Cover Sofia Zobel Elizalde

Always in pursuit of movement, dancer and philanthropist Sofia Zobel Elizalde continues to be a dynamic force for positive change

"From as early as I can remember, dancing allowed me to escape into a whole other world,” shares philanthropist and Tatler Philippines’ Patroness of the Arts awardee in 2019, Sofia Zobel Elizalde. Starting ballet at the tender age of four, little Sofia was immediately enthralled by the world of dance. “I remember never wanting to come home. Whenever there were rehearsals going on, I always wanted to stay until the last person left. I would sit and watch all the older dancers rehearse until very late in the evening. I believe that was the first indication of how much I loved it. Not just dancing itself but the entire lifestyle that revolves around it. Even behind the scenes—the costumes, the sets, the choreography, the lights—all of it was like heaven to me.”

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It’s this palpable enthusiasm, this inexplicable fire, that was ignited as a child and propelled Elizalde into a successful career as a professional dancer, performing with Ballet Philippines from 1986 to 1994. “Somehow when I danced, it felt good, it felt wonderful! When you are in a dance, you either dive into a story or express yourself and it becomes like an addiction,” she explains. “I just wanted to keep doing it better and better. When you finally become technically stronger, you’re allowed to fully embody the persona you are portraying. You then forget the technical aspects and just become the character. This is the most wonderful thing about dance! To just become lost in the story, in the movement.”

You can’t touch everybody’s lives but if you can touch a few, that’s good enough for me.
Sofia Zobel Elizalde

Elizalde retired from Ballet Philippines in 1994 and started a new chapter when she opened Steps Dance Studio to impart her knowledge and share her passion with others. “I physically taught for around 12 years before I began focusing on directing the school” she says. Then, in 2007, her involvement in the dance community evolved further with the Steps Scholarship Foundation which offers opportunities to develop talent from all walks of life. “I have experienced all of the facets of dance and enjoyed every part of it. What I am most active with now is philanthropy,” she adds.

“It’s amazing how dance can change the course of someone’s life!” she exclaims. “One of the most incredible stories is the one of Elwince Magbitang, whom I met as a young third grader at the CentEx School.” Co-founded by the Ayala Foundation and the Department of Education, CentEx (The Center for Excellence) is a merit-based public school devoted to mentoring the brightest primary students from economically challenged backgrounds. “Every year I would audition second and third graders for our Steps scholarship programmes. Elwince was a young boy from Tondo who really stood out. His mother just stayed at home and his father was a tricycle driver. We brought him into Steps and slowly started to develop him,” shares Elizalde.

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She then recounts how he caught the eye of Filipina-American ballet dancer, Stella Abrera, and her husband, Sascha Rdetsy, current artistic director of the Studio Company while they were in Manila for a homecoming show. “During one of the rehearsals at Steps, Sascha and Stella, noticed Elwince in class. They felt he had a lot of potential and after their performance here, I received a beautiful letter from Sascha inviting Elwince and another student of mine, Vince Pelegrine, to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York. I helped them make their way there. And after just one year at the school, Elwince was promoted to their studio company of the American Ballet Theater. Now at just 19 years old, he has just been accepted as an apprentice for the American Ballet Theater company! I’ve always said: you can’t touch everybody’s lives but if you can touch a few, that’s good enough for me.”

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Sofia Zobel Elizalde
Above Sofia Zobel Elizalde

The world of dance has not escaped the pandemic and Steps has had to find new ways to adapt for their students and audiences. Steps quickly mounted their online teaching programmes; however, Elizalde was fearful that students would soon drop out. “I am amazed by the resilience of children!” she effuses. “They have really adapted and none of the children have stopped dancing. In fact, they’ve invested in ballet bars, they’ve invested in linoleum floors, they’ve all made a space in their home no matter how simple their house is. Some have full-on dance studios, some are dancing in their kitchens, some are dancing in their bedrooms, but they are there regularly. It is their outlet, their release. They truly look forward to it.”

While the online option might be an obvious solution from an education standpoint, from a performance art perspective there exists an existential crisis here in the Philippines. What is a performance without an audience? With theatres closed for the past two years, the dance industry has struggled to survive and to support its artists. “I really feel for artists in the Philippines. Their lives have sort of come to a standstill and all of them worked so hard in their homes to keep things afloat, but there is only so much time that you can do that. My hope for the dance community here is that we can start having live shows as soon as possible, even if it’s outdoors.”

Elizalde has also been working closely with the group Likha PH, rallying her personal network as well as the Steps Foundation to offer aid to local artists. “We also continue to give classes to my top scholars online to help them stay in shape. We are seeing theatres slowly open up in Europe and in the United States, I hope that will be the case for us soon.”

Another one of her recent discoveries is the realm of dance film through the creativity of her former student, Madge Reyes, who is Asian Cultural Council research fellow and founder of Fifth Wall Fest, the first-ever dance film festival in the Philippines. The pair teamed up in late 2020, along with Tarzeer Pictures to produce Elementos. “We shot it in Calatagan and it came out beautifully,” Elizalde says. “It taught me so much about dance, how to bring it alive digitally, to allow people to experience it in a more three-dimensional way and to make them feel like they are in the front row.” She sees more and more dancers taking this approach, some even using their phones to film themselves and share it with their audience.

“Art is so important, especially in these difficult times,” Elizalde explains. “It’s a form of expression whether it’s through painting, or dance and movement, or song. For the artist, it’s a way of release, of having a voice and making a statement. I do believe that great art is created during arduous times. Sometimes, the best art comes out when you are feeling pain or sorrow, or you have lost a loved one. It’s a way of coping. For people who are suffering mentally, it can be a form of entertainment. Being able to enjoy art relaxes you. Whether it’s watching a dance performance or listening to music or watching a beautiful film, it allows you to have a little bit of an escape from the problems we are facing.”

Sometimes, the best art comes out when you are feeling pain or sorrow, or you have lost a loved one. It’s a way of coping.
Sofia Zobel Elizalde

Elizalde shares that she too has her own difficult moments, but that she tries to find the joy and purpose in small things every day. In fact, during this time at home, and driven by her generous heart, she discovered another cause to focus her energy and attention on, animal welfare. Elizalde has always been an animal lover, but only during this pandemic that she discovered the sad state of stray dogs through Instagram Pawssion Project run by Malou Perez. “I was shocked by all the horrible imagery of these poor animals, tortured, beaten, mangled, sick and abandoned. It was then I realised that we should have more neutering programmes because the strays just keep multiplying and it becomes more tenuous to care for them,” she relates.

Soon after, she adopted Buko, a young male stray from Bacolod who was tortured by some children. “He looked like an alien! And I could not sleep. I called Malou immediately and told her I wanted to adopt this dog. When I went to pick him up at the adoption centre, peeking from behind the cage was another dog, Scruffy, and I couldn’t leave without her too.” Now with four rescue dogs, Elizalde has become an outspoken advocate for adoption. “I’ve learnt that rescues are the kindest, sweetest and most loyal dogs. If you take good care of them, they are beautiful animals, they are very smart, easy to feed, easy to care for and have so much to teach us.”

Much like how her rescues have a new life, she too is ready for a new one. Elizalde is always hopeful and looking forward, trying to stay positive amidst difficult times. “When Steps reopens, it will be a different school, I must rethink the flow, the numbers in the class, the safety protocols. All these things are going to change as we are stepping into a new world. But it’s okay, it’s a part of life. It’s a part of progression.”

Whether she is moved to lend her voice to a new cause or be a force for innovation in her field, one thing is certain, Elizalde is never in a state of inertia. She is in constant motion, rhythmically navigating the ebb and flow of life, never missing a beat. “I try not to look at things as a challenge, rather I try to accept change. If you fight it, you will be unhappy. You have to go with what the world is bringing us, embrace it and enjoy it.”

This story was originally published on Tatler Philippines' November 2021 issue. Download it on Magzter for free.

You have to go with what the world is bringing us, embrace it and enjoy it.
Sofia Zobel Elizalde
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