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The Making of the Warrior Project

photo by Andrew Faulkner

Ten to fourteen young men, all Filipinos, were training vigorously in the hot sun. As sticks against sticks clacked fiercely, the air smelled faintly of burning rattan. Manong Leo watched the men as he sat on a bench in the shade of a gnarled fig tree, leaning his wrists on a baston. The rhythm of their fighting sticks, the powerful and fluid movements, older men teaching younger ones of the 'secret' warrior arts in an open space for anyone to see, nudged something ancient within me. I felt as though I was transported to what may have been a warrior training ground centuries ago. Yet, this was not some exotic village in the Philippines; this was Bahala Na Number 1 Club in Stockton California, the backyard escrima training school founded by the decorated WWII veteran Leogivildo Giron. The training warriors wore black sweat pants and oversized shirts. There were no colorful malongs, no tribal tattoos, no warrior jewelry or body ornaments. It was July 1997, and I was in Stockton CA, the epicenter of Filipino American fighting arts developed by the Filipino immigrants since the early part of the last century. This is the humble beginning of a fighting art form that has now received international recognition. My heart swelled with pride and an overwhelming feeling of joyful discovery. Thanks to Diana Inosanto's recommendation, Master Antonio Somera invited me to visit the training club. I knew then that I was on the right path for the next project-exploration of the escrima/dance connection. I was full of questions and I knew that the answers would only come by personally training under Bahala Na.

My training began on August 2nd 1997. Manong Leo handed me a fresh copy of the Estillo De Fondo and a recycled clipboard with a sticker of a "Happy Days" TV sitcom character. On the metal clip was a masking tape where he asked me to write my name in ink. Manong Leo's written curriculum of the Estillo De Fondo, a list of Bahala Na fundamental defense moves for strikes one to twelve, and his teaching methodology were systematic, structured, military-like but calm and persevering. I loved the defondo papers because I could track my progress, but they overwhelmed me as well, because they were a stark reminder of the enormity of the material I had yet to learn.

Over lunch at Orchid Restaurant after class, I asked Manong Leo about anting-anting and his belief in mystical powers. With a mischievous look, he said, "The person who has anting-anting does not talk about his anting-anting." Gently, he tore a tiny corner of his napkin and dropped it in his glass of Pepsi. I watched intently as he shook the table. The glass began to tremble and the dark liquid sloshed from side to side. The carbonation in the drink kept the tiny bit of white paper afloat. He laughed and said that that was his anting-anting. I smiled because his theatrical response reminded me of my dad when he didn't want to talk about something.

When I asked about fights and tournaments he participated in,
he laughed and reminded me that wars don't have referees,
3-minute bells, or fighting rings.

On several occasions, Manong Leo would talk about his teachers and about the war. He would enumerate the names of villages as though he were reading a map. He told war stories-mostly about pretty girls and village people. When I asked about fights and tournaments he participated in, he laughed and reminded me that wars don't have referees, 3-minute bells, or fighting rings. From these early conversations with Manong Leo, I began to understand that more than his anting-anting, his vigorous physical training was key to his survival during the war, and that surviving the war and being decorated for his courage and valor are his credentials. Perhaps he was telling me to be patient and train physically first, then the anting-anting and everything else would come.

Though the only requirement to learn Bahala Na escrima was attendance, the first two years took a tremendous amount of will to train. My process was slow, painful, and riddled with self-doubt. I think my dance training was more detrimental than helpful. There was awkwardness in learning a male-dominated art form. It didn't help that no other woman trained during my first year at Bahala Na. Although everyone was respectful and cordial, I think the boys simply didn't know what to make of me. Why would a mature (old) woman drive all the way from San Francisco to learn stick fighting? Interestingly, Manong Leo opened the escrima club in 1966 because he felt that if those Pilipina nurses murdered in Chicago had known escrima, they would have been able to fight back and live. Since then, however, out of 84 graduates, only 4 are women.

Whenever I felt frustrated at my lack of progress, which was more often than not, I would then remind myself of my true purpose-to obtain a better understanding of the escrima culture and its link to the ancestral roots, not to kick ass. At that time, the idea of someday graduating from the Bahala Na system seemed to be an impossible hallucination. As expected, despite myself, I developed some physical combat skills and a higher threshold for pain. But I didn't anticipate the amazing increase in the pace of my healing process. I marveled at the sensation of my body parts reconstructing themselves on the drive back to San Francisco. To this day, I have yet to discover how to apply this healing technique to any other physical problems.

When the Spanish colonial rulers forced the warrior/martial arts to go underground, I think that warriors trained and 'performed' openly using sticks instead of blades, under the guise
of native dance.

After training for two years, I realized that although dance and fighting arts don't have a common technique, the two forms share some similarities. Like other Pilipino indigenous traditions taught orally from one generation to the next, the escrima martial culture is an important link to our ancestral past. The blade fighting forms now known as arnis, escrima and Kali come from the warrior traditions of the diverse Pilipino tribal groups and clans. It makes good sense to train with more readily available sticks rather than the work-intensive blades. When the Spanish colonial rulers forced the warrior/martial arts to go underground, I think that warriors trained and 'performed' openly using sticks instead of blades, under the guise of native dance. In the Giron system, the fraile technique's elongated movement quality is beautifully dance-like. Both Grand Master Tony Somera and Guro Dexter Labonog were told that the Spanish friars must have developed this style. I thought of a more plausible or perhaps a more creative explanation. It was common practice to station a lookout, usually a boy up in a tall tree, while warriors trained. Perhaps, the watch would yell "fraile!" to warn the warriors of Spaniards, and the warriors would switch to this more dance-like technique.

One rainy Saturday in February 1999, we loaded Edru Abraham and seven members of Kontra Gapi Ensemble along with gongs, drums and other instruments in a rented van to meet Bahala Na. In the basement of Manong Leo's house on S. San Joaquin, Kontra Gapi played its repertory pieces as the graduates and advance students trained in sparring, in-fighting, and sinawali . While Kontra looked perplexed, sometimes bored, the warriors took on an amazing transformation. Mesmerized and with blazing eyes, Manong Leo's boys moved to the energy and the pulse of the drums and gongs with vitality, stamina and vigor. I realized the role of the drummer boy in soldiering is not to entertain-but to energize.

In the basement, the burning smell of rattan was heavy. Every blow and every angle seemed electrically charged. Human eyesight was not fast enough to assimilate the speed of the sticks flying from one angle to the next. Instead, an optical illusion emerged with the single stick becoming a fan of sticks opening out as it struck from one target to the next. I marveled at how a group of men could make instant connection with gong rhythms that they had never heard before. Like the first time I visited the club, I again felt transported to what may have been a warrior training ground centuries ago.

The first challenge was to interest the escrimadores to participate in a theatrical project. It was not easy to convince them. After all, the gravest insult one can render to a stick-fighter is to call him a dancer! By December 1999, I started experimenting with scene sketches with Guro Dexter Labonog, Lawrence Motta and Joel Juanitas. I was happy to find out they were such hams.

photo by Stella Kalaw

By January 2000, we had convinced the others to join the project. While I directed the various scenes, Dexter led the men in creating the most effective choreography for the scenes. Each of the men contributed to the action on stage. To keep the interaction honest and inspired, the escrima artists improvised movement sequences within a set structure. Dex and Lawrence helped tremendously in creating the delicate balance between the theatrical necessity of showing the movement and the fighting art's necessity to hide the intended strike. A large circle was created with a pool of light, and within the circle of light was a triangle. Most of the action happened in the circle-from the quiet meditation to powerful chanting, vigorous sparring section of grappling, bladework and takedowns, to rituals of the warrior being wrapped in the red fabric of life and lifted up. At first, the men were apprehensive about wearing the malong . After all, it may look exotic but it's still a skirt. Nonetheless, something about the malong is absolutely dignified, sensual and manly, and as I had expected, once they put them on, they wouldn't take them off.

I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most accomplished and highly respected warrior arts practitioners of Stockton CA, who allowed me to combine the Bahala Na Giron Escrima System's core-training principles and practices, and present these enriched with traditional warrior rituals within a framework of theater arts. In addition, videographer Gaidi Nkruma directed and edited powerful personal interviews of all participating warriors. The video was shown before the Warrior Project was performed.

In August 2000, The Warrior Project had its premiere performance by Bahala Na members Dexter Labonog, Joel Juanitas, June Gotico, Sam Juanitas, Lawrence Motta, Gaidi Nkruma, Terry Joven, and myself, accompanied by the sixteen-member music and dance ensemble, KontraGapi of the Philippines, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts- Forum and at the Edison High School in Stockton, CA. In 2001, Grand Master Antonio Somera joined The Warrior Project.


The Warrior Project was undertaken with support from Arts International, SF Art Commission - Cultural Equity Program, and the San Francisco Grant for the Arts.

My gratitude to Grand Master Emeritus Leo Giron, Grand Master Antonio Somera, and Guro Dexter Labonog.

Anting-anting - mystical power
Escrima may be spelled eskrima.
Guro - teacher
Kali - name commonly used by Filipino American fighting arts
Malong - traditional tubular clothing worn by both men and women
Manong- a term of endearment and respect for a male elder
Sinawali - weaving pattern

© Alleluia Panis

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