Dance troupe dazzles on Madison Avenue

Island Gems Philippine Cultural Group gives a lively, bouncy folk number to celebrate the 124th Philippine Independence. Photo by RJ Ensalada

By Cristina DC Pastor

When St. Adalbert Church in Queens was looking for a Filipino dance group to perform at a religious event, word got around fast. Helen Kwong-LaBarbera of Long Island responded quickly and gathered Filipino families who shared her excitement. Thus, was born Island Gems Philippine Cultural Group which became known for their  devotional dances in honor of the Sto.Nino.

On July 12, 2020, Island Gems PCG became this spontaneously assembled group of dancers who would later form themselves into a not-for-profit organization based in Westbury, New York. Helen, with her ballet training and theater background in the Philippines, became the choreographer and costume designer. Another group leader Adela Inez, who worked for Catholic Charities, became the senior adviser. The two women geared the group into a path they now have taken.

Two years later, on June 5, 2022,  16 families – comprising 36 adults and 17 children ages 5 to 16 – lorded it over Madison Avenue and gave a lively, bouncy folk number  celebrating the 124th Philippine Independence. It was one of the most photographed segments of the parade. The beat, the sparkly costumes, and the happy smiles of the dancers, led by psychiatric nurse Maricar Rondina, combine to deliver a loudly-applauded dance act.

Helen Kwong-LaBarbera (left) with Adela Inez who got the group of 16 families together.

“PIDCI was our first parade,” said Helen. The Philippine Independence Day Council, Inc. is the organization that mounts the annual parade on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue.

Invitations came pouring in after that: PAFCOM on June 26, the Filipino Parade in Albany on July 9, the Filipino American Festival, Inc. on September 4 at Bergen County’s Overpeck Park,  and the Sinulog Festival on January 22, 2023 in Connecticut.

“Consul General Elmer Cato has been in constant communication with me before he left for the Philippines regarding a big event in August. I still do not have the information,” she added.

Island Gems members learn how to sing, dance and also motivate each other to know more about Filipino culture, says the group on its Facebook page.

“It is exciting and nostalgic to behold how the members perform Philippine folk dances and the religious dance-offering of Sinulog in churches, social gatherings and in street parades. These affairs help us reminisce the valued traditions and cultural heritage of our fatherland and how we want to continue to keep them alive here, in our new home, USA.

Prancing down Madison Avenue. Facebook photo
The kids of Island Gems. Facebook photo

“We also encourage the young members to keep the practice of kissing the hands of the elders. Mano po is a sign of filial respect. In this way, we preserve such traditions for the succeeding generations of FilAms.”

The dancers are not paid for their performances, said Helen, who acts as the group’s Mother Hen and Chief Worrier. “We are a voluntary organization whose members spend for their own costumes.”

She hastened to add how the group welcomes donations that help finance the costumes, accessories, food, logistics and transportation. She said the group  is “lucky and blessed” to have families that give of their time and resources and “cooperate with each other.”

“Our regular practice is every weekend and we also make adjustments to members’ school and work schedules.  We have an open communication and find ways to make things work,” she said.

Helen was born in Cebu and came to the U.S. in 2003. She was studying to be a nurse but had to stop schooling when she became the office manager of her husband’s architectural office. She and Bob have four adult children. She has been  active in the community through her past and current organizations: Ladies for Rizal, Long Island;  Tanglaw Filipino American Organization;  Friends Indeed; and Cebu Inc.

“I’m into anything that involves the artistic nature of dancing, singing and creativity,” she said.

© The FilAm 2022

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