Dance is in the DNA of the Universe

By Oscar Peñaranda

September 27, 2022, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Norman sits among a flock of birds

Photo by Tony Remington
[ID: Black & white image of Norman, a Filipino man with salt & pepper hair who is wearing a button-down shirt, fleece vest, jeans, dark shoes, and glasses. He sits peacefully on a concrete block on a sidewalk surrounded by a flock of birds. Most of the birds are on the ground with one about to land close to Norman’s knee and two more in mid-flight.]


…For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
Song Of Myself, Walt Whitman

Every morning just before dawn, from my window at the International Hotel, flights of doves descend upon the corner of Kearny and Jackson streets, and soon the dance begins. Older Manongs used to ask of Filipinos there, “Do they still dance on Kearny Street?” Dancing then was a community builder. Now, it is my addled friend Norman Jayo, fellow tenant, who revives the dance with pigeons. Erstwhile hero, now forgotten by the young, in the ‘70s, he coordinated the dance of the media that resulted in the human barricade on that fateful night of the fall of the hotel. The “authorities” had been banging on the doors of the hotel for nine years. That’s how long the people had been defending and protecting it and its tenants. “We won’t move! We won’t move!” It was the dance of the I Hotel, the dance of standing your ground, the Zen-like dance of immobility, when thousands around the Bay from all faiths and non-faiths, all walks of life, swooped down into Kearny Street, interlocked arms, and remained steadfast, their energies and forces of resistance reserved inside their own universe. “We won’t move! We won’t move!”

The Birdman of the I-Hotel

…I saved some crusts from the
Leftover pizza of the gathering last night.
The dough was so good.
Come by later
And take these humble crumbs
And put them in one of your bags
For your morning walks,

Who soar with wild wings
of your own.[1]


Dance must have been the first art, the first expression of human experience. We have first of all, before any tool, before words, before language, before drawings and paintings, our bodies as our tools. Dance is primordial, archetypal, and ancestral. It brings us back, grounds us in our most natural state and inclinations. And of course, dance will be our last.

Dance and the Warrior

In Kali, a Filipino martial art, the movement forms we practice and which we aspire to are called sayaw, which literally means, “dance.” For a warrior must also be soft. Therein lies the wisdom in the sayaw of the warrior. It is the dance that teaches this principle to the warrior. The essence of a warrior is the essence of a dancer, the poise, the stature, the attitude, the dignity of composure under imminent pressure. Some folks say, “Just get a gun, no need for martial arts.” But that belies the dance in the martial arts and its complete absence in the use of a gun. What form will you be in, what stance will you have in the midst of an earthquake, a storm, a hurricane, a flood? What good is your gun in the face of these disasters? How do you kill the fear inside of you? Killing that fear is the beginning of the warrior’s dance.

I took to Kali so naturally when I encountered it for the first time in Hawaii. Snooky, our teacher, saw it the first day. Dancers see movements right way. He saw what my grandmother and my mother left in me, when I was forced to join folk dances because there were only a few boys participating, as a teenager in San Francisco. And the sword playing of my boyhood in the Philippines emerged in those movements. As a kid I used to make swords out of bamboo, not just my own, but for others. I even named their weapons. I made them, I got to name them. That was the deal. Mine was “Robin Hood”.

Dance and Play

Athletes and dancers, to me, are almost synonymous. All sports, even non-human sports, like horseracing, are poetry in motion, and what is poetry in motion but a dance? Sports is dance or it’s nothing.

I have watched my first grandchild, before she was even five, dance all day. Throughout her chores, she skips and hops and smiles and waves. I ask her to bring me something and she slides and runs and tosses her hair and exaggerates her movements because it is the dance that propels her. “Papa, you left your tea in the microwave again!” She brings me my baseball cap with a bounce and a leap, and I see my mother and grandmother dancing the Kuratsa in countless fiestas. And she reminded me of the tango lessons I was offered in Las Vegas that I rejected because the beautiful lady who would be my mentor and partner smelled slightly of gin and tonic. For reasons now immaterial, I never came back after that proposal. But the tango is still in my mind and someday our destiny will once again meet.

I am a dancer who had no official lessons, a gambler with no specific training, a traveler with no vehicle, a warrior without a gun, and an athlete without a coach.  But I have had mentors, and have had other weapons besides a gun, traveled unmapped territories, and I have read books as frigates of imagination.

Even from a distance I see the wisdom of dance in children at play.

My last memories of the Philippines and my boyhood was a dance, a dance of the streets of the City. It was Loran’s dance on the shores of Manila Bay when all our clothes that he was supposed to have been watching got stolen because of the temptation of ice cream on a hot afternoon. Loran was the sharp-eyed one of our group. When things were lost we always called Loran to find it. Between blades of grass, he would spot a rusty coin or a dull, chipped, battle-wearied marble right away. But that hot afternoon, his talent did not have a chance with the ring-a-ling of an ice cream cart. He was distracted and he gave in and lost his attention, as well as our clothes. All four boys ran butt naked back home. I was in the groove of the dance of the traffic, and had no fear whatsoever, when a taxi almost hit me crossing the street. I wet myself in fear but was quickly relieved to find out that I was naked and had no pants to wet.

I left the Philippines when I had just turned twelve. A childhood Manila goodbye crush would every now and then visit this ballroom of a brain…

…Leonore was like a Christmas card. She had something in her carriage of herself, so lithesome, so confident yet always conscious of others’ needs. She must be an “Ate”. Must be somebody’s older sister. Older sister, mother, sweetheart all-in-one. And the way she moved, subtle and graceful, especially when girls were playing that high jump game “Luksong Tinik”, where part of the unspoken game is showing how graceful one was in jumping high and yet keeping her dress down by placing hovering hands over her billowing skirt. Her face was not a real beauty but her skin was cinnamon spotless and at times she wore her hair in pigtails and at other times, in a ponytail and yet at others, left long and loose.[2]

The women in the countryside, or the domestic workers in the cities, would wash by a well. They have a dance when they bathe, with just a tabo (hand dipper), a piece of soap, one large pail or bucket of water, or if outside, standing beside a deep and running stream between the trees. They clean themselves not only with their hands, but also with their feet when they have to bend and reach those hard to get to parts of their body, like the heels, and the back of the knees. They rubbed the back of their knees with their instep, and they cleaned their insteps with the soles of their feet. Then, (I always had a hard time with this, I tried it many times), one by one, they rub the narrow part of their heels, the achilles, between the toes of the other foot, and pour water from the tabo little by little, just the right amount to wash and rinse away the day’s accumulated dirt there, holding their hair with the other hand as they look down behind them to see the earth wash away from their feet. Then they rub the soles of each foot on top of the opposite instep, and wash that away. Even as they step out of their baths, they skip and hop and turn and, dancers that they are, smile to a new beginning. And the smell of their shampoo from the pounded gugo bark would permeate the air.

Dance, Luck, and Humility

I play poker. Gambling is a constant temptress. And to keep gambling at bay, one must perform the dance with Lady Luck. In gambling, one has to feel the pulse of Lady Luck and sway with her, not overpowering, never losing patience, sometimes waiting it out, standing still, dancing with your destiny. So that you may take your rightful place in the Great Flow of things. It’s bigger than your ego; there is no room for your hubris. Accept, say yes like Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, learn humility, or it’ll crush you and toss you out of kilter like yesterday’s newspaper.

The Dance at Work

In the salmon canneries of Alaska, the unsafe, outdated machines are entangled with the workers so that people become adept and even ingenious in adjustments and facilitating. It’s 20 hours a day on average and in peak season even 24/7. I had a time card with 26 and a half hours in a day of work.

In the fish house the butchers dance with their machines at all hours. I worked in Lye Wash and a partner and I controlled the hydraulic hoist anchored by a moving ball of twenty pounds of iron. We named that moving ball Muhammad Ali. It was always swinging around eye level. One partner controls the release and stoppage of the hoist as both swing the cooler filled with 112 pounds of shining gold cans of salmon. On the seventh stack, we add a push so the rail can take away the momentum of the pile seven stack high.

Meanwhile, in the fish house where the butchers worked, hands, fingers, and feet were dancing with the salmon gushing out of hydraulic machines. Somehow, only Filipinos can do it. Only they can work these machines of the late 1800s called the Iron Chink. We all found out when we went on strike because the whites did not know how to cook rice, and we demanded that a Filipino, any Filipino, can cook it right. By noon the cannery was in a stand still losing thousands of dollars every minute. By one o’clock in the afternoon the company gave in to our demands and hired two Filipino cooks from our bunkhouse to do all the cooking from then on. I told the management, “Filipinos work like hell and work well, but they have to eat well, too.” We took the letters from dance and embedded them in our DNA. Dance. One can see the Filipino butchers move their hips as they whip and turn over the majestic salmon they held in their working hands.

And right when the salmon season is ending in Alaska, in California farms, in the doomed and dying days of summer, around September, following the rhythms of the seasons, the grape fields begin the dance of the falling leaves. The workers lovingly and harmlessly turn over the pesky branches that get in their eyes, the better for the worker to see and work on the delicate orbs of fruit to be pruned and harvested, laying them down on their arms like a baby being rocked to sleep.

My Auntie, my mother’s youngest sister, died at 97 years-old. She was dancing and swaying and singing on her deathbed. I have videos of it! Her mother did the same. I saw them both at it when their turn came. They knew, like Jackson Browne, that the last dance, we do alone.

[1] excerpt from original poem written May 15, 2021, San Francisco

[2] excerpt from unpublished memoir

This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of In Dance.

Oscar Peñaranda was born in Barugo, Leyte, Philippines, and moved to Vancouver, Canada when he was 12 years old in 1956, when his father and colleagues opened the first Philippine Consulate in Canada. When he turned 17 years-old, his father was transferred to San Francisco, where Oscar has settled. An educator for 40 years, a writer for even more, and a Filipino all his life, he received the prestigious award Gawad Ng Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (Writer’s Guild of the Philippines) for his lifetime efforts in his writings and community projects. He lives at the historic and legendary International Hotel in San Francisco. Living in three countries and being tricultural and trilingual—speaking Waray, Tagalog and English at a young age—helped to shape Oscar’s ideas on the ambiguities of home, culture and heritage, themes he would explore in his literary endeavors and community work. He received his B.A. in Literature and M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State and was part of forming that first school of ethnic studies in the nation. His works are anthologized internationally. He has two books: Full Deck, Jokers Playing, a collection of poems, and Seasons By the Bay, a collection of interrelated stories.