Fiona Delos Santos breaks out of her shell through ballet

Fiona Delos Santos breaks out of her shell through ballet

Even if dancing ballet can be difficult and painful, Fiona Delos Santos says she loves it because it gives her so much joy. Photo by Mark Sumaylo

By Jv Ramos

Ballet Manila junior company member Fiona Belle Delos Santos got into ballet for a specific reason: to become more graceful as her playmates were all boys. "Only child po ako, so ang kalaro ko lang ay ang mga lalaking pinsan ko," explains the teenager. "At dahil nga puro lalaki ang kalaro ko, may pagka-tomboy ako noon, so naisip ni Mommy na i-enroll ako sa ballet noong 2009." (I’m the only child, so I’d often play with my male cousins. Since they’re all boys, I was a bit of a tomboy before. That’s when my Mommy decided to enroll me in ballet in 2009.)

Ballet Manila trainee Fiona Delos Santos was enrolled in ballet by her mom so she would outgrow her tomboyish ways. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Raised in Cagayan de Oro, Fiona began ballet classes at nine years of age, in a dance school based in her hometown called Grace and Pointes. "Tapos, kinailangan kong tumigil dahil pupunta ang pamilya sa Maynila nang summer. Nang nagpaalam ako sa teacher, ni-recommend niya na mag-summer intensive ako dito sa Ballet Manila kasi nga sayang ang naumpisahan ko.” (I had to stop since my family was set to spend summer in Manila. But when I excused myself from school, the teacher insisted that I join the summer intensive here in Ballet Manila. She pointed out that it would be a waste for me to completely stop.)

Following her teacher’s advice, Fiona went through weeks of ballet classes in the city, capped by a recital for workshop participants where she danced the roles of a fish in Pinocchio and a bird in Sleeping Beauty.

Laughing as she pictured herself as a newbie ballerina, Fiona comments, “First time ko pong mag-perform on stage, at nagustuhan ko naman.” Since she’s a shy individual, she didn’t expect to be comfortable with performing in front of an audience. But as it turns out, she found something very enjoyable about it. “Nakakalimutan ko ang pagkahiya ko, so mas nagustuhan ko ang ballet.” (It was my first time to perform on stage, and I actually liked it… Being on stage made me forget my shyness, so I liked ballet even more.)

Although she likes performing over competing, Fiona knows the latter brings valuable experiences, such as when she participated in the 2018 CCP Ballet Competition. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

With that experience and the realization of what ballet could be, you’d think that this talent would just continue her training. However, since both parents are part of the police force and were assigned to different areas in the country, ballet in Fiona’s life would come and go from 2009 to 2013. It was only in the year 2014 when she began to take ballet classes regularly, when she had already moved into Manila. Then when BM offered a half-scholarship, that’s when she really took ballet seriously.

Asked what about ballet she enjoys, Fiona replies that aside from the transformation she goes through when performing on stage, it is ballet’s ability to make her forget about everything else and just focus on dancing that drew her in. “Gusto ko ang feeling na nakakalimutan mo ang lahat kapag sumasayaw kaang feeling na nasa isang moment ka lang. Nakakatanggal ng stress ang ballet.” (I like the feeling of being able to forget everything when I dance – that feeling when you’re living a single moment. Ballet really makes you let go of life’s stresses.)

Fiona (third from right) performs in Chopiniana, one of the featured pieces in Ballet Manila’s 23rd season-ender, Deux. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Pero siyempre, may stress rin na dala ang ballet!” Fiona laughingly adds. Countless are the times when Fiona would get frustrated because she cannot execute something well. “May mga times talaga na kahit anong gawin mo, hindi mo talaga makuha. Tapos, mayroon din iyong times na kahit gusto mo pang magsayaw, hindi na talaga kaya ng katawan mo dahil pagod na pagod ka na.” (But definitely, ballet has its share of stresses… There will always be times when you won’t get it no matter how hard you try. And, there will always be times when you’re craving to dance more, but your body can’t do it anymore because you’re already so exhausted.)

Despite such trying moments, this 18-year-old would rather go through the pain and hardships than let ballet slip through her fingers again. When she stopped, she began to realize that she missed the body pains ballet brings, the constructive criticism that teachers would give her, and of course, the joy of dancing.

When she is onstage, Fiona – seen here doing her contemporary piece in the 2018 CCP Ballet Competition – forgets about everything else and focuses on the dancing. Photo by Giselle P. Kasilag

Hindi ko actually alam kung bakit ko ito ginagawa kahit mahirap at masakit. Siguro dahil ‘yan sa sumasaya ako kapag sumasayaw ako.” (I actually don’t know why I do this even if it’s hard and painful. I guess it has to do with me being happy whenever I dance.)

How then does she fight through the difficult moments in ballet? Through the years, Fiona has learned to not be too hard on herself. “Ang sinasabi ko na lang sa sarili ko, ‘Hinga lang. Rest lang. Pray lang. May panibagong araw naman.’” (I just tell myself, ‘Breathe. Rest. Pray. Tomorrow’s a new day to try again.’)

Speaking of new days and new accomplishments, Fiona puts forward that Ballet Manila has granted her many firsts, such as going abroad for the first time to participate in the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong, dancing with a professional company (and not just ballet students) for the first time and being included in the delegation that performed in an international dance festival in Israel.

Fiona is happy to have been given the chance to join the Ballet Manila delegation to Israel in 2018, where the company performed Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna. The group also got to see some of the country’s important sights. Photo by Mark Sumaylo

Kahit prefer ko ang mag-perform kaysa sa mag-compete, mahalaga po sa akin ang experience ko sa AGP noong 2016,” comments the timid ballerina. “Pagkatapos po kasi ng AGP, mas na-e-express ko na po ang sarili ko sa pagsasayaw. Nabawasan rin po ang kaba ko. Naging mahalagang experience ito sa pag-prepare ko para sa Israel.” (Even if I prefer performing over competing, my 2016 AGP experience is something that I’ll always treasure. That’s because after AGP, I became more expressive when dancing and became less nervous. It was a crucial stepping stone for my participation in the Israel tour.)

Fiona explains that Ballet Manila’s staging of Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna in Israel was particularly transformative for her, as she was assigned bigger and bolder roles. “Sa staging dito sa Manila, feather lang po ang role ko. Pero doon, maiden at Amazona, so bawal talaga ang mahiyain sa stage. Nakakakaba pero sobrang thankful ako na nakasama ako sa tour na ‘yon.” (When it was staged here in Manila, I was part of the feathers. But there, I was cast as a maiden and an Amazon. You really can’t give into your shyness if you’re playing such roles. It was nerve-wracking, but I’m very thankful to have been part of that tour.)

Fiona gets through the rough patches in ballet by telling herself to breathe, rest, pray and that a new day lies ahead. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

The ballerina adds that the 2018 tour was also very encouraging, especially when her ballet idols, Ballet Manila principal dancers Abigail Oliveiro and Joan Emery Sia gathered all the female artists in their room. “Nakilig ako nang nangyari ‘yon. Principals sila pero sila talaga ang nag-reach out sa aming mga bata. Sila ang nag-offer ng help. I’m very blessed to have such nice and approachable principals. Hindi lang sila mesmerizing na panuorin sa stage, nakaka-inspire rin ang binibigay nilang dedication to ballet every day.”  (I was thrilled when that huddle happened. Though they’re the principals, they were the ones who reached out to us younger ones. They were the ones who offered help. The principals aren’t just mesmerizing to watch on stage. They’re also very inspiring due to the dedication they give to ballet every day.)

So, what’s next for this young ballerina? Fiona, who’s currently in Grade 12, is working out a way so she’ll be able to continue dancing while pursuing further studies. She admits that she’s still undecided about making a career out of ballet. “Ang alam ko lang ay ayaw kong tumigil sa pagsasayaw. Gustong-gusto ko po talaga ang nag-ba-ballet.” (“All I know right now is I don’t want to stop dancing. I really love doing ballet.”

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