Young ballerina performs for an audience of one

At first glance, Stephanie “Steffi” Santiago seems like a typical 14-year-old. She is a self-confessed “Directioner” who likes to make Youtube videos and have sleepovers with friends.

However, she is anything but typical. She is an exceptional ballerina who, at a young age, realized her talent and developed the discipline, sacrifice, and dedication required to hone it. Now she is reaping accolades, not only here but also abroad.

Neither she nor her parents, Bong and Annette Santiago had an inkling of how things would turn out. It all started just for fun, recalled Steffi.

“My friend invited me to watch her ballet class. I’ve never seen people having so much fun! Everybody was running around, skipping and dancing…I couldn’t think of anything better than to be in a place doing all that with friends - and nobody telling me to stop,” she exclaims. She was six-years-old at the time.

She asked to be enrolled in beginners’ ballet class. Initially the hyperactive girl was simply having fun, releasing all that extra energy. 

Her long-time ballet teacher, however, immediately spotted her potential as a dancer.

“When Steffi first used pointe shoes, I saw that it was effortless for her,” recalls Chelo Borromeo Gemina, artistic director of ACTS Manila ballet school. She looked as if she was just playing when others were awkward, she adds.

A few years later Teacher Chelo decided to talk with Bong and Annette about their budding ballerina. She told them that their daughter showed “a natural spontaneity in movement,” and had the makings of “an excellent professional ballerina.”

Looking back, Steffi’s parents recall seeing their daughter often watching YouTube videos of ballet performances of famous ballerinas, as though studying their movements. Even as a child, Steffi already articulated her dream of becoming a prima ballerina.  They realized later on that it was not a mere juvenile fantasy, and the art wasn’t just a hobby for their daughter.  

Soon Steffi began to join competitions, first on the national, and later, international levels.

“That was when I took dance art seriously,” Steffi says. It dawned on her that she could really become a prima ballerina someday.

But becoming a serious dancer necessitated adjustments in the teenager’s normal routine. She quit regular school, and continued her studies under a homeschooling program. Not having to travel to and from school every day enabled her to conserve her energy; she needed to be well-rested to be able to dance properly and learn routines.

“Aside from the flexibility that comes with home schooling, we observed that Steffi was the type of student whose potential was better honed through focused, individualized teaching,” says Bong.  “We also thought it would train our daughter to be more confident and independent.”

Thanks to homeschooling, studies are uninterrupted even when Steffi is training or performing abroad.

Admittedly, the young dancer misses out on nights out with friends, such as going to the movies or watching concerts. Saturday sleep-ins are out, too, as she has to wake up early for dance practice. But that’s how she developed discipline.

As her ballet coach, Teacher Chelo tries to maintain a balance between pushing her ward and allowing her to set her limits. 

“Steffi is very competitive and thrives in this kind of environment,” the mentor observes, adding, that words of encouragement help maintain that balance.   

Steffi is grateful to her parents and family, for the support and for believing in her. Bong and Annette take turns accompanying their daughter to ballet class, including training abroad.   

“When I become a professional ballerina, I hope to be able to repay them for everything,” Stephanie vows. 

As parents, the Santiagos acknowledge their role as stewards who must help nurture their daughter’s talent and guide her toward the fulfilment of God’s plan for her.

If they had a choice, they would have steered Steffi toward a career path that would be more mainstream and less demanding of her time.  As their daughter grew older and as they became more aware of the challenges that came with choosing dance as a career —like being away from home for long periods of time, both Bong and Annette were convinced that this was God’s chosen path for Steffi.

“God has opened our eyes to love and appreciate our daughter’s passion and the discipline she has taught herself. We can only trust Him,” says Bong.

Steffi reserves the highest praise and gratitude to God, who blessed her with the gift of dance. And so, she dedicates her efforts and her successes to the Lord. To her, it is the key to doing the best every time.

“He gave me this gift, so I want to glorify His name every time I perform,” she says. “Sometimes when I am dancing on stage, I see only a big light shining, and I know it’s Him. I feel like I’m the happiest person in the world because I know He’s watching.”

Whenever she is upset or feels she didn’t do well enough in ballet class or her studies, she turns to God for encouragement. She knows that even when times get tough, she can hold on to God’s promise that He will see her through. “It’s what keeps her going,” her father says.

“There is a spiritual significance to what she does,” Teacher Chelo says. Stephanie understands the higher purpose of dance and acknowledges that without the grace of God, it loses meaning, she explains.  

This is precisely the vision of ACTS Manila: to nurture artists “who embody and inspire Godly character,” and hopefully help transform society.

Stephanie’s Christian devotion is the foundation of her character. It keeps her grounded. She knows her priorities and doesn’t feel that by giving up a few things here and there she’s missing out on life.  In return, she reaps more blessings.

In her first ever competition, the 2012 Philippine Dance Cup, she placed first.

Many memorable moments soon followed. She represented the Philippines in the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the world’s largest student ballet scholarship program. She also got a scholarship in Australia.

She encourages teenagers like her to find a hobby as this will help them explore their interests. When they realize what they want to do, they should pursue it earnestly. One’s dream is worth the effort and hard work, she says.  

Her own dream? To be accepted into the big ballet companies, like the Australian Ballet in Melbourne and The Royal Ballet in London. “If it is God’s will,” she says.

Her immediate goal is to pass the auditions for an annual international competition for dancers between 15 and 18 years old who wish to become professional classical ballet dancers. 

The first step in the audition is the submission of a video of the aspirant performing the required ballet exercises in a dance studio. 

Right now, Steffi dreams about dancing in a different kind of video, one that includes her idols, One Direction. Oh, well, she’s a typical teenager, after all. (By Erica Cortez-Araullo)

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