By Eliakim Rada as told to Annie Ruth Sabangan and Bernard Testa
MGA butong pumuputok na parang popcorn (Bones that are popping like popcorn). If you see a man in Baguio City dancing as if his joints are cracking and swaying like a hanging meat, that’s me.
I’m tall, thin, and somewhat terrifying. I’m dressed in black, with my face hidden by a bird-like mask. On weekdays, I am a twenty-something math teacher to high school students. On weekends, I am the plague doctor.
I join nearly a hundred other people who cosplay on Session Road every Sunday. But I just don’t wear a costume to imitate characters from games and animes. I don’t just try to look like the doctors during the Middle Ages that tried to cure millions of Europeans, who got sick with the bubonic plague. I share my art of dancing. I connect deeper with people through this. And while my performance comes with a tip box, I am not begging. What I do is called busking.
But Session and other public places in Baguio weren’t always open for cosplayers and performers like me. When I was still a student, I would dance on the street, including on top of covered manholes, in my uniform only to be chased away by authorities. “’Wala kang permit? Bawal dito ‘yan. Alis!.” ‘Yan ang sabi ng pulis. (You don’t have a permit? That’s prohibited here. Vacate this area! The police would say).
My stubbornness persisted despite that. I still danced in public, like a fugitive, playing cat and mouse with the cops. At that time, I wanted to protest. Why would they restrain someone who just wanted to express his art? Why ask for a permit? Oh come on.
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Even some passersby neither understood nor appreciated what I was doing at the time. They would typecast me or treat me like an outcast. “Who’s that guy? A weirdo? Luko-luko? Ano ‘yan? Pulubi? Bigyan ‘yan ng piso para tumigil na siya (Is he crazy? What is he? A beggar? Give him a peso so he’ll stop what he’s doing).”
One night, I was bullied on Session Road by a group of drunken men. They mumbled something about my dance as they came over and squeezed me hard. I think that was one of my worst experiences.
The bashings didn’t cow me, though. The desire to express myself through my art was stronger than my fear of being alienated or discriminated [against]. So I pushed the other me or maybe the deeper me to emerge with the help of costumes.
I started with a top hat. I made it using duct tape and cereal boxes. I also wore glasses and a long black coat. That was when the passersby realized that I was not just another nutty guy. “O, street performer pala ‘to. Ito na pala ‘yong dating estudyante na ewan-ewan lang ang galaw, pero ngayon ang galing na nýa (Oh, he’s in fact a street performer. He was that student with mediocre moves but now he has levelled up already).”
From the top hat guy, I transformed into the plague doctor. This was just earlier this year, I think in February, when the city government finally allowed us to register as cosplayers and performers on Session Road every Sunday without asking for any fees.
One by one, I ordered my plague doctor costume pieces from online stores: a brown mask that cost P500; a white mask worth P900; a black piece of cloth sold to me for P1,000 plus P500 for the tailor who did some alterations to it; black gloves worth P100; and chains and a pair of goggles that were worth P120 each.
Am I escaping from reality or immersing myself into it?
You may ask why I’m cosplaying as a plague doctor. You might think that I just want to get away from my supposedly boring or irritating life as a math teacher.
While some regard cosplaying as a form of escapism, even absurd escapism, because one morphs into a character that’s very far from reality, that isn’t true in my case.
For me, cosplaying, coupled with my art as a dancer, is more about self-expression, of connecting with people on another level that’s not really far from the issues and struggles that we face every day.
For instance, I thought of becoming a plague doctor because we are in fact still facing the Covid-19 plague. I can’t of course end this plague but I can somehow ease the burden of passersby just even for a moment when they connect with me through my dancing.
You see, my style of dancing is more spontaneous than formulaic. It keeps on changing based on how people respond to my moves.
So you may ask: How am I continuously developing my style through my audiences?
Because most of my time is spent on teaching, I really don’t have a set time to practice. My street performance is actually the only time I can rehearse. It’s the people who pass by Session Road who modify or improve my struts, waves, pops, rolls, and wiggles.
When I look at a person and I do a dance move and he or she smiles, I keep that move. But when I get no reaction, I stop doing that style. You may say that what happens is a release and transfer of energy and creative juices between me and my audience within a pandemic-stricken community that was locked up for so long and is now looking for a positive human-to-human experience.
Some of my moves also reflect the gestures I do when I teach my students. You know that teachers often point to words on the blackboard to stress the importance of some concepts. And that’s how I developed one of my dancing moves ̶ my wavy hand, with my thumb and index fingers formed into a circle, pointing from top to bottom of an imagined lecture board.
Also a ‘plague’ doctor in school
Come to think of it, I, too, can be regarded as among the “plague doctors” in our school. That is if we would see the sorry state of our education as a plague.
You’ve read the news: four of every five 15-year-old Filipino students don’t know basic mathematical concepts such as decimals and fractions, which they supposedly already mastered when they were in grade five. There was another study pointing out that among 79 countries, the Philippines ranked last in reading comprehension and ended up in the low 70s in math and science.
Studies linked this education crisis to poverty and poor nutrition among students. And I think the pandemic worsened it. We’ve just been doing classes at home for the past two years. For homeschooling to be effective, students must have good study habits. But many of them haven’t developed those routines.
That plague of undereducation is also felt in our school. It breaks my heart whenever I hear students say that they don’t like math or even abhor it, as if their hatred of the subject is an incurable illness.
But the “plague doctor” in me will never tire of curing this “math disease” among my students. I often tell them math is just like the language they speak. It also has a pattern, a subject and a predicate.
I also remind them not to be afraid to ask questions even when they think that these are too naive. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. What’s important is they know that they don’t know and they don’t pretend that they know. It doesn’t make them inferior just because others already know what they don’t know yet.
In cases wherein nobody asks because they are too shy to do so, I’d say, “Okay, I’ll end the class early and for those who are having struggles in your math lessons please come to me.”
I tell them, “I can help you but I can’t work for you. You have to work for yourself.”