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Ballerinas hoping to dance their way out of poverty

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
May 3, 2012 -- Updated 0317 GMT (1117 HKT)
Jessa Balote at the bar of Ballet Manila with fellow aspiring ballerinas
Jessa Balote at the bar of Ballet Manila with fellow aspiring ballerinas
  • Program run by Ballet Manila gives opportunities to children from slums
  • Students are given chance to join the company, full-time
  • Many students have to support families that live in most deprived areas

Editor's note: CNN International's Eye On series is visiting the Philippines. Read and watch in-depth reports from the country online and on TV until May 14.

(CNN) -- Jessa Balote is 14-years-old and training to be a professional ballerina in Manila.

It is a task that takes enormous amounts of dedication for even the most determined of young women, but Balote's challenge is nothing compared to life outside the dance studio where she has to support her entire family.

"I'm the only one they expect to bring the family out of poverty," she says.

Balote is one of 54 students enrolled in "Project Ballet Futures," a program run by Ballet Manila to provide free ballet training to children from some of the city's most deprived neighborhoods.

Balote lives in Tondo, a slum built next to a major waste dump in Manila. Her parents make what little money they have by selling trash. If Balote was not involved in the dance program, she says she wouldn't be able to eat everyday.

Ballet provides opportunity in Manila

"They want to earn money to be able to survive," says Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, founder of the program and the Philippines' first prima ballerina. She believes in her students, personally paying for their lessons and uniforms.

Every night they sleep on bare boards. Sometimes the rats nimble the hard skin on their feet.
Jame Walker, founder of the Philippines Community Fund

Macuja-Elizalde's goal is to help these children become professional members of the company with incomes to match. They are among her most focused students, she says, not afraid to work hard and to push themselves and their bodies.

The Philippines Community Fund, which runs a school for children in Tondo, provides the transport, chaperones and an extra meal for a number of the children.

Jame Walker, founder of the Philippines Community Fund, describes just how daunting the obstacles are for dancers like Balote.

"They don't get a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed," she says. "Every night they sleep on bare boards. Sometimes the rats nimble the hard skin on their feet."

Walker says the biggest challenge the students face is a mental one. They lack confidence and many believe they are not worthy of a different life.

Balote is one of the success stories. She is now a company scholar and an official member of Ballet Manila, receiving a regular paycheck. She joined the company for a recent performance of "Swan Lake", a ballet she loves, she says, because it is a love story.

It is unclear how many more children will be able follow in her footsteps. The Philippines Community Fund is having trouble financing the program and cut the provision of chaperones this year.

Without help, Walker says, it may not be able to continue, a reality she'd rather not have to face.

"We have built up (the students') hopes and dreams for years now...for me it's unbearable to think about," she says.

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