16-year-old dreams to be the country’s first prima ballerina assoluta
Her love affair with ballet began at age five. By the time she was 12-years-old, she already knew her calling in life.
She was awarded the Joy Coronel Award for Special Potentials in 2013. And now, at 16, she is one of the 10 recipients of a full scholarship (including Summer Intensive) at the prestigious Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, Illinois, and recipient of a full merit one-year scholarship at Atlanta Ballet in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stephanie “Steffi” Santiago accidentally discovered ballet when, at 5-years-old, she wanted to play with her classmate after school. Her friend declined, saying she had a ballet class. Curious, Steffi tagged along and witnessed ballet for the first time.
Little did she know then that what she saw would change her life forever.
“It looked fun,” she recalls. “They were running around. I always liked running around in the field, but my mom would get mad at me because my skin would get dark. So I thought maybe I could run around in the ballet room where there was no sun.”
Annette and Bong Santiago, Steffi’s parents, also recall the time when their little girl enthusiastically decided to enroll in a ballet class. They were surprised, since neither one of them—nor their respective families—was into ballet. They were athletic, sure, but dancing?
The Santiagos were so clueless about ballet, in fact, during Steffi’s first recital, her father fell asleep.
As years went by, Steffi’s enthusiasm turned to passion. She researched about ballet and the best schools in the world, and watched videos of her idols— Natalia Osipova, Svetlana Yuryevna Zakharova, Marianela Núñez, Candice Adea.
Still, her parents were in denial. Both assured themselves Steffi’s growing love for ballet was just a passing fancy. (“We would have wanted her to pick a more predictable career,” Annette says.)
It was not until Steffi was 12, when she won first place in the Philippine Dance Cup, that she took ballet seriously.
“I liked the feeling of being on stage, just performing and being happy,” she says. “Then I researched to see if dance could be a career. It’s like being an athlete, like how tennis players can earn money by winning competitions. Dancers earn money by performing. So I was, like, ‘Oh, it can be a job!’”
Her parents initially tried to dissuade her. Annette said it took some time before they finally accepted that parenting was stewardship.
“As parents, we don’t want her to go through rejection or failing an audition,” says Annette. “We’ve seen her cry. We asked her, ‘Do you want to go through this again?’ With tears in her eyes, she said, ‘Yes.’ Kami ’yung nahihirapan for her.”
And their hearts break each time Steffi is in physical pain. Being a ballet dancer is a lot like being an athlete. No matter how young, they are prone to injuries. Dancers do things the body can’t really do, like doing splits, pushing their leg behind their head or standing on their toes.
“I have a hip injury,” Steffi admits. “I had this audition where my hip went out of place, then went back in place, so it felt like I was wearing someone else’s hip.”
Like any teenager, Steffi misses the regular life. She has been home-schooled for four years now. Sometimes she wonders why she’s still dancing, and, like an old soul, waxes philosophical.
“I don’t know why I like it so much because dance takes away many good things in my life,” she muses. “It takes away my friends because I have to be in ballet, my regular school life because I have to be home-schooled, my home because I have to live away because of dance if I want to go international.”
Back to the barre
But once she goes back to the ballet barre to do her steps, everything falls into place. She must be moving in the right direction, though, as doors started opening for her when she turned 16.
She was auditioning for the Summer Intensive at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, but the school gave her a one-year scholarship as a Studio Company member. The Studio Company is a scholarship program where only 10 selected students are accepted.
Steffi is a rare case. The school usually gives scholarships to American citizens and its students.
“It’s a big blessing from God,” says Steffi. “God helped me through all those auditions. The Joffrey Ballet audition lasted two hours with 80 dancers, and that’s in San Francisco alone. It’s like winning a competition, it was so surreal.”
Like most people, she gets intimidated. It’s unusual for an Oriental to be in ballet, she says, since schools and companies usually go for the tall, Caucasian girl with blonde hair. But she wants to prove that anyone can dance—any color, race or height for that matter.
“You can be a ballerina if you really want it, if you work hard and if you’re determined,” she says.
At 5’3 1/2,” Steffi can jump higher than most girls who are much taller than her.
So far, she has been accepted at all three auditions in the United States—Houston Ballet in Texas, Atlanta Ballet and Joffrey Academy of Dance. She also got accepted to audition for Hamburg Ballet in Germany and La Scala Ballet Company in Italy.
Steffi wants to be a prima ballerina assoluta someday. She has no Plan B.
“I really like dancing. I would rather do something that I really like, and that’s dance, even though it doesn’t give me a lot of money. I just love to dance every day. Dance is life. Ballet is life,” she says, smiling.—CONTRIBUTED
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