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Arts Culture STEPS Dance Studio at 25, Providing World-class Training to Filipino Dancers

STEPS Dance Studio at 25, Providing World-class Training to Filipino Dancers

By Bambina Olivares
June 27, 2019
STEPS Dance Studio founder Sofia Zobel Elizalde shares the story of how she opened the world of ballet to everyone and how her foundation continues to assist deserving Filipino dancers in acquiring a world-class education

(Photo above) A PASSION FOR LEARNING Sofia Zobel-Elizalde with some of the STEPS Dance Studio students

There is something timeless and ethereal about ballet. The gentle swirl of pink, from the tights to the tutus to the satin toe shoes; the emotion in every movement, from a hand raised in the air to a dazzling pirouette. Everything about this formalised form of dance that originated in Renaissance Italy and then spread to France embodies grace, elegance, and classic perfection.

It’s also an art form that breathes of exclusivity, privilege, and wealth, evoking a world that seems closed to those who cannot afford the expensive lessons or the dancewear—leotards, tights, tutus, cardigans, ballet slippers—or those who simply aren’t exposed to ballet and the classical music that frequently accompanies it.

Sofia Zobel Elizalde, herself a ballet dancer whose first lead role was that of Clara in the CCP Dance Company’s production of The Nutcracker back when she was a little girl, believes that ballet is for everyone. And to open up the world of ballet, she established the STEPS Scholarship Foundation in November 2007, 13 years after setting up her school, STEPS Dance Studio.

The foundation aims to give assistance to young gifted Filipino dancers who want to have serious dance training in ballet, jazz, or modern dance in the hopes of making dance a future profession.

Maisie Briones in a dramatic pose

The Elmhurst Ballet School-trained Elizalde found her first batch of scholars by partnering with Ayala Foundation’s Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education (CENTEX) schools.

“Filipinos are natural dancers,” she said, “they naturally move well, they naturally have a sense of rhythm. Most kids here are very musical, naturally. So I figured, seeing as they had no dance background, the easiest thing to teach them would be street dance.

“I brought a street dance teacher from STEPS to CENTEX in Tondo; we gave them a street dance class, and based on that, I really picked kids who I felt had the body, the charisma, the physique… They picked up the steps quickly, and they just stood out.

“That’s basically how we started, and every other year, I go to CENTEX and we audition the young kids. Right now, we have over 50 kids from CENTEX who come every week to STEPS to learn dance. I also make them do the Royal Academy of Dance [RAD] exams.”

The foundation aims to give assistance to young gifted Filipino dancers who want to have serious dance training in the hopes of making dance a serious profession

It’s all about giving them equal opportunities, she stressed. “I put them through the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus exams, which are internationally accredited. So these kids get to do the exams, get to have full training in STEPS, and get to dance in my school with everybody else.”

Encouraged by the success of the Tondo programme (“We have developed so many kids who want to go into dance professionally,” she said) the foundation has begun to cast a wider net, setting up a dance programme in another CENTEX school, this time in Batangas.

She excitedly recounted how, together with her husband Patxi Elizalde, she is building, with the permission of CENTEX Batangas, a small dance studio in the school, as well as a place for the students to have music, with acclaimed violinist Coke Bolipata giving violin lessons.

Paloma Laforteza is one of STEPS Dance Studio’s leading dancers

“I’m naming the studio after Stella Abrera,” she disclosed. “She is the first Filipino-American to become a principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, and her father is from Batangas. I asked her if we could name it after her because I thought she would be a real inspiration. If the children saw her, and what she has been able to achieve, then they can know that they can also achieve that.”

Abrera, who held Filipino audiences spellbound when she performed last year with her fellow American Ballet Theatre stars at the Maybank Theatre in BGC, was delighted to lend her name to the project. She shares Elizalde’s passion not just for dance, but for giving back, passing it on and inspiring other kids “to enjoy this art form the way we did.”

The Batangas programme is set to start in January 2020, with Abrera herself hopefully flying in to inaugurate the studio, the first ballet school in the province.

The STEPS Scholarship Foundation gives deserving dancers access to a world-class education

To date, the Foundation has welcomed around 200 scholars requiring various levels of financial assistance. The CENTEX students, who come from very poor backgrounds, receive full scholarships. “But one day in the summer, before the summer workshops begin, we open our doors to kids who want to take dance very seriously but who want the chance to train at a slightly less expense. Apart from giving scholarships to kids who really can’t afford the tuition, we also give merit scholarships. If a child has been in STEPS for, say, eight or nine years, and it’s become very expensive for them to continue, they can audition for a scholarship that will provide financial assistance.”

Her main thrust with STEPS, she said, is “really to give these kids an opportunity on whatever level. And it can get very expensive.” There is a caveat, however, in that the children who are admitted into the scholarship programme have to commit to the classes every day, because they will be getting the necessary training to raise them to a professional level.

Maisie Briones and Ghian Arboleda
Ghian Arboleda on air for grand jeté
Paloma Laforteza in an attitude pose

Dance education at STEPS is not just limited to ballet, which follows the RAD syllabus; it includes street and modern dance. And even an all-around art education. Recently, STEPS presented an unusual contemporary dance performance that was very abstract yet intensely compelling. Called ReConfigurations/ConFormities/Disfigurations, it was an original production choreographed by New York-based dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Roxas Dobrish, with costume design by artist and dancer Elena Comendador. Many of the dancers who performed that evening were CENTEX scholars.

“You can just imagine the education they’re getting from being exposed to these projects in STEPS,” Elizalde related. “They would observe Elena make her shapes and forms, and Maribeth create the corresponding movements. For me, that’s already an art education, a full and very sophisticated art education in Manila.

“When they leave STEPS, they basically have got the RAD syllabus under their belt, and they would have had exposure from working with these incredible choreographers who come through the studio. So they’re really getting a great dance education from us. I want their minds to be exposed to progressive dance and art.”

It’s a dream and a goal for local companies to try and do that. Because art and dance is part of culture. It’s the soul of a country

An appreciation of classical music is also part of their art education. The music may be foreign to the scholars at first, but “they all respond it beautifully,” she said. “Kids that have a natural musicality, you can’t help it. That’s why classical music is what it is: when they hear it, they respond. But I think that the more sophisticated response comes with maturity.”

The music that comes with the RAD syllabus is usually their first exposure to classical music. “It’s wonderful music and very specific. The kids learn how to listen and count and respond to the music, and as they get older, you see how the music really moves them.”

Many scholars who get offers to study or join dance companies here and abroad. There’s no one dream school for them, said Elizalde, “there’s only the best school or company that is the best fit for them, be it classical or contemporary dance. And they have to think about the path to which they want dance to lead.”

Sofia Zobel-Elizalde with principal dancers Joervy Sanchez and Ghian Arboleda

Although our local dance companies are excellent, there are obvious advantages to going overseas, she conceded. The pay for one is higher overseas, and dancers get benefits such as medical insur ance. Moreover, especially in Europe, dance companies tend to be fully funded by the government, which means that everything is paid for. “Dancers get their pointe shoes, physical therapy when they need it; if they’re injured, they get medical treatment covered by insurance… Those are the perks of dancing abroad versus here in the Philippines. But if you’re not cut out for dancing abroad and would like to dance here, we’ve had several dancers who’ve found their dance home with Ballet Philippines, such as Monica Gana, who is now one of the principal dancers ther e. She’s so happy, she loves it; I have four other kids who went to Ballet Manila, they are doing solos and principal roles, also very happy. I have another student who went to Philippine Ballet Theater. So it’s really what’s for you.”

Which is not to say that local dance companies are not trying to raise the bar in terms of dancers’ pay in order to attract and retain exceptional local talent. “It’s a dream and a goal for local companies to try and do that. Because art and dance is part of culture. It’s the soul of a country.”

  • Photography Patrick Diokno
  • Art Direction Anton San Diego
  • Hair Lourd Ramos
  • Make-Up Kurt Dinaliso


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