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Sofia Zobel-Elizalde gives young ballet dancers a step forward

“I want Steps to be a progressive, open-minded school,” explains Steps Dance Studio founder and director Sofia Zobel-Elizalde. “The world is changing so quickly. I watch a lot of dance performances outside the country because I want to see what’s going on, I want to keep up. I have observed that, more and more, dance is going into mixed media. That is something I am inspired to explore.” Photos by WALTER BOLLOZOS

As a young girl, recalls Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, it was her mother (Bea Zobel) who brought Sofia to her very first ballet class.

“The moment I showed her how much I love ballet, she supported me all the way, found me the best ballet schools in the world.” Fittingly, Sofia named the main space of her Steps Dance Studio in Kalayaan Avenue — with its Harlequin sprung floors, endless mirrors, a baby grand, and sunlight illuminating the young ballerinas during rehearsals — after her mom: the BMZ (Beatriz Miranda Zobel) Hall.

“My dad (Jaime Zobel) is very honest with me. He critiques things and his standards are very high. It’s good because it keeps me on my toes,” shares Sofia. She also remembers being asked to perform as a kid during Christmas and other special occasions by her family. “Hay naku, sometimes I tell them to stop it already (laughs). One of the things I appreciate about my parents is how they truly love the arts and have given me their full support in pursuing my passion. To this day, they come to my school. They watch classes when they are free. They are believers that art is a big part of life.” 

Sofia has inherited that fire, that ardor.

She became a member of Ballet Philippines for eight years, playing lead roles in some of the ballets by Alice Reyes (who was conferred as National Artist for Dance in 2014) such as Itim-Asu as well as Reyes’ take on Carmen, which went on tour of what was the Soviet Union back then. “We were in Russia for about a month, going from city to city. The Russians really appreciated dance; it was one of their main forms of entertainment. The audiences were so energetic.” For Sofia, en-fleshing Carmen was a culmination of a career that began in kiddie dance classes with her mom.

“But even when I was in Ballet Philippines, there was always something in my heart that said, when I stopped dancing professionally, I want to open a ballet school.” When she got married at age 25 to Patxi Elizalde, Sofia made the decision to hang up her pointe shoes, have kids and raise a family. “But I told my husband how I cannot walk away completely from ballet.”

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Her dream was to put up a professional, progressive dance school that will cater to different genres all-year round: ballet, jazz, modern, street dance and tap. She wanted kids to find their own voice, a way of expressing themselves through movements both calculated and conjured extemporaneously. Steps Dance Studio was a pioneer in offering these dance courses. Thus, kids can go classical in the morning and delve into hip-hop after the break. “So, when they leave my school, they are really well-equipped. They can take any audition and go into any field. I take pride in that.” 

One of the best things to happen to Steps Dance Studio, which is now in its 23rd year, was when Sofia set up a scholarship foundation 10 years ago. She noticed how some kids would come in, take part in the program, and then afterwards drop out because they could not afford the fees. “I realized that, no matter where these kids come from, everyone should have an equal opportunity to dance. It shouldn’t have to be for the affluent set only.”

Sofia approached Ayala Foundation because it had started a wonderful school called CENTEX (Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education) and offered an arts program.

“I cannot tell you how amazing and rewarding it has been. And now we see the fruits of our labor — many of our students have gone on to join professional ballet companies, many have become teachers or choreographers, and many have become performers in Disneyland, musicals and cruise ships. But one very special scholar that we have is 24-year-old Marcelino ‘McCoy’ Libao.”

McCoy started with Steps when he was a young boy. Sofia characterizes him as “incredibly gifted, determined and very mature in his whole manner.” She watched McCoy grow as a ballet dancer: he won the gold in the 2007 National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMYCA) and landed in the finals of the 2008 Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland. Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier spotted McCoy and offered him a scholarship to the school.

“I got a call a couple of months back from McCoy, now a company member of Hamburg Ballet. He got so inspired by two former street children (Edmar Sumera and Benedict Sabularse) whom he coached for the Prix de Lausanne competitions. McCoy told me, ‘Teacher Sofia, I want to come back to the Philippines and give back to the two foundations that helped me when I was a young scholar.’” 

McCoy and his fellow artists from the Hamburg Ballet — namely May Arii, Christopher Evans, Yun-Su Park, Lizhong Wang and Hayley Page — will perform in a fundraising gala titled “Stepping Forward” on Aug. 12, Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Globe Auditorium, Maybank Performing Arts Theater at the BGC Arts Center in Taguig. Sofia shares, “McCoy and the other dancers have paid their own way here to our country and are dancing for free — all to help Steps Scholarship Foundation and Academy One (Tuloy Foundation) to continue giving dance training to kids for free.”

Sofia raves about her alumni, even those who weren’t able to forge a career in dance. “They come back and thank me because of the things they’ve learned when they were in school — the discipline, the hard work, the camaraderie, the friendships. My biggest achievement in Steps is being able to touch lives.”

That is Sofia the Teacher talking, but what about Sofia the Ballerina?

“Some people said I was a bit too young to play Carmen when I was, what, 20 years old back then. I would love to do it now (laughs). My body can’t dance the way it used to, but, with the knowledge and experiences I have now, so much more meaning and emotion can come out. Sometimes dancers wish they could still dance at a latter stage of their lives because they’ve gone through so much more,” concludes Sofia.

The body gives up, yes. But passion keeps up its infinite pirouettes.      





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“Stepping Forward” — for the benefit of Steps Scholarship Fondation, CENTEX, and Academy One (Tuloy Foundation) dance programs — is presented by Bank of the Philippine Islands, Stores Specialists Inc. (Lacoste), Belo Medical Group, Pioneer Insurance and the SEDA Hotel with ELRO Retail Corporation and Globe Platinum. Other sponsors include Alba Restorante Español, McDonald’s, Willow Stream Spa, BGC Arts Center, and Ticketworld. For information, call 843-8472.

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