What it takes to be Masskara Champions

The entire world came to a standstill for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And on a micro level, the Masskara Festival Street and Arena dancers from Barangay Granada were among the first to be affected in terms of their industry and livelihood. What transpired for two long years in the city of Bacolod drew parallels to the early 80s, with the dual tragedies of the Negros famine and the sinking of the MV Don Juan. These two misfortunes gave birth to the famed MassKara Festival, which served as the city's vibrant and colorful coping mechanism in response to the desperation and grief experienced by its people at the time.

Bacolod City's month-long MassKara Festival is known not only throughout the country but also worldwide for its bright lights, spectacular parades, and perhaps the festival's highlight: the dancers wearing vibrant and colorful costumes, complete with intricately crafted headdresses and masks. These dancers, often part of the MassKara Street Dance and Arena competition in the Barangay category, have become local treasures that attract tourists from all over the country.

The troupe performing on the street

What people rarely see is what lies behind the lively colors and spectacle of the masks, costumes, and props. With dancers and choreographers, around 200 people compete under the Barangay Granada banner. This includes production staff, props men, and even welders. For these hardworking students, artists, craftsmen, and blue-collar workers, the competition's cash prize (now P1 million, up from a quarter of that in 2019) isn't the only reward for their hard work and sacrifice.

Winning the competition also serves as a platform to get their names recognized in their respective fields.

For the dancers, winning the annual competition guarantees them more paid gigs not just in Bacolod but throughout the country, including events ranging from weddings to corporate parties, not to mention other festivals outside the city. For the craftsmen and production workers who create the props and costumes, having their work as part of the winning performance gives them greater credibility as artisans, allowing them more business outside of the festival season.

Choreographers Mark Philip Lamirez and Christopher “Yhob” Puerta in front of the Barangay Granada Masskara wall

When the MassKara Festival was temporarily shelved in 2020-2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Barangay Granada team's way of life was greatly affected. “Ang mga kilala ko sa iban nga lugar, nagabaligya na lang,” (I know people in other places that sometimes sell stuff) shares Mark Philip Lamirez, one of Barangay Granada’s choreographers. They didn't know when the festival, a primary source of living for most of them, would return. “Ako naagyan ko man ang magbaligya sg kon ano-ano da para may income lang,” (even I experienced selling just about anything just to make income) he laments, recalling the desperation in those times. When it was announced in 2022 that the Masskara Festival would be returning later that year, all the fears and anxieties stemming from the lack of job security brought by the pandemic seemingly disappeared for Lamirez and the rest of the Barangay Granada team.

The 2022 MassKara Festival was a return to form for the proud and mighty Barangay Granada Streetdance and Arena dancers. The troupe, threepeat champs (2014, 2015, and 2016) once more emerged victorious. It wasn’t a seamless transition back, however, as the same pressures and challenges remained. “May mga problema din kaming hinaharap,” remarked Lamirez when asked what challenges they often encounter. “Kulang ang budget, pressure, kulang sa time, sa experience lang grabe ang problema dinaanan namin, pero lahat na overcome din namin, sa pag tulong tulong ng team. Para sa championship.” (Budget constraints, pressure, lack of time, the experience - the challenges we faced were significant, but we overcame them all through teamwork. All for the championship.)

For Lamirez and the whole team, winning championships required sacrifices. “Ang sacrifices namin, minsan personal naming pera ang dinadagdag para sa materials para lang mabilis matapos ang mga costume, props etc,” he says. (The sacrifices we make sometimes include our own money added for materials just to finish the costumes, props, etc. quickly.) According to the group’s production and costume designer Christopher “Yhob” Puerta, these costumes cost P15,000-P20,000 apiece, while the production materials and props total P600,000-P800,000. It’s not just money out of their own pockets that they sacrifice to win, but also their health. Since the dancers are comprised of students and those with day jobs, the only time that they can allot for daily rehearsals is 8:00pm to 12:00am – sometimes even extending until 2:00am when necessary.

Dancer highlighting the intricacies of the costume

When asked what pressures they have this year as defending champions, Lamirez says they aren’t thinking about such things, but are instead focusing on levelling up from their previous performances. Their main competitor this year, Puerta tells us, is themselves. “Amo na kay defending champion kami, kinahanglan na namon i-maintain. Kinahanglan lapawan mo gid ang performance, sets, production kag costume nga gin pakita ninyo sang last year,” he says. (Since we’re defending champions, that’s what we need to maintain. You need to exceed the performance, sets, production, and costume that you showed last year.)

The whole of Bacolod City, affectionally called “The City of Smiles” due to the energetic and dynamic smiles that’s complexly painted on the masks worn by the dancers, has been operating in full swing for the MassKara Festival. For the Barangay Granada team, who have won multiple times and are considered the faces of Bacolod, it is an honor to serve their beloved city using the gifts and talents they have.

“Para sa akon, dako gid nga achievement nga isa ka sa nagabulig makilal-an ang inyo syudad,” Lamirez says. “Proud gid ako bilang isa ka choreographer, ka artist, nga nagahatag pasidungog sa aton syudad, Bacolod.” (For me, it’s a big achievement being part of those who help bring recognition to your city. I’m proud as an artist to bring honor to the city of Bacolod.)

Mark Philip Lamirez and family

As to what made Barangay Granada a four-time MassKara Street Dance and Arena competition champion? Puerta and Lamirez both don’t give credit to themselves nor to anything they’ve had to give up just to perform. They credit their success to their community and to the LORD. According to Puerta, “ang success ng Granada ay nagsisimula sa barangay. Sila kasi ang rason bakit na achieve namin kung ano yung mga plano na gusto naming ipalabas - dahil sa support nila.” (The success of Granada begins in the barangay. They are the reason why we achieved what we planned to showcase - because of their support.)

For Lamirez, “ang susi sa pag ka-panalo namin siguro ay ang pag grant ni LORD sa aming goal para makuha. Kasi kung di nya binigay sa amin, wala kaming magagawa. Kahit maganda pa ang sayaw, production, etc., siya lang ang susi sa pag ka-panalo namin.” (The key to our victory is the LORD granting our goal. Because if He didn't give it to us, we couldn't do anything about it. No matter how beautiful the dance and the production are, He's still the key to our victory.)

Written by: John Mari Marcelo

Photos by: John Mari Marcelo / Mark Philip Lamirez

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