By Belinda Mathieu
The Filipina choreographer Eisa Jocson trained in ballet before becoming interested in “macho dancing,” a type of sexy dance performed by male dancers in specialized clubs in Manila. In her solo piece Macho Dancer, she embodies the masculinity of this dance as a way of unsettling gender norms and interrogating her country’s culture, shaped by American imperialism.
Behind her computer screen, Eisa Jocson looks irritated, and quickly gets to the point: “I’m very angry." Her native country, the Philippines, has just elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as its next president. For Jocson, as for many of her compatriots, the results obliterate the progress made in the wake of the 1986 revolution.
A former visual arts student, Jocson, now in her thirties, is a rebel at heart. Born to a middle-class family, she has challenfed gender norms and the impact of American colonization in the Philippines through dance for the past ten years, with wit and a hint of sass.
In 2013, she created the piece Macho Dancer, named after the eponymous club performance style born in the Philippines in the 1970s. This type of dance is close to exotic dancing and is performed by men in specific entertainment venues, which draw both men and women in the audience – a rarity in nightlife. One reason may be that these shows oscillate between a form of hyper-masculinity, through the performers’ proud and arrogant stance, and qualities socially perceived as feminine, such as being sweet and attentive to clients.
In her jean shorts, cowboy boots and black tank top, Jocson makes this sensual macho dance her own. This gender-bending performance doesn’t sit well in the patriarchal Filipino society, where over 80% of the population is Catholic. “When I told my parents I was doing Macho Dancer, they didn’t understand. My dad said: 'why can’t you just dance regular traditional Filipino dances like a normal person?', and my mom just left the room," she recalls. “It just shows how subversive it is for a woman to dance that type of thing. Actually, club owners have never let me perform in a macho club."
A trained ballet dancer, Jocson also learned pole dance, which led to one of her first pieces, Death of the Pole Dancer, in 2011. With macho dancing, this sociology buff was drawn to a different kind of physicality, the opposite of what she grew up with: “It was really to challenge my own range of physicality. In a way, it's like an embodied ethnography. I had years of training towards the illusion of grace, weightlessness, flight, versus studying illusions of weight, volume tenacity, being grounded, holding space."
She was also drawn to the social and economic dynamics of macho dancing, which is typically performed by underprivileged young men who make money from upper-middle-class to wealthy patrons. “Part of the job of macho dancers is emotional labor. It is to sit with the clients and have a drink with them," says Jocson, who aims to offer a glimpse into the complexity of Filipino culture. "You have to be a mix of somebody that is full of himself but also very, very vulnerable, because you have to perform vulnerability in order for the audience to feel like they want to support you and take care of you.”
In their trademark cowboy boots, macho dancers sway to cheesy American love songs, by musicians like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. “This type of music isn’t specific to macho clubs, it’s everywhere in the Filipino musical soundscape, you hear it everywhere, in malls, in the subway,” she says. It reflects her country's strong geopolitical connections with the United States, akin to a form of cultural imperialism. “This is a way of making the population obsessed with the quest for love, which we have clearly inherited from American pop culture," Jocson says. "By focusing on this individual pursuit of happiness, we don’t think as much about collective struggles and common causes, like freeing ourselves from a capitalistic system.”
Macho dancers have devised an idiosyncratic way of dancing, which fits with these saccharine lyrics. Jocson says their gait is “thick and viscous”: “When you watch it as performance, you have that feeling that the room is transformed. Time slows down and space becomes thicker, heavier, gooey.” Macho Dancer tries to condense and interrogate the subtleties of Filipino culture through a single body. It is a deliberately political endeavor, according to Jocson – “a way of hacking institutions and physical rules of behavior.”