- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

MANILA — 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 onstage.

In the 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.

Filipino slum dwellers Jessa Balote (center) and Jamil Montebon (top) practice with other students during a class at Ballet Manila. Aside from well-off students, the school picks scholars among kids living in slum areas of Manila and enrolls them in the dance scholarship program where they are given a monthly stipend. (Associated Press)
Filipino slum dwellers Jessa Balote (center) and Jamil Montebon (top) practice with ... more >

Jessa, who likely would have 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 Ms. Macuja, founder and artistic director of Ballet Manila who is married to business 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.

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.

Behind her, the plywood wall of the family shack was adorned with pictures of her in a 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 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 $30 to $73, depending on their ballet level, as well as meals, milk and ballet outfits. They also receive fees of $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, Ms. Macuja said.

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