“I train the girls individually to show their personalities,” says Nicolas Pacaña as we sit down on one of the benches at Balletcenter in Ayala Center Cebu. Near the large mirror and ballet barres, the girls in question are having their portraits taken, dressed up in the colorful costumes that they’d worn for the recent competition in Hong Kong this year. I have enough time to take in that the studio hasn’t changed much since the last time I was here, dancing on the tips of my toes and dressed in leotards and stockings when I was a child. It’s been years since then, but even now, the nostalgia greets me like an old friend.
“It’s nice to watch them together, but I tend to focus on their individual artistry so when they dance, they won’t be the same. So that they’re unique,” adds Tito Nico, as the girls fondly call him. He’s smiling widely as he watches them, pausing a bit before he calls out to one of them and directing her to “Lift your chin, smile, beautiful! That’s it!” He has a twinkle in his eye that shows how much pride he takes in them.
Nico is an internationally recognized premier danseur and choreographer. He assumed the directorship of Balletcenter in August 2006 with Gregory Aaron. Nico is known over the world for his interpretations of the lead roles in classics like Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, and The Nutcracker. He’s also been in neo-classical and contemporary work, having collaborated with many of the world’s finest choreographers as premier danseur of The Honolulu City Ballet, the Boston Ballet and the Atlanta Ballet.
Balletcenter has been the focal point for classical and contemporary dance in the Visayas for over 60 years since it was founded in 1951 by Fe Sala Villarica. A pioneer and visionary, she is responsible for decades of dance instruction, education and performance opportunities for countless numbers of communities across Visayas and Mindanao.
Nico has a lot of responsibility on his plate, but he’s very dedicated to getting only the best results from the girls while ensuring their happiness. “In order for them to be motivated, I give them a lot of compliments,” he says. “I am positive that I will be able to work with them well, because your body’s different everyday. I strive for consistency. I help them as far as I can for them to reach their goal.”
“Be patient. It’s going to take time,” he continues. “Be optimistic.” With a trainer like Nico, it’s not hard to recognize just how far these girls will go under his guidance.
Veia Lampert, 11
“We don’t really have off days,” Veia starts, “but if we do, I like to just stay with my family. We usually make pizza together or eat ice cream, or go swimming. My mom’s really good at cooking so we stay at home, and she cooks.”
Her hard work really paid off at the competition in Hong Kong, with her renditions of Harliquenade and La Esmeralda. As the competitor who won a full scholarship to the School of Cadence Ballet in Toronto, Canada, Veia is incredibly disciplined, and I had to ask her what she’s given up for her craft so far.
“Milk tea is my guilty pleasure,” she admits sheepishly. “It’s very hard to give it up because I have a sweet tooth. I love sweet drinks.”
Having been doing ballet since she was three years old, she’s taken to heart the ideas of hard work, dedication and passion for the art—but she believes it’s important to know your limits. “If you’re in pain or you’re tired, don’t force it,” she advises. “Do the best that you can. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Arabella Arquillano, 14
“My diet’s not that strict,” Arabella shares with me when I take her aside to ask a few questions. “I do my own leg workout at home, so it’s not really a big deal, just as along as I maintain and I’m careful of what I eat.”
She talks about the bold bright red dress she wore to the recent Canaan Dance International Ballet competition in Hong Kong, where she was one of the five girls who represented Balletcenter. “Out of the five of us, I was the only one wearing a dress. They were all wearing tutus,” she says with a laugh. “I love it. It’s easier for me to carry. I play a hunter, and I even have my own bow as a prop. It makes me feel like I can get in character.”
Arabella started ballet when she was just two years old. She shares that from the very first day, she knew that that she wanted to be a ballerina. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “Ballet is my heart and soul.”
On her off days, she admits that she’s more of a homebody. “I prefer to stay at home and watch movies, specifically action movies. And I dance at home, too.” Even on her off days? “Yes, even on my off days,” she affirms.
At an early age, she learned about discipline and making sacrifices, commitment, hard work and determination through ballet. The craft had also opened her up to pain, disappointment and failure.
“Stay positive,” Arabella smiles when I ask her what advice she can give to girls her age who want to pursue the craft of ballet. “Keep your head up, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Takira McCabe, 12
“I used to do piano for five years. I gave it up for ballet,” Takira shares, explaining that ballet was her “true passion.” Her dedication is obvious—she shares that in the beginning she was less flexible than the other girls. “Never give up. I kept trying, and here I am,” she giggles.
Takira was a semi-finalist at the Star of Canaan Dance International Ballet competition, showing her skills by dancing Harliquenade and Ganzatti.
She shares that she started ballet because she saw older kids doing it. “I thought it looked fun,” she adds. “And I never stopped dancing because it’s my favorite thing to do, and I can’t imagine a life without dance.”
Other than ballet, Takira mostly concentrates on schoolwork. “I usually do my homework or projects in school while waiting for my car, or like in the car,” Takira laughs. “I can manage the stuff I need to do. Veia’s school doesn’t give them homework though—she’s lucky.”
And on her days off? “Sometimes I go with my mom and we watch movies,” she shares. “But I usually just stay at home.”
Lastly, I ask her about advice she could give to girls her age, and she answers firmly, “Just do whatever you want. Don’t care what others say, and you’ll always be able to do it.”
Judith Olivia Po, 15
“I’m homeschooled for ballet,” Judith replies after I ask about her daily life. “So I wake up and eat breakfast, do my work, and then I would have class from 12 to 2. After that, I would go home or stay here, depending on my schedule, then I’ll have class in the evening.”
Her focus is admirable—Judith shares that she doesn’t really have any hobbies aside from ballet. “When I have off days, it’s really boring. I can’t really imagine life without ballet,” she shares. “I started ballet because there were few activities for kids at the time, and my mom wanted something for me to do. But the moment I started dancing, I knew I wanted to become a ballerina.”
The dedication and passion has paid off. She made it to the semi-finals in the Hong Kong competition with her renditions of Giselle and La Esmeralda.
Judith shares that dancing is something that she loves—“always have and always will,” she emphasizes. With plans on continuing her career as a ballerina, she’s had to give up a few things.
“Oh yes, there are,” she laughs. “I love sweets. My mom feels bad that I can’t enjoy them like a normal kid can. It’s hard for me, but I’m trying. Carbs, too. I can have just enough so that I have the energy to dance, because if I don’t eat enough, you get faint and you can’t get to dance properly.”
As the oldest girl in the group, Judith can be a bit of an older sister figure, and she offers advice for everyone who wants to pursue the same craft. “Never give up. Always strive to be the best. Always think you’re the best, or you’re not gonna get far,” she says with conviction. “Think big.”
Originally published in the Zee Lifestyle October 2017 edition.