Shirley_Halili_Cruz_inside1.jpgThe Filipino talent in the performing arts has always been something recognized within the boundaries of our own nation, but, increasingly and through a variety of media, this has become something the international community is growing increasingly aware of. Americans have given standing ovations to Charice Pempengco, the “little girl with a big voice,” and to Lea Salonga, whose roles on Broadway classics like Les Miserables and Miss Saigon have won critical acclaim. Jazzipino Queen Charmaine Clamor wowed the US with her voice and her pride for her roots. In the annual talent competition World Championship of the Performing Arts held in Los Angeles, a Filipino almost always wins at least one award, especially in the vocal division.

When it comes to dance, we are well-represented by the Halili-Cruz School of Ballet (HCSB). It has consistently been recognized as the most outstanding ballet school in Asia since 2000, when 11 HCSB students won 22 of the awards up for grabs at the 2nd Asia Pacific Dance Competition in Singapore. More recently, the school's representatives won the first prize in the classical ballet category and were awarded Best in Costume in the Kuching International Dance Festival held in Malaysia in July 2010. This is just in addition to the countless trophies and medals the HCSB ballerinas have consistently been winning in various international dance competitions, including the annual Asia Pacific Dance Competition.

Behind all the achievements of the HCSB students and the international acclaims given to the ballet school is its nurturing founder and artistic director, Shirley Halili-Cruz, whose passion for ballet translates into the graceful pirouettes and excellent moves of her students. “I never go to a competition to win. Never. I always tell my students to do [their] best. It’s an opportunity to be out of the country and showcase what the Philippines can do. But always, without really [making winning as our goal], we always end up bringing home the bacon,” Shirley shares.

She doesn’t pressure her students to win awards, a philosophy she learned from her parents, who never pushed her or her siblings to be achievers when they were young. “It was a very happy childhood. We were seven in the family. My parents were good providers. Basically, we grew up without any disciplinary action. It was more of praises, encouragement, and motivation. All seven of us graduated valedictorians, salutatorians, and with laudes,” she says.

Aside from excelling in academics--she graduated valedictorian in grade school and high school, and summa cum laude from Sienna College in Quezon City with a degree in commerce, majoring in accounting, management, and marketing--Shirley certainly has the feet, the heart, and the talent for dancing. “My mother was the one who enrolled me to ballet, as recommended by my adviser when I was in Grade 2. When I was in [kindergarten], there was a school play done by Fr. Reuter, and he [picked] me to be the lead dancer. There was even a time when the cast was [composed of] Grade 2 [students] and up. I was in Grade 1 then . . . and I was the only Grade 1 participant,” she says.

Shirley_Halili_Cruz_inside2.jpgShirley's mother enrolled her in Sienna College's ballet school, where she trained under Bonnie Weinstein-Calagopi. “Bonnie is a very inspiring teacher. I’m her right hand. She always wanted to hang around with me. I think I matured fast as a dancer,” she says. When her teacher left for the United States, 15-year-old Shirley was tasked with managing the ballet school. “My students were even older than me. I was teaching Polynesian, Hawaiian, ballet, jazz, and tap.”

After her teacher, Bonnie, left for the US, Shirley went on to study ballet under Edgar Valdez of the School of American Ballet. She then flew to New York to train for professional teaching and different dance courses such as tap, modern jazz, and musical theater. Having been exposed to various forms of dance and training under different mentors, Shirley created a 12-level ballet syllabus, which she says suits the Filipino psyche and physique. “Filipinos love to perform all the time. They have an innate musicality. They’re graceful, and they want to perform right away. That’s [what’s in] my syllabus,” says Shirley, adding that the syllabus she authored is the one used in her ballet school. “Filipinos might get bored if you just put them in a classroom-type [setting]. We choreograph dances for them right away. You can perform.”

Aside from constantly reminding her students to do their best, Shirley encourages them to explore other forms of dance--like contemporary, jazz, neo-classical, even belly dancing--while giving them training in classical ballet as their foundation. “[I always think that,] in classical ballet, [dancers become] aware of the anatomy of the body. They know that every exercise has a purpose. There are no shortcuts. I tell them that in classical ballet, you have to understand what you’re doing.”


Shirley’s parents were supportive of her and her siblings. “During our student days, my mother was there, providing us with good food, and my father, comfort. I can remember, during examinations, we would go to Mass on a Sunday. My parents would love to dine out, but we’d rather go back home and study our lessons in preparation for the exam [the] next day. There was really no pushing,” she says.

As a mother, Shirley is involved in her children’s affairs. She was president of the parents’ associations in both her children’s schools, Poveda and Ateneo. “They were brought up properly. They are now 29 and 25. They are very responsible, and I never had any headaches with them. So the way we were brought up by our parents, I did that to [my children] also,” says Shirley. Her daughter, Anna Kathrina, is a ballerina, a teacher in the HSCB, and also in the corporate world, while her son, Francis, is in computers and electronics. Shirley says she never pushed her children to be what they are now.

And like a mother bird who has many little ones under her wing, Shirley’s nurturing attitude goes beyond the walls of her home to her ballet school. “As a teacher, I don’t only concentrate on teaching, I have to know them personally also,” she says, adding that she tries to learn about the things that affect her students.

For instance, she doesn’t like it when her ballet students get involved in their respective schools’ pep squads because “different muscles are developed. But it’s part of growing up. I’ve accepted that fact. Ngayon, ang daming disturbance eh (Now, there are a lot of distractions). Pep squad, boyfriend. I understand. As long as [they’re] still dancing okay na rin,” says Shirley with a laugh.

Shirley_Halili_Cruz_inside3.jpgPROMOTING BALLET

In 1985, Shirley established the HCSB; although she started with only 46 students, she now has over a thousand potential ballerinas. “I wanted to share what I know. I considered teaching the noblest of all professions,” she says. Shirley feels fulfilled when she is able to help turn “rough stones into polished gems”; she loves to see students whose raw talents have been honed and turned into the beautiful artistry people see on stage.

“I really want to see more ballet dancers from the Philippines,” she adds. “[Filipinos] are natural dancers . . . and I really want to give opportunities for these dancers.” Her dedication to her art is such that she shoulders the expenses of her students--transportation, board, and lodging--whenever they perform or compete abroad. Shirley says she has no sponsors, so the money she spends on her students come from her own pocket.

The HCSB offers three different types of scholarships to its students: the Director’s Scholar for the talented students coming from low-income families, the Scholarship for the Gifted for the exceptionally talented students, and the HCSB Loyalty Scholarship for those who have been in the school for seven years without break and who are in good standing with the school.

Shirley also brings her dancers to different provinces in the Philippines. “With our outreach programs, I make it a point to dance in different barrios. I do not ask for an ideal floor or an ideal stage but [just for] an audience who will stay there for one hour and they can appreciate it,” she says. Her dancers also get to learn about the country’s rich culture during these outreach programs.

Moreover, as head of the National Committee on Dance of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Shirley never turns down project proposals relating to dance. “Kung ito nag-propose, ibig sabihin interesado sumayaw ito. Yun ang aking premise (If someone proposes an idea, it means that this person is interested in dancing. That's my premise). But the money is not enough. The pie is not that big. So we divide it into slices,” she says, adding that they give funds, even if it’s just a portion of what is needed or originally asked for, to dance groups for their projects.

Shirley also conceptualized Sayaw Pinoy, a touring dance concert in which all the country's dance companies participate and the five categories of dance--ballroom, hiphop, folk dance, neo-classical ballet, and contemporary--are showcased. She is also the founder and project director of Dance Xchange, an international dance workshop and festival that brings together local and foreign dance companies to showcase each country’s unique dances and strengthen an international dance network.

Because of Shirley’s unwavering passion for dance, the City of Manila awarded her with the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan sa Larangan ng Sayaw on June 22, 2010. In 2008, she received the Global Excellence Award in Arts and Culture and was named the Nagniningning na Alagad ng Sining Special Awardee for the Provincial Government of Laguna. She was also given the distinction of Outstanding Citizen of Quezon City as Cultural Ambassador and Dance Educator in 2007 and a recipient of the 2006 Hall of Fame Award as “Great Filipino Achiever” and “World Class Achiever” for consistently bringing pride and honor to the country. But these make up only a few of the over 300 awards, recognitions, and citations in dance, arts and culture, academics, and leadership Shirley has received over the course of her career.

As for her ballet school, which has training dancers for 25 years, Shirley sees it continuing to grow. “There will be more dancers equipped with the correct knowledge of what ballet is. And then, I can see that more people will be there enjoying and loving the art of dance, specifically ballet as a foundation for other forms of dance. And they would have a better understanding of what ballet is, that it is a form of dance that has to be respected,” she says.

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(All photos courtesy of Shirley Cruz-Hallili)

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