By Deanna Duff
Northwest Asian Weekly
The red curtain rises, the music begins to swell, and the audience is breathless with anticipation. The ballet dancers on stage portray grace and composure, but inside, they’re bursting with excitement.
“I still get nervous waiting for the curtain to come up,” says Eric Hipolito Jr., Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) corps de ballet dancer.
“It’s dark and you feel the cold air rush over your body. My adrenaline increases with the music. Once I do my first step, though, I feel so natural, like I can be myself on stage.”
Hipolito, 21, a first-generation Filipino American, is a unique example of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB)’s next generation of dancers. His recent role was in the PNB production of “Carmina Burana.” As an 8-year-old at Beacon Hill’s Maple Elementary School, he was introduced to ballet through PNB’s DanceChance program. Hipolito is the first DanceChance student to become a full member of the PNB company.
Founded in 1994, DanceChance partners with Seattle and Bellevue elementary schools to introduce third- and fourth-graders to ballet. Students who demonstrate interest and ability are enrolled in twice-weekly classes on full scholarships, covering tuition, clothing, and transportation. The program focuses on minority populations and low-income areas. Since its inception, more than 11,000 children have participated, with 22 schools taking part this year.
“Most of these kids have never had a dance class before, and it’s very unlikely they’ve had any exposure to ballet at all,” says Jennifer McLain, DanceChance manager.
“It’s an amazing opportunity that was given to me,” says Hipolito. “Without this one program, I’d be a completely different person and never would have been a ballet dancer.”
As a young DanceChance attendee, Hipolito’s talent was immediately apparent to instructors.
“I was one of the people who picked Eric out of that classroom of third-graders. I still remember that day. To see him develop over the years and become so artistic is beyond wonderful,” says Abbie Siegel, current PNB School principal and former DanceChance director.
The jumps, fast turns, and general athleticism are what initially intrigued Hipolito. He was a DanceChance student for three years before transitioning to the PNB School. Now, as part of the professional company, he dances 6 to 8 hours a day and could not be happier.
DanceChance continues to expand the diversity of students studying ballet, so that it better reflects the wider community. Hipolito is a particular success story in terms of inspiring local children.
“Especially for the kids, it’s important that they can see themselves in a dancer, someone with a similar background, culture, and experience. When the kids see someone who looks like them rehearsing or being on stage, it makes a big difference,” says McLain.
Hipolito has returned to his alma mater, Maple Elementary, as a DanceChance guest speaker. Closer to home, he inspired his three younger siblings, all of whom participated in DanceChance. His brother, Enrico Hipolito, followed in Hipolito’s footsteps. The 17-year-old completed the DanceChance program and has studied at the PNB School since 2004.
“I’ve always looked up to Eric. I observe and study him as a dancer and cheer him on. He’s a big inspiration,” said Enrico Hipolito.
Enrico Hipolito remains devoted to DanceChance, having served as a guest speaker and classroom assistant.
“It’s good to get a better idea of what ballet is, beyond just pink tutus and pointe shoes. A lot of my friends now have a better appreciation and think it’s cool when they see the stuff I can do,” said Enrico Hipolito.
The Hipolito brothers are close and enjoy running into each other around the PNB campus, usually while grabbing a snack. It is unusual for siblings to simultaneously train at PNB, let alone at such high levels. Enrico remains focused on perfecting his craft, but he hopes to eventually make the leap to the full company and possibly dance alongside his older brother. The two brothers hope to travel and share their talents internationally.
“The last time I was [in Manila] in 2009, I contacted the ballet school close to where my grandmother lives and took a class,” says Hipolito.
“Even though I’m a foreigner when I go there, I feel a connection, a rootedness, because that is where my parents are from. Tagalong was my first language, and I still understand it and would love to be fluent again.”
This year, Eric Hipolito Jr. had the unique opportunity of having his dance career come full circle. As a little boy in 2001, he participated in his first-ever production by playing a peasant boy in “Don Quixote.” A decade later, he was part of the full cast production.
“I still feel like every day I’m fulfilling my dream. I wake up loving being able to come here,” says Hipolito. (end)
For more information, visit pnb.org/pnbschool/Classes/DanceChance.
Deanna Duff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.