Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport 2
Golden gang: (from left) Mark Jayson Gayon, Anna Nualla, Sean Aranar, and Mary Joy Renigen.

Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport

They are a bunch of different people outside the dance floor—one of them is even a biochemist—but they share one goal in dance sport: to conquer the world stage 
Bam V. Abellon | Dec 08 2019

“From the Philippines!” 

It’s a strain to hear anything else after those words. Wild cheering ensues. And while it sounds like a winner has already been proclaimed, the emcee has actually just introduced the athletes for the dance sport competition. 

A few years ago people would be asking what a dance competition is doing in an event like the Southeast Asian Games. Is this a sport? But it’s 2019 and a total of 10 gold medals and three silver medals have already been taken home by the Dance Sport Philippine Team at the ongoing SEA Games. Ask the pairs and they will readily say, yes, Dance. Is. A. Sport. And like any other sport, it takes passion, guts, stamina, determination — and grace — to come out the finest. 

More about the SEA Games:


Chance and fate  

Mark Jayson Gayon, 26, and Mary Joy Renigen, 25, won two golds last week, for waltz and fox trot, and one silver for quick step. Sean Aranar, 23, and Anna Nualla, 27, won three golds for tango, Viennese waltz, and five standard dances. ANCX sat down with them last week during breaks from their rehearsals in a dance studio in Libis.

Gayon was raised in barangay Payatas in Quezon City. One day, his father, who worked as a janitor at the Studio 116 dance studio in Makati City, asked him if he wanted to try out dancing because the studio took in scholars. Gayon wasn’t interested in dancing at all. But he decided to give it a chance anyway.

“Sa akin kasi, from Payatas to Makati, gusto ko lang makakita ng train, ng buildings,” he tells ANCX. “Gusto ko lang mag-travel. At saka dati, every Saturday, may libreng pagkain.”

But he found out, after going at it for a while, that he could actually be good at the sport. “Gumagaling daw ako,” he says. The compliments motivated Gayon to keep working on his skills. Before he knew it, he was hooked.

Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport 3
Mark Jayson Gayon and Mary Joy Renigen

While Gayon found his love for dancing in his mid-teens, his partner, Renigen knew she wanted to dance ever since she can remember. “Baby pa lang daw ako, sumasayaw na ako sabi ng mga magulang ko,” the soft-spoken, slender athlete says. In her younger years, her outlet was the church. There, she was part of the dance group who often performed tambourine and liturgical dances. In college, in line with her passion, she took up Bachelor of Science in Physical Wellness, Major in Dance/Sports, at the University of Makati. (She and Gayon took up the same course in the same school.)

At the near end of her college years, she was required to take an on-the-job training, and she chose to do it at Studio 116. The studio, which is now closed, belonged to Emily Silva who remains one of the pair’s major sponsors.

It was in that studio where she met Gayon, who had by that time already gone through four dance partners. She was 19 years old, and had no idea what ballroom dancing was all about.

“I just wanted to experience competing,” she says. She believes fate led her to dance sport. “This is the manifestation of the Lord sa buhay ko.” As part of the dance group for their church, she was always in long skirts, a shawl, coiffed and made up—much like her look these days when she competes as a professional athlete. “Kaya ako ni-ready ni Lord na mag-dance with that kind of look kasi eto pala ang mangyayari sa akin.”

Since Gayon and Renigen were paired, they committed themselves to dancing, and to competing. After they graduated, they poured their heart more into the sport.

The two, like the pair of Aranar and Nualla, train for six days a week, four hours a day. When they’re not dancing, they do high intensity interval trainings, they run, do sit-ups, and push-ups, and all that is necessary so that their bodies perform as demanded.

Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport 4
Aranar and Nuella proudly display their recent accomplishments.

The sport requires them to bend and twist in ways that are unnatural—and they have to make it look easy and graceful. Then they have to move seamlessly and in unison with the other person—something that may take years to accomplish. They also watch their diet, eating more proteins and vegetables than simple carbohydrates. On Sundays, they rest.

“Commitment talaga,” Renigen says. “Kapag hindi kami nakasayaw, parang may mali.”


Career and passion

In the case of Aranar, a mild-mannered guy, and Nualla, a well-spoken, petite lady, no one had to persuade them to take up dancing.

Aranar, whose father is a dance instructor, started dancing when he was 11 years old. During school breaks, he and his sister would join their old man at the dance studio. Dancing was their playtime activity. He remembers training under SEA Games 2005 gold medalist for dance sport Filomena Salvador, as a scholar in her dance studio. His first dancing partner was his sister.

Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport 5
Aranar and Nuella: She may be shorter than the idea, but the two found they match perfectly in talent, attitude and dedication.

Nualla was already a member of her high school’s dance group when one of her group mates, also a dance sport athlete, invited her try the sport. She was 16 years old at the time, and she has not stopped dancing and competing since.

Sometime in 2013, Aranar and Nualla were both looking for dancing partners. Aranar’s coach suggested that he try it out with Nualla but Aranar was hesitant. He had a lot of things in his mind. He had been with partners who couldn’t commit their time. He wasn’t sure that his career in dance was going anywhere. And would Nualla be really the ideal partner? Being five-feet-five-inches himself, his partner should not be shorter than five-feet-three-inches. Nualla is only five-foot tall.

“Hindi ko alam bakit in-approve ng coach,” Nualla says, laughing.

But to their surprise, while their proportions weren’t the perfect match, their attitude toward the sport was. They were both addicted to dance, and were wiling to practice every day if demanded, and as hard as their bodies could handle. “Hard work beats talent or whatever’s given to you,” Nualla says. “Ang daming times namin ’yan na-prove. Marami kaming weakness, but we turn that into strength.”

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“The best thing that happened sa SEA Games is that na-recognize na ulit ang dance sport, ’yon ang ikinatuwa namin,” says Aranar, here with Nuella.

For Nualla, hard work means going straight to the dance studio after doing her job as a laboratory analyst at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. She’s a board certified chemist by profession.

Aranar graduated with a business management degree at the Far Eastern University, Manila. He wanted to take up something that was not in line with his passion. He knew many in the field of dance sport who have their own business, and he knew a more practical course could either help him find a job or help him build his own business.

Nualla says dance sport can be very expensive. It’s an investment, she says. The training, the hours at the studio, gas, and costumes all have their own cost. In the past years, competitions did not have much for cash prizes. “Ang pinakamalaki na dati, 20,000 pesos, and first to third place lang merong cash,” she reveals.

Things have thankfully changed. And with their triumphs in the ongoing 30th SEA Games, they are hoping more people would appreciate and give more attention to the sport.

“The best thing that happened sa SEA Games is that na-recognize na ulit ang dance sport, ’yon ang ikinatuwa namin,” Aranar says.


Beyond SEA Games

Both pairs tell ANCX they have yet to fully appreciate their SEA Games victories. Or as they like to say, hindi pa nagsisink-in. 

“Hindi namin alam paano i-assess ang ganitong feeling,” Renigen says, after taking a long pause when we ask her how the gold medals feel hanging from her neck. It’s the first time they’re getting this kind of attention, she says. “Na-o-overwhelm siguro kami. Hindi namin alam kung tatalon ba kami o iiyak.”

Meet the Pinoy athletes who took home five SEA Games gold medals in dance sport 7
With their coach German Enriquez.

“Unti-unti nang nagsi-sink-in,” Nuella says about their win. “No’ng tinugtog ang "Lupang Hinirang," umiyak kami.”

For now, the two pairs are going to take a break—albeit a very short one.

Aranar and Nuella will be competing on December 22, in Vietnam. Gayon and Renigen will be in another competition in January 2020.

While they train in separate studios and form different strategies, the four share one goal: to get better and win again, and again.

Nuella puts it all in perspective: “The goal is to compete sa world. We’re still striving. We will always be hungry, and will always want to become better.”


Photographs by Bam Abellon. Additional photos courtesy of Jeff Canoy.