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 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 took an aeroplane 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’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 from 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 such as Aroma in the capital city, Manila. 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. Jessa, who would have likely followed her family into 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 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 nine 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.
The slim teenager, perhaps so used to dancing on her toes, would often have her toes pointed at the wooden floor even while sitting during the interview.
Behind her, the plywood wall of the family shack was adorned with pictures of her in gossamer tutus 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 meters 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 academic studies in school. They are provided a monthly stipend of 1,200 pesos to 3,000 pesos (US$30 to US$73) depending on their ballet level, as well as meals, milk and ballet outfits.