known to be host to the fertility rites, other people also come to pray for other intentions. During the ceremony, the host would even yell a list of illnesses (such as aneurysm, asthma, dengue, thyroid, and migraine), pause for a bit, then shout “sayaw!” over and over again.

Such is the case with Imelda Pagayon, a 57-year-old woman raised in Obando, who started taking the dances seriously only when she was 40 years old. She did join the dancing when she was younger, but it was when she had severe asthma that she performed the dance as a prayer.

“Dati konting lakad ko, hingal. Ngayon nawala lahat ‘yun … Basta lahat ng hilingin ko sa [mga santo], naibibigay,” she says.

She also shares how she also danced to pray for her husband, a drunkard who physically abused her, to change. Her husband died five years ago, and she recalls it wasn’t until a year before dying that her husband stopped abusing her.

“Naghintay talaga ako ng bigay ni Lord,” she says, reiterating that she didn’t mind that it took some time for the Lord to answer her prayers. At least it was answered, she quips.

Photo-10 (9).jpg “They always say na it's about faith so no one's stopping us from doing it. It's just about what you want to do. And there’s no scientific explanation, but it's faith. That's it,” says Marlon Oronea, who went to the Obando festival with his wife, Khristine. Photo by JL JAVIER

For Loraine Aguila, time is also not particularly of the essence when waiting for prayers to be answered. When she and her husband were first trying to have a baby, they joined a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France. She says their prayers were granted but then had trouble bearing a second child.  

“We've been trying to have another kid after my first. For 12 years, wala,” she says. “And then I heard about this place and then we were blessed right away. As in we've been trying for 12 years and after I danced here. One month after, I was pregnant. Imagine?”

She has since been sharing her story to friends and whoever she can tell it to as she truly believes the place to be miraculous. “The mere fact that there are so many people who come is a testament that they've been helped,” she says.

Indeed, the San Pascual Baylon church is filled with people, the streets in Obando are lined with vendors and small businesses, and a small room inside the parish even assembled art works by artists from the community. Fifty-nine-year-old hat vendor Evangeline Ayaay has benefitted from this festival precisely because there are more people, so she is able to earn more.

Photo-8 (8).jpg Evangeline Ayaay, a hat vendor, who was born and raised in Obando, Bulacan. If it's not festival season, she sells other items like rosaries and bracelets at the San Pascual Baylon church. She says that the Obando festival usually enables her to earn more than usual because of the large number of people who come to participate in the event. Photo by JL JAVIER

She typically earns ₱3,000 in three days, but during Obando festival, she earns up to ₱10,000. “Malaki-laki rin ang tulong kasi maraming dumadayo,” she says.

Ayaay sells hats mostly for those who join the procession, which happens before the dance inside the church. “Ito ang tradisyon na lahat sila kailangan nakasuot na sumbrero,” she says. “‘Tsaka ano ‘to eh, eto ‘yung kagandahan ng mga nagsasayaw lahat halos may mga sumbrero.”

Festivals like this has not only attracted tourists but it has also helped shed light to other things that the municipality of about 60,000 people can offer.

Photo-6 (8).jpg During the festival, a procession takes place for about one to two hours. Some devotees join this, while others just wait for the procession to finish and join the dance inside the church. Photo by JL JAVIER

Leonardo Mendoza, an employee of the municipality of Obando, says that their town has, for the longest time, been known to be a place that is prone to flood because of their proximity to Manila Bay. He says that as the fertility dance became more popular, it gradually overshadowed the reputation of Obando of being nothing but a place that always floods. 

Mendoza also shares that there are several plans in place to highlight other attributes of Obando.

“Unti-unti kaming gumagawa ng mga bagong attraction para maging tourist destination dito sa Obando,” he says. “Kasi sabihin na nating hindi siya ganon kalaking municipality, pero in terms of sa sea food, for example, marami talaga dito. Kaya ‘yan ang delicacy ng Obando.”

But he says that, at the moment, the municipality is relishing being known for the fertility dance.

Photo-13 (11).jpg Leonardo Mendoza, an employee of the municipality of Obando, says that as the fertility dance became more popular, it gradually overshadowed the reputation of Obando of being nothing but a place that always floods. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Gusto namin na makilala siya for eto nga for fertility dance talaga,” he says.

He continues to speak of the power of the dance — from classmates who were products of their parents’ faith to the three saints to his brother and sister-in-law who also joined in on the five-step dance.

“Talagang ano lang din talaga, nasa pananampalataya. ‘Yung sincerity ba ng paghingi mo o ng pagdasal mo,” he says. “Kasi sa lahat naman ng bagay, once hindi ka sincere at hindi bukal sa loob mo ang ginagawa mo, hindi naman maiibigay sayo ‘yan eh.”

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*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.