An unlikely ballerina emerges from a Manila slum


In this photo taken Nov. 25 2012, Filipino slum dweller Jessa Balote, center, balances during a class at Ballet Manila at the Philippine capital. AP PHOTO/AARON FAVILA

MANILA, Philippines—The ghetto called Aroma reeks of putrefying trash collected by its residents for recycling. Half-naked children with grimy faces play on muddy dirt roads lined by crumbling shanties of tarpaulin walls, cracked tin roofs and communal toilets.

From this Manila slum of garbage collectors emerged an unlikely Cinderella: ballerina Jessa Balote who at the age of 10 was plucked out of her grubby life by a ballet school to prepare her for a life on stage.

In four years since her audition in 2008, Jessa has performed in various productions, including Swan Lake, Pinocchio, Don Quixote and a local version of Cinderella. She rode a plane for the first time in August to compete in the 2012 Asian Grand Prix ballet competition for students and young dancers in Hong Kong, where she was a finalist.

The 14-year-old Jessa’s unlikely success is as much a celebration of a unique effort by the Philippines’ most famous prima ballerina, Lisa Macuja, to help slum kids of Manila by providing them a scholarship and classical ballet training for six to seven years.

More than a quarter of the Southeast Asian nation’s 94 million people live in abject poverty, many in sprawling and unsanitary shanty towns like Aroma in the capital city. Despite a recent economic upturn, there are not enough full-time jobs. Education skills are lacking and incomes are low. At least 3,000 Filipinos leave their families behind every day to seek employment abroad.

Not much future

Jessa, who would have likely followed her family to a life of garbage picking, had not much of a future to look forward to.

“I used to tag along with my father and mother when they collected garbage in the evening,” Jessa said in her home about the size of a shipping container with a small attic.

Her family would gather trash from houses in the nearby Quiapo district or rummage for scrap metal in the huge garbage dump not far from home.

That was until her successful audition for the Project Ballet Futures dance scholarship established by Macuja, founder and artistic director of Ballet Manila who is married to business

Filipino slum dweller Jamil Montebon, right, focuses during a class at Ballet Manila at the Philippine capital. Montebon, a scholar at Ballet Manila’s program, used to collect garbage and also worked at a junk shop. He now receives a monthly stipend, stays at their dormitory and given meals. AP PHOTO/AARON FAVILA

tycoon Fred Elizalde.

The outreach program of Ballet Manila—which runs a dance company and a school by the same name—initially accepted 40 students from Jessa’s charity-run school in Manila’s Tondo district dump site. Some dropped out, but new batches have been accepted.

55 scholars

Today, the program has 55 scholars, aged 9 to 18, from five partner public schools such as Jessa’s. They train daily after school along with 60 paying students.

“I can help my parents more with what I do now. I earn money from ballet,” said Jessa, sitting on a plastic bench in her shorts and t-shirt, her long hair loose. The slim teenager, perhaps so used to dancing on her toes, would often have her toes pointed at the wooden floor even while sitting during the interview.

Behind her, the plywood wall of the family shack was adorned with pictures of her in gossamer tutu on stage. Sharing the space were frames of ballet certificates and a newspaper clipping about the garbage picker-turned-ballerina. A pair of satin pointe shoes lay on top of a gym bag, a few meters (yards) from sacks of used plastic bottles and other garbage piled up outside the door of her cramped home.

Jessa and other kids are trained in the rigorous Russian Vaganova ballet and are required to keep up with their academics in school. They are provided a monthly stipend of P1,200 to P3,000 ($30 to $73) depending on their ballet level, as well as meals, milk and ballet outfits. They also receive fees of P400 to P1,500 ($10 to $37) for each performance.

Pointe shoes alone cost $50 to $80 a pair—a fortune for someone eking a living on $2 a day—and wear out within weeks or days, said Macuja.

Scholarship at Vaganova

The daughter of a former senior trade official, Macuja was 18 years old when she received a two-year scholarship at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute (now the Academy of Russian Ballet) in Saint Petersburg in 1982, where she graduated with honors.

She was the first foreign principal ballerina for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg before returning to the Philippines, where she worked as artist-in-residence at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and a principal dancer at the Philippine Ballet Theatre.

Macuja, 48, founded Ballet Manila in 1994 with the aim of making the high art of classical ballet more accessible to common people. The dance company has held performances in malls, schools, town halls and remote villages of the archipelago. She set up the scholarship program in 2008 as a way of paying back for her good fortunes.

For Jessa and the other slum children, it opened a whole new world. Literally so, when she flew to Hong Kong for the ballet competition.

Her glee while on a roller coaster in Disneyland was captured in a photo in her humble home.

Nervous and shy

During the competition in Hong Kong, she said she often felt nervous and shy to be dancing among well-off peers. But she overcame her fear, remembering Macuja’s advice “to persist despite the odds and to not let poverty hinder me.”

As a company apprentice she makes around P7,000 ($170) a month, sometimes more, from stipend and performance fees. The money is not enough to lift her family from poverty, but ballet has given her a choice in life.

In this photo taken Dec. 4, 2012, the area where Filipino slum dweller Jessa Balote lives at a place called Aroma in Tondo, Manila, Philippines. Balote, who used to tag along with her family as they collect garbage at a nearby dumpsite, is a scholar at Ballet Manila’s dance program. AP PHOTO/AARON FAVILA

Her father, Gorgonio, works part-time as a construction worker besides collecting garbage. His meager pay is insufficient to feed his large family of six children and two grandchildren. One son works in a factory while another daughter collects garbage.

Jessa’s childhood dream is to become a school teacher. But she also wants to dance as a professional ballerina. She says she is challenged by the feisty acting and difficult dance turns of the Black Swan character in Swan Lake and aspires for that role.

Life saver

For Jamil Montebon, another Project Ballet’s beneficiary, the scholarship was a life saver.

The troubled 18-year-old has left his broken family in a violent slum community not far from Aroma.

He became a ballet scholar at 13 but then dropped out of high school and ballet last year after a fight with his mother. During his time off from ballet and school, he collected garbage and worked in a junk shop. At night he would go drinking with other kids who often clashed with rival gangs, then sleep in a church where he got one free meal a week.

He was later accepted back into the program, which demands that children keep good grades and stay out of trouble. After shaping up, he moved into Ballet Manila’s dormitory.

“I think that the key really is that these kids have been given hope, and that hope will transform their lives,” Macuja said.

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  • romjov2009

    mabuhay ka lisa macuja sana  ma ituloy mo pa ang magandang hangarin GOD BLESS

  • Practicalandconcerned

    Bakit linagay pa yung ‘Slum’ offensive tuloy

    • tamumd

      And why do you have to sugarcoat it? That’s really where those kids came from. Do you wanna pretend they came from Forbes Park or White Plains?

  • rene oliveros

    Thank you Ms. Macuja.

  • 4kingdaddy

    there’s future for those who defy poverty and look forward into tomorrow of their lives….Thank You Ms. Macuja for your generosity…’s a hope against all odds that those who has more than they could “chew” would follow suit….you’re an angel sent from heaven, Ms. Macuja!!!!…. 

  • lescantillal

    God bless you, Ms. Macuja, for helping these kids out of the cycle where they were and giving them hope to have a better life.

  • batangpaslit

    ungas naman ang title ng news article na ito.
    bakit pag ang tao ba ay hindi lumaki sa mayayamang lugar, hindi na makasayaw tulad nang isang ballerina?
    the author is too prejudiced.
    ako, am grateful that Liza M “discovered” her.
    carry on, Liza

    • Marie Claire Bretaña-Ponsaran

      She’s an unlikely ballerina not because of where she was born, but because ballet isn’t a popular dance among people living in these depressed areas. So, it’s a surprise to discover she’s one of the few who has an interest in ballet. That she has the talent to succeed in this art is like the cherry on top and all the trimmings on a cake, if you know what I mean.

      • batangpaslit

        Claire, merci!
        If the feature writer wrote the way you penned your post, I would have a warm response and appreciation of what she filed. My apologies if I misread the published article.
        Poverty is a curse.
        I hold the view—for I have seen it—if those who are in a position to extend help the less fortunate to rise from the morass of poverty, the victims who are willing to be helped could make it too.
        Thanks much for your lucid explanation. You must be a writer, aren’t you?

  • Sippho

    kudos to liza macuja-elizalde!!!! keep it up ma’am :)

  • barangan na agokoy

    good job…

  • Fearless Gara

    yan ang pangtanggal stress!


    Unlikely is not the term that should have been used to describe the girl. She has the physical make up and grace to be one but she was found in an unikely place.  So the title should be if I may is ….Ballerina Emerges in an Unlikely Place or Macuja Finds a Gem in the Slum or Macuja finds  Ballerina in Unlikely Place, From the Slum  a Ballerina Emerges

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