While the rest of the performances at last year’s Surf and Music Festival in La Union were dedicated to music, a routine stood out for its focus on dance. Not to mention the six ladies dressed in bikini tops, grass skirts, and leis.
Brown Sugar is the latest act to garner attention in La Union. The Hawaiian dancers are surfers as well, and though they twirl and sway with enough talent to keep the audience enthralled, they declare that they surf better than they dance.
“We teach surfing. We’re instructors,” said member Rhea Ventura. Some freelance, while others do it for a living. They are currently teaching in 11 schools in the surfing capital of the North.
“We didn’t start off as dancers,” said the vivacious Mickey Girl Galang, who has a different day-job from the rest, although the other members joked that she could teach “by special request.”
Galang works at the local government in San Fernando City. She moved from Bacolod to La Union 12 years ago to surf. “We started off as surfers. And when we started, our movements were really stiff. It would take us a month to learn a two-minute dance. We got really skinny.”
The project began as something to do during the off-season for tourism in La Union.
“The boys had basketball. We had no lovelife. We had no one to bond with, no one to go to gimmicks with,” said Galang, shrugging. “So we danced and a dance group was formed. It started casually.”
Menchie Par, who seemed to be one of the leaders of the group, attested to this.
“Hey, why don’t we dance? Let’s try it!” she recalled everyone saying three years ago. “We were just teasing. It just began with ‘Sure!’ and then everyone eventually committed to it.”
One of the members was a professional dancer in Ilocos, who would perform at fiestas and other events. When she began surfing in La Union, she was encouraged to remedy the lack of entertainment “especially for foreign visitors,” said Galang.
“We’re surfers, right? And when you say surf, you usually think about Hawaii,” said Par. “So we did a Hawaiian dance. And because we’re at the beach, it really fits the scene. We really like it because it’s fun and it’s a form of exercise.”
For newcomer Melai Karaan, being a part of the group is a bit of a dream.
“I really like their type of dance,” said the speech therapist for children with special needs. “I’m not too familiar with modern dance. When they asked me to join, I immediately said yes.”
The 26-year-old travels from hometown Cavite to Pangasinan and La Union weekly for her job. She began surfing in La Union in 2008, and had already been seeing Brown Sugar perform before she was invited into the group.
“I watched them, and maybe they saw that I was interested. And then finally they needed a new member so they got me last year.”
Her job can be demanding, which is why surfing and dancing is the perfect way for her to breathe.
“Because I’m not always here, I’m the filler. They’d give me solo dances, so that while they change attire, there’s someone to distract the crowd.” And a distraction she was, with her graceful movements and her sweet smile under the stage lights.
“Sometimes they have easy dances which I can learn within a short period of time, so they include me. But like the dance they did (at the festival), since they needed to practice it several times a week, I could not do it because I just (stay) here for two days (a week).”
She admitted that she was “a little nervous” performing for such a big crowd. “My face was frozen into a smile. But knowing that my friends were part of the crowd made it better.”
Par said that it was their first time to dance in front of such a big crowd. “I felt really small on stage. But it was a really beautiful moment.”
“It really feels good to perform. You get a lot of applause,” said Galang. “That’s what you don’t get from surfing. It’s just you and yourself. When you do something well and you think, ‘Yay, I’m the only one who can do this,’ you’re also the only one who notices it.”
“But when you perform, especially as a group, it’s more fun. There are people who are addicts to applause,” she added, raising her hand. “Present!”
The group now performs at bikini open contests, private functions, birthdays, luaus, and even basketball tournaments.
“But it always has to be at the beach,” said Galang. Apart from the nine-member “adult” group, there is a kids’ group, as well.
“The group just grew,” said Par, who plans to do what she does, “As long as I can dance.”
Ventura agreed. “While we’re young, while we can still grind, we’ll just keep going.”
“In Hawaii, their dance is a statement of their being a community,” Karaan thoughtfully said.
“Sometimes I think that when I dance, I reaffirm that I am part of the community, because I’m not originally from here. So I make an effort to be a part of it.”