Ballerina from Tondo dances her way from the street to the stage
JESSA BALOTE, 19, never imagined that she would dance on stage as a ballet dancer. As a young child growing up in an impoverished community in Tondo, she would tiptoe to avoid broken glass and fetid garbage scattered on the street. Today, she is once again tiptoeing, to show an audience how she has mastered the tendu, the pirouette, and the grand jete.
Balote started ballet at the age of 10. Through the years, she has shown exceptional talent that she is now taking on roles danced by no less than the country’s most prominent ballerina, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. She has literally been up on her toes trying to prove that she deserved a spot among Elizalde’s prestigious Ballet Manila dancers.
Balote is a scholar of Project Ballet Futures (PBF), a dance scholarship program that provides free ballet education to public elementary and high school students under The Lisa Macuja School of Ballet Manila, the educational arm of Ballet Manila.
“I used to think that ballet was something you do only because you’re flexible. I didn’t think it was an art, until I was able to watch the ballet show Pinocchio when I was 10 at the Aliw Theatre,” she said. “I was amazed and I couldn’t take my mind off the show. At that age, I decided that I wanted to become a ballet dancer.”
As her family didn’t have money to finance her formal ballet education, she considered it an “answered prayer” when PBF held auditions for new scholars in her school in Tondo, the Philippine Christian Foundation. Her brother, who was then a ballet scholar of PBF, encouraged her to try out.
“I was really scared. I didn’t know anything about ballet but my brother just told me to follow the dance steps,” she revealed. Even without formal training, Balote’s natural talent shone, and she was accepted to dance and train under the scholarship program.
A different world
Entering Ballet Manila for the first time, Balote felt “small” and uneasy as she thought the place was only for those who are wealthy, like the characters often portrayed in ballets.
“I felt out of place. I thought Ballet Manila was not for someone like me who grew up in Tondo,” she shared.
What changed her mind though was seeing the lead performer of the show Pinocchio and having no less than Lisa Macuja herself as the first teacher of their class.
“I recognized her as the famous ballerina, and it encouraged me to continue with my training,” Balote said. “I have to fight all my insecurities if I wanted to stay in the program.”
More than her natural talent, it was Balote’s desire to keep her spot in class that made her train harder compared to the others. Soon, her hard work paid off.
“Miss Lisa would often compliment me for having a really good point (toes), and I realized that she was observing closely at how I danced.”
As part of the scholarship program, the scholars trained separately from the company class, Ballet Manila’s elite roster of ballet dancers. It doesn’t mean their training is less rigorous than the company class but they have to prove first that they have the mettle and drive to succeed in the challenging world of ballet.
PBF scholars are introduced to the rigorous Russian Vaganova method which develops both the body and the mind. This type of dance education builds an artist’s confidence and nurtures emotional intelligence while mastering styles and techniques.
To help these young dancers master the athletic nature of their training and achieve their full potential, they are provided with meals, a glass of milk and vitamin supplements six days a week. Scholars are trained to be professional dancers, and a major part of PBF’s vision is to send more children from the streets to the stage.
Hard work pays off
Balote shared that there are many highlights to her training as a PBF scholar: Her first performance at the Aliw Theatre a year since she started, moving up to different classes while the rest of her batch remained in the scholarship program, and of course, getting recognized by Elizalde herself.
“It was a wonderful feeling when I performed on the same stage where I was first enchanted by ballet. A year before that, I was only part of the audience. Now, I was the one being watched,” she said.
The most memorable moment of her life happened when she was 14. “I was only part of the core group and we were dancing with the company class when Miss Lisa asked me to stand in front. I was very scared then because I don’t know what was happening. Then the company group surrounded me and Miss Lisa announced that I was moving up as a company apprentice. I couldn’t say anything. I was so overwhelmed and I was crying the whole time.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Balote went on to win various awards such as Aliw Awards’ Discovery of the Year Awardee in 2013 and was finalist in the Junior Division and fifth placer in the Asian Grand Prix International Ballet Competition in Hong Kong for 2012 and 2013, respectively. She also won the “Best Classical Dancer” award in the 2016 Aliw Awards. She was also able to travel in different countries such as London, Russia, and Vietnam to perform — places which she only imagined in her dreams when she was young.
With her income from ballet, Balote was able to help her family by opening a small store. She was also able to acquire a new house, this time in Antipolo.
Today, apart from being a full-time company dancer, she also gets to “pay it forward” by teaching classes including those offered by the PBF.
“Actually, I’m a strict teacher, but what I want is to give back to students everything that was taught to me here in Ballet Manila,” she said. “I want the students to learn how it is to become the best.”
What has she learned so far?
“That hard work and perseverance pays off. And that if you want something, you have to do everything that you can to make sure that you don’t waste all the opportunities given to you. Those are the biggest lessons I learned in life and that was made possible by ballet.”