The slums of Manila are home to some 20 million inhabitants, many of whom are crammed into shanty shacks without access to clean water, heat or sources of electricity. The pungent smells and piles of decaying garbage serve as an unlikely birthplace for the country’s rising prima ballerina, but 14-year-old Jessa Balote is no ordinary star.
According to the Associated Press, at the age of 10, the aspiring dancer auditioned for Ballet Manila, and was accepted as a scholarship student, receiving the free classical dance training that turned her into a professional prima ballerina four years later.
Ballet Manila is a dance school and company founded by the country’s most famous prima ballerina, Lisa Macuja. As part of her efforts to help children find a way out of the Philippine slums, Macuja began a program called Ballet Futures Scholarship, which offers free dance training to impoverished kids. But this is no casual “after-school program.” It’s serious classical dance training and its goal is to develop, nurture and produce highly skilled dance artists.
If Balote is any indication, the plan is working. She's already graduated from the school and become an official member of the repertory company.
Impoverished students who are newly accepted into Ballet Manila enter a world where their lives become highly disciplined. In addition to attending dance classes after school, they’re required to stay out of trouble and to maintain high grades in their academic classes. Not every scholarship child goes on to become a professional dancer, but Macuja's hope is the students at least walk away with a solid education, a sense of purpose, and an unshakeable belief in themselves.
It’s not easy to complete the scholarship program, which can last for up to seven years. Jame Walker, founder of the Philippines Community Fund, which works with the company, explains that the students’ home life can hinder their ability to keep up.
She told CNN, "They don't get a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed. Every night they sleep on bare boards. Sometimes the rats nibble the hard skin on their feet."
But the payoff can be well worth the effort. For many slum children, Balote included, money was previously earned collecting garbage after school with their parents. But because of ballet, scholarship students now earn a small monthly stipend, free meals, milk, and dance outfits, and modest fees for their performances. Because Balote is a company member, she now earns a full dancer's salary.
In her interview with the AP, the teenager said, "I can help my parents more with what I do now. I earn money from ballet."
According to her website, when Macuja founded Ballet Manila in 1994, she did it with the aim of making high art more accessible to common people. It’s the same type of model used by companies like FairMail, which help children by teaching them art-based job skills and personal responsibility. In the case of FairMail, the program teaches photography to kids and then facilitates the sale of their work so they can earn an honest, and in some cases quite lucrative, living.
The arts are often seen as the domain of privileged kids. But by opening up access to them, children from less fortunate families can learn to contribute to their own futures.