THE CONTROVERSY around the 6-year-old “crying macho dancer” on the TV program “Willing Willie” reminded me of an incident some 25 years ago.
I was then accompanying Social Welfare Secretary Dr. Mita Pardo de Tavera to the inauguration of a child care center in Cavite. Filipino-style, the community had gone all out to prepare for the visit, and that included a cultural presentation.
You can guess what they presented: A group of toddlers came out, all with bare midriffs, dancing the macarena with the community.
Mamita obviously was not entertained. When the toddlers came on stage, music blaring in the background, she whispered to me, “Que horror . . .” She tried hard not to show her dismay but remained unsmiling. After the dance number she told me she just felt it wasn’t right getting kids to be doing sexy dancing.
Many Filipino households, especially middle- and low-income ones, see no problem with calling their daughters (and now, I suspect, sons) to sing and dance for visitors. And dance they will, the Filipino “pagiling giling” more accurate than the English “gyrating” to describe what goes on.
On the surface, this could all be interpreted as done in good fun. But there is a broader social context which might help us understand why there are also reservations about such presentations. It is a context which Mamita brought up that evening 25 years ago: “Remember we have so many women working in Japan.”
I have to admit that at that time I thought Mamita was over-reacting. But in the years that followed, her remark would return to haunt me. It returned when, in an urban poor household, a grandmother told me about how she was constantly reminding one of her granddaughters to study hard, finish high school—so she could go to Japan to work.
Mamita’s remark returned when I met families where there were two generations of jappayuki. It returned when I learned of how the demand for Filipino “entertainers” had expanded across the genders: daughters, sons (to work as a “hosto”, the Japanese adaptation of the word “host”) and even a bakla son, because there was a demand too for transgendered males who would cross-dress as women.
Cutting across all these categories was the ability to dance. To prepare to work for Japan, new recruits went through hours of grueling dancing lessons at the “promotions” agency. The dancing became such a hallmark of the trade that at one time, government officials said we should use the term “cultural dancers” to refer to the entertainers.
Eventually both the Japanese and Philippine governments had to cut down on the export of entertainers, following international pressure accusing Japan of sex trafficking. There was an uproar from the promotions agency, and from many Filipinos who had hopes of sending their dancing daughters and sons overseas. Full-page ads appeared in newspapers, including the Inquirer, describing the loss in income to thousands of households and even government revenues from taxes paid. It was indeed a huge industry, with some 100,000 Filipinos leaving annually.
There are still Filipinos who are able to get around the rules and work in Japan, but their number is small. That era seems long gone, but it continues to cast long shadows, some Filipinos recognizing the social costs of that trafficking, others nostalgic for those “good times.”
There are no more exports to Japan but there is an entire sex industry out there that remains closely tied to dancing. Let’s focus on macho dancing. Films about macho dancers have practically become a genre in the Philippines because the occupation, or should I say the trade, has become so emblematic of the oppressiveness of poverty in the Philippines. The dancers work for a pittance: no minimum wage here, just transportation allowance, which means they have to depend on commissions from “macho drinks” and tips for more personalized dance routines, and other extras. It is, in other words, a replica of the women GROs (guest relations officers—we are amazing when it comes to coining euphemisms).
The macho dancers’ clients aren’t just gay men. There are women as well: older matrons, Japanese and Korean tourists, and the macho dancers’ “classmates”, meaning young women sex workers, who explain that they have gotten tired of being used by men so they use the macho dancers. The classmates sometimes fall in love, and have children.
Urban poor communities know of macho dancing and GROs all too well, the dancers being neighbors, a kumpare, a kumare. People are ambivalent, trying to accept it as legitimate work (better than stealing or drug-pushing, I often hear people rationalize) and yet feeling it isn’t quite right either. The kids know, as well, of the work of Kuya and Ate, watching them as they rehearse at home. Someone at home or in the community had to teach the kid on “Willing Willie” to learn to macho dance. They’re around, sometimes, like the jappayuki, fathers and sons.
The uproar over the “Willing Willie” episode was over a minor. But shouldn’t we be thinking twice as well about the WW (“Willing Willie”) Women who prance around, pagiling-giling, to uncover a prize about to be raffled away, or who turn the wheels for some game of fortune. I’m liberal as liberal goes, and would oppose any move to ban the dancing women, but I can get very distressed about the messages sent out by all this giling-giling.
Whenever there are controversies like this 6-year-old macho dancing, Willie Revillame comes out running through a whole litany of how hard he works for the poor, all the way up to scolding cameramen who film while standing because they block the view of his largely poor audience, waiting to be entertained.
The poor seem to believe him, wanting more of Willie and “Willing Willie.” No one in the studio is really a spectator; everyone ends up supporting actors, egging the contestants in game shows, and the performers. It was hard not to miss the 6-year-old boy’s aunt as she jumped up and down in glee while watching him dance.
We must ask, did the child cry because of Willie or because of the audience who cheered and jeered? It was an audience entertained, but also venting their contempt for macho dancers.
The 6-year-old boy has brought out the schizophrenia in our nation. We are moralistic, on one hand, opposing plans to introduce sexuality education in schools. On the other hand, we have children gyrating for money in front of large crowds.
The cameras constantly pan the audience to show who’s there, to show people this is a show for Everyman (and Everywoman). There was one episode where the auditorium was filled to the rafters with members of the Philippine National Police, all in their smart uniforms. I wondered how many of them, as they cheered the WW Women, had participated in raids on cheap bars, arresting and extorting from the dancing women.
“Willing Willie” lives and thrives because we are all so willing, because we are all so “wiling wili,” enthusiastic and raring to go.