Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

From a Manila Slum Emerges an Unlikely Ballerina

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

From a Manila Slum Emerges an Unlikely Ballerina

Article excerpt

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.

"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 her future -- until her successful audition for the Project Ballet Futures dance scholarship established by Ms. Macuja, founder and artistic director of Ballet Manila who is married to business tycoon Fred Elizalde.

Today, the program has 55 scholars, aged 9 to 18, from five partner public schools such as Jessa's charity-run school in Manila's Tondo district dump site. They train daily after school along with 60 paying students. …

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