Books Filipino Lit PoC Reading Challenge 2011 Reading the World 2011

The Story in History: Ambeth Ocampos’ Dirty Dancing

I’ve always loved history classes. I was short of a knowledge geek in grade school through college.  While I wasn’t good in memorizing anything—dates, heroes, or wars—-I enjoyed learning about things in the past. But history as an academic pursuit can be burdensome, all that list of dates, national bird (Flower, tree, etc), and heroes of a particular battle. It was tedious learning all of these things just to pass the class.  Luckily, my love for stories prevailed over my hate of memorization and I found myself once again enamored by the humanity that lies in history.

All because of Ambeth Ocampo.

Could we possibly call him the rockstar of present day Filipino historians? I don’t know. A friend introduced me to his books and since then I’ve become a fan. Dirty Dancing: Looking Back 2, is his second collection of articles from his Philippine Daily Inquirer column. I’ve never read his column, but I’m glad he decided to compile them into thin tiny books.

The Dirty Dancing part of the title was taken from the first article in the book on Mabini‘s love of dancing. Yes, Ocampo muses over the details of our Philippine Heroes’ love of dance and I think this is Ocampo’s gift. He looks at history not as mere important dates and heroic acts. He looks at history as a group of stories that enable us to relate to our heroes and hopefully appreciate more the people that fought for our freedom.

Apolinario Mabini: The Sublime Paralytic

Ocampo’s second serving of Looking Back takes us through revolutionary Philippines then to the Marcos Era. As the author gives us little details and facts of history, he is never dull. He makes history digestible, interesting, and humorous. I like to refer to his writing as history in the details. It goes beyond the heroic labels; it is about the humanity in them whether it’s their terrible temper, their love lives, or their hobbies.

Looking Back doesn’t limit itself to historical/political figures. History after all is everywhere and of Dirty Dancing, my favorite was Ocampo’s investigation of Filipino names. And yes, some individuals were blessed (or cursed) with surnames that a censorship committee might bleep at any point. Another amusing anecdote from the book is on the Beatles’ visit to Manila. Ocampo mentions how the Beatles were invited to perform privately for the first lady Imelda Marcos and how Imelda waited in vain.  Ah yes, another story we never get to hear in our History class.

I can’t help but think about Colin Firth’s film The King’s Speech. Many may be familiar with the the royal family and Britain’s history during World War II, but few probably know of the King’s struggle over stuttering. It’s this little detail that provides us insight to the humanity of a King. It is these details that offer real stories beyond facts. Who knows one of these days some Filipino film maker might pick up a little anecdote from Ocampo’s books and make a film at par with the King’s Speech.

Dirty Dancing: Looking Back 2 makes history easy to digest and entertaining. It doesn’t skimp on facts, but given Ocampo’s ability to tell a story it doesn’t bore. Filipinos should give Ocampo’s books a chance and his Looking Back series isn’t a bad way to start appreciating history.

History’s relevance is in the story that I think we take for granted when we study history in school. We are stuck with the dates and titles and we expect that through rote learning students will develop an appreciation of history, which we never do learn. Ambeth Ocampo has made history relevant not only to his readers, but to his students. It is said that Ocampo’s history class in Ateneo de Manila University is popular among undergraduate students. It is often filled to the brim with other students hoping to take his class as well.  Imagine, a supposedly dreary class, filled with students. What a sight that is. I have yet to verify this, but so far, those I know from Ateneo confirm this legend. If you know this to be true (or false) do leave a comment.

Ambeth Ocampo is a multi-awarded Filipino Historian, academic, journalist, and author. He is well known for his writings on Rizal (such as Rizal without his overcoat) and his newspaper column.  If you wish to be his fan and “like” him, here is his facebook page.

Reading the World Challenge Update: 6 of 6, Manila, History, Non-fiction

POC Challenge Update: 25 of 25

14 comments on “The Story in History: Ambeth Ocampos’ Dirty Dancing

  1. myragarcesbacsal

    Great review Mary. I haven’t heard of this book yet, not even from my historian friends from UP, I should go ask them what their thoughts are about him and his works. I’m definitely intrigued. =)


    • Ma’am Dotty (KC) used some of his articles form Rizal Without an Overcoat in our Kasaysayan class. This particular book is small and thin, and its a collection of his published column in PDI. You can read his column online.


  2. He was my teacher, Myra! 🙂

    I wrote about History with Sir Ambeth and the Looking Back series here


    • Yey! At least i get a comment from one of his students and your post seem to confirm what i hear. I’ve all three of the series, except I read 1 and 3 first before Dirty Dancing. I decided to review this one since it was my most recent read and fits our reading the world challenge.

      thanks for dropping by blooey.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Blooey, that’s cool. I’d definitely check out your post. He seems like a mighty inspiring teacher – I wonder what batch he was (haha) or if he ever taught in UP at all?

      Mary, I tagged some of my UP historian friends and turns out they know him. Atoy tagged Ambeth on FB regarding your post. =) Hope he drops by.


  3. Marites Mapa

    Thank you, Mam Mary for your wonderful articles. I am a fan of Ambeth Ocampo. You know We are promoting Philippine History in HK. Especially about the life of Dr. Jose Rizal and all the significant Landmarks of Filipino Heroes during thier exiled. We are studying our history here in HK and one of our book is Rizal Without an Overcoat. Our Mentor introduced this book to us and I love to read it.


    • Hi Marites,
      Your welcome. Its always great to discover people who can change your attitude towards something like History. It’s amazing that his work has reached HK, Rizal Without an Overcoat allows us to see Rizal beyond national hero and author of el fili and noli. I guess the present generation has gone beyond seeing heroes to be perfect. I think the more we could relate to a hero the easier it is for us to find a bit of heroism in our own lives.

      thanks for dropping by. I’m glad to meet another fan of Ambeth Ocampo through this post.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hello Marites, thanks for dropping by. Similar to what Mary said, I’m glad to hear that Philippine history is being shared in Hong Kong. I had a chance to visit quite a number of schools in HK March of last year, but these were mostly local (gifted) schools.

      I’d love to know more about what you just shared. I’m assuming you’re in graduate school?


      • Marites Mapa

        Hi Mam Myra, Our group is called Lakbay Dangal Historical Cultural guides. It was founded by Father Robert Reyes on march 14, 2010 in Chater Garden HK. Some of the members was not in graduate school including me. This unique organization helps OFW in HK to study about Phil history in HK and at the same time to become a certified tourist guides. We just finished the course last april 8, 2011 and we are the first batch of Lakbay Dangal.


        • Marites Mapa

          If you want to know more about Lakbay Dangal HK, you can visit our Facebook account.


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  5. Pingback: The 2011 Reading Challenge Round Up |

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