(A boy is held up by his mother as hundreds of devotees dance and pray for children in an annual fertility procession in Obando, north of Manila May 17, 2011/Cheryl Ravelo)

Hundreds of couples flocked to a town in the northern Philippines to take part in a centuries-old ritual dance, honouring a patron saint believed to bring fertility. The ritual took place this year amid an increasingly acrimonious battle over a controversial bill promoting artificial contraception in this intensely Catholic nation.

Those seeking children packed into Obando by the thousands for the annual May ritual, inspired by miraculous stories of the babies it has brought. Couples dance in the two-hour long procession, swaying their hips to a traditional folk tune from bamboo and marching bands. The ritual is accompanied by a short chant and prayer to Saint Claire, the local patron saint of fertility, asking her to bless them with children.

The rite has taken place in Obando for centuries and apparently originated from a pagan fertility ritual where couples once rubbed their body parts against an idol. But the act was later changed by the Catholic Church when they introduced Saint Claire, the patron saint of fertility, to the locals.

The dance also promotes fertility in a different way, with the saint playing matchmaker to help people find a partner. Newlywed Tess Faustino said she found her husband after asking the patron saint for guidance. “This is my first time to wish for a child,” she added.