There is strength in numbers, it is said. This continues to be proven true with each concert of the Halili-Cruz School for Dance, where during performances, the stage is filled with 150 to over 300 dancers from start to finish. No other dance school in the country can pull off such spectacles.
Founder Shirley Halili-Cruz is shy about disclosing enrollment numbers, estimated at about a thousand before the pandemic. That does not include students from Miriam College and Poveda who are taking the online courses.
“I never think about income,” Halili-Cruz says. “For me, it’s all about the joy of dance. Everything I do comes from the heart.”
HC School of Dance continues to pull in young and old enthusiasts, all thanks to word of mouth. They are attracted to the collegial culture, says school director Anna Cruz Bueno, Halili-Cruz’s daughter. “We are one big family. Everybody supports each other to attain a goal.”
In its 37th year, the school is teaching second-generation dancers who clearly appreciate the nurturing atmosphere, the structure of the classes and the traditionally large-scale shows.
Doubtless, they benefit from both the quality of education and the gratification of dipping their toes into different dance styles. The school sustains an atmosphere of solid technical training even as it cautions its students against neglecting their academics.
Halili-Cruz is an academic achiever herself. She started teaching ballet at 15 and graduated valedictorian from high school in Siena College. While studying under Edgar Valdes and performing with Dance Concert Company, she merited summa cum laude in three courses—business administration, accounting and banking—from the University of Sto. Tomas and Letran College. In her quest to become a well-rounded dancer, she trained in tap, jazz, musical theater and modern dance in New York.
With the help of her husband Eric, she had a two-story building erected on Quezon Avenue in 1985 with five studios totaling some 600 square meters, making it one of the country’s biggest private dance schools with the best facilities, from sprung floors imported from the United Kingdom to meticulously clean shower rooms. Bueno likens HC School of Dance to a mother company with three subsidiaries: HC School of Ballet for classical training; HC Conservatory for jazz, lyrical, contemporary, hiphop and Pilates; and HC Dance Company.
Halili-Cruz has strictly maintained a faculty of qualified and motivated teachers to fully draw out every student’s potential. They adhere to a homegrown ballet syllabus created by Halili-Cruz; international syllabi for ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary dance developed by the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (CSTD, in Australia); and a UK syllabus for hip-hop. Consistent training builds both the levels of stamina and artistry required for international competitions.
Twice a year, the students get a different flavor of mentoring from guest foreign teachers. Explains Halili-Cruz, “They learn to adapt to various teaching styles. When we bring them abroad to compete, perform or attend workshops, they don’t get culture shock.”
For advanced students, the HC Dance Company provides opportunities to perform in special events and major venues, and to represent the country in international dance festivals. Among its alumni are Stephanie Cabral, who performed with Ballet Manila and Ballet Philippines, and Ian Ocampo, a sought-after danseur in BP. Abigail Tan-Gamino is a senior faculty member of Atlanta Ballet Center for Dance Education. Regina Magbitang is a soloist of Philippine Ballet Theater. Madge Reyes produces the “Fifth Wall,” the country’s only dance film festival. Jim Ferrer performed in musical theater.
In 2014, Halili-Cruz suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body. Being bound to a wheelchair gave her more time for introspection, she says. “My thinking process became deeper, more expansive and creative.”
At the onset of the pandemic, the dance school immediately shifted to distance dance education. Enrollment swelled, reaching applicants in Abra and Davao, and even as far as Korea, Singapore, Fiji and California. In June 2020, it held the first in a series of virtual recitals.
Earlier this year, the live concerts resumed in two big venues, Metropolitan Theater and Newport Performing Arts Theater. Students from Korea, Fiji, Davao and Bicol flew in to participate.
The school continues with hybrid learning. Live classes are streamed to students in distant places. Online classes with Miriam and Poveda continue.
While majority have pursued careers outside of dance, Halili-Cruz is pleased that dance education has given them lasting life skills. “Our students are encouraged to be diligent in regular schoolwork and, in fact, to maintain good grades. That way, when we send them to competitions, it is easy to obtain permission from their schools,” she says. “Many of them graduated with honors, and some have turned out to possess leadership qualities.”
At age 64, eight years since her stroke, Halili-Cruz spends most of her time conceptualizing and directing projects from her wheelchair. The schools are run by Bueno, 41, and associate director Grace Perez, 51, both respected and loved by the students and faculty. They are products of the school as well, and received their teaching credentials from CSTD.
Halili-Cruz has been chairperson of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ (NCCA) National Committee on Dance for 12 years. When she was nominated for National Artist for Dance in 2021, she was caught in a bind. One of the rules disqualifies officials of the NCCA and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which administer the awards. Having to choose between leaving NCCA to accept the nomination and letting go of her bid to keep her post, she picked the latter.
“There’s still so much I can do as chair of the Committee on Dance,” she says. True to form, she shows no sign of slowing down. “Creative juices surge past expectations as we grow older.” —Contributed INQ