The dance of mothers and daughters


“Mother tells daughter to just enjoy it when competing, and the latter wins,” is a statement that oversimplifies, even sensationalizes, the story of Maritoni Rufino Tordesillas and her daughter Natalia (or Tessa), who won first place in the Senior Classical Solo Age 14-19 category of the recently concluded Philippine Dance Cup.

Maritoni, after all, is one of the country’s top ballerinas. She was the first soloist of the Philippine Ballet Theater (PBT), the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) resident classical ballet company, and which was founded in 1987.

In a Daily Tribune interview with both mother and daughter at the Danspace Ballet School in Makati, Maritoni, when asked what her advice to Tessa is when the latter is competing, replied, “I just tell her to enjoy the competition. It’s not the winning, but the experience.”

To which Tessa, her only daughter, concurs. ‘Mommy tells me to just enjoy it. Of course, when I join a competition, I want to win, but it’s not always the thought on my head, because I want to enjoy and do my best. I always say that really enjoying it matters.”

Taking flight Tessa Rufino Tordesillas does the grand jete. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

But before she enjoys, she prays in those last two or three minutes before she goes onstage. “As soon as I am on the stage, I forget everything that has nothing to do with my dance, or anything that would prevent me from performing well. I focus,” claims Tessa, to whom, at that very moment, only the dance matters.

Everything thus becomes instinctive and natural, which is a result not only of the immediate training before a competition, but years of hard work of mastering ballet.

Of her recent win, Tessa says, “I worked hard for it. It was not an easy win.”

Exposing Tessa early

Born in 2004, “Tessa was only two and one-half years old when she would come to the studio and play around,” recalls Maritoni. “She would not even listen in the class. She would run out of the studio. At age three, she came once a week, and then joined the recital.”

Her presence on the stage added some fluidity to the performance. “She was still very young and she was performing with the group. She didn’t even know where her place was,” Maritoni relates. “Her classmates would even push her during the formation so she would know where she should be standing and dancing.”

The audience largely composed of parents, relatives and friends, of course thought it cute that someone as young as she would be performing.

“Bringing her to the studio was part of her play. It was also a way of exposing her, not just to ballet, but to other children,” says Maritoni. More importantly, it meant being with her daughter since, by then, “I was teaching a lot, and so it was right that she was with me all the time. Where I went, she went, too.” The result was Tessa began to enjoy ballet.

Tessa, in her version of the story, says that when she started, “I was just watching Mom. But when I got older, that’s when I started to like it.”

The journey was a learning process for both mother and daughter.

Maritoni claims it was not as simple as directly convincing Tessa to dance. “My approach was more to try to motivate her. I never ‘pounded’ her into liking ballet. I chose to expose her to a lot of performances. And everything that had to do with ballet, she joined, including all the performances and recitals of the school. And that’s where she got her interest.”

She also had to do away with the methods of the teachers under whom she learned ballet.
She explains, “With these kids, you cannot impose on them like you were a god. I grew up in that kind of teaching because that was the style then. Pupils could not even say anything.
That no longer works as it used to work with us of my generation. Now, we have to motivate students, to try to get the message across.”

With Tessa, she admits to “finding an approach that worked.” Since she was traveling a lot, she would take Tessa with her “so she could take intensives.”

Thus, she herself acquired a new approach. “While I would have her coached privately,” recounts Maritoni, “I would observe how they coached. So, I would also learn from that. I would take down notes and implement them.”

FOR Maritoni and Tessa, the journey of learning ballet is a complex process.

Initially a super-nervous mom

Tessa would work at her ballet seriously and diligently, motivated by her mother. After a while, she was ready for competitions, and, indeed, she brought home medals and trophies, some of them displayed in the family living room, others kept in her room. “I was 10 years old when I first won in a competition,” she shares.

While Tessa worked at learning how to keep calm, Maritoni, too, initially “was super-nervous, but that was before. But I realized one could lessen the worry if we really prepared. When she’s competing, I like it that we’re prepared in every aspect. So, it’s not just in her dancing that I’m worried that she might be off. So, even those little details, I look into, including the way she would look on stage, her costume, anything that we could have control over. Otherwise, there’s no point in worrying anymore.”

As soon as Tessa is on stage, Maritoni shifts gears. “I begin to enjoy,” she stresses.

For this last competition where she bagged the first prize, Tessa only had a brief preparation because she was also preparing to join another competition. But it worked to her advantage. Maritoni explains, “One competition is different from another because these are different dances, but joining a competition is in itself a preparation for the next one that you will join. You get the strength and the stamina. You also get used to the pressure which is a reality.”
She clarifies, “Everyday, in the studio, the kids are preparing for the next performance or the next competition. We work hard. We emphasize the details, the feet, the turn-out, artistry, background of the character.

“And, of course, we pray a lot,” she says, chuckling. “That’s very important.”
“Prayer saw me through in my younger days, and it still sees me through today whether I am teaching or we are preparing for a competition,” says Maritoni, who started taking ballet lessons when she was seven years old.

First PBT soloist

Her mother, former CCP president Mita B. Rufino, and today the president of the Philippine Heritage Festival Foundation, enrolled her in Sony Lopez Gonzalez’s ballet school with her two younger sisters, Kai and Arabella.

‘I was the only one who continued it. They hated ballet while I enjoyed it,” she says.
At some point, though, in her teenage years, when Maritoni “was into so many things, including swimming, I told my Mom I wanted to go into theater. I said I wanted to be in Broadway. And she said, ‘Just stick to ballet first.’ So she brought me to New York one summer when I was 14 or 15, and I spent a month there with the New York Ballet Institute.

“I took some lessons there and I took private lessons as well. And then I met this teacher who was very inspiring. He was dancing with the American Ballet Theater. And he said, ‘You know, if you want theater, you can do that until you’re old. But if you want to be serious with ballet, you have to do it now.’”

It was all that Maritoni needed to hear to finally decide to stick to ballet. “That was summer. I came back to Manila to finish one more year of high school. And after my junior year, I said, ‘Okay, I am ready to go. So, I left and went back to New York. So, I had my senior year there at Marymount New York.”

She stayed put, worked on her ballet, while taking up college courses at Marymount without really aiming for a diploma in a degree. Instead, she continued her ballet training and auditioned.

She had stayed for four years in the Big Apple when a decisive call from ballerina Inday Gaston Mañosa came. She was asking Maritoni to come home, “‘Enough of your studying there, you come home because we put up the Philippine Ballet Theater and we need 19 dancers.’ They were mounting Balanchine’s ‘Serenade,’ so I came home.”

Joining PBT made her realize she wanted “to make ballet my career. I really enjoyed performing, working hard, learning new ballets, meeting other like-minded artists.”

She relates that she danced with PBT “for about eight to 10 years on and off. In between, I lived in Switzerland for a year and I danced with Bassel Ballet. So, it’s like I’d get restless. So, I was here for maybe two years, and then I’d get restless, I would need to go somewhere.
So I auditioned around Europe. My Dad gave me a Eurail pass and on my own, I contacted friends so I could stay with them while I was taking ballet classes to audition in opera houses all around Europe.

“I was travelling by myself, so I would take the train, arrive at night, and look for the nearest hotel or bed and breakfast nearest to the station, and then the next day, take class for a couple of weeks.”

No, she never joined any competition, except once when she got injured while training for it, so she had to say good bye to that one.

Mommy’s better version

In 1996, she married Roque Tordesillas, “who has been very supportive of me and Tessa.
He’s more on not being hands-on because when it comes to ballet, especially Tessa’s dancing, he leaves that to me. Basta what I say, he knows that I know what I am talking about. But he gives his all-out support by paying for everything.”

Maritoni decided on retiring from professional dancing “when my son was two years old. I told myself I was getting tired, and I wanted to spend more time with my son rather than a ‘yaya’ keeping him company. That was when I really retired from professional dancing. I would still perform but not with the company anymore.”

It had been a fulfilling professional career. Of the many roles she danced, she enjoyed Carmen “because it was the first break I was given. I also enjoyed Don Quixote because I was able to dance with a guest artist from the American Ballet Theater. But my all-time favorite is Cho Cho San of Madama Butterfly. I think I’ve danced all my dream roles. I was also able to dance a lot more roles even if they were not my favorite.”

Today, when asked if she sees herself in Tessa, Maritoni proudly exclaims, “I see a better version.”

She points out certain similarities. “We both like the bravura kind of dances like Don Quixote. We like turns and jumps. I hated adagio then and she also hates adagio.

“I think our muscles are the same. I have very tight hamstrings and so does she. Like me, she also has very tight IT band. In terms of body structure, we’re the same. So I kind of know what’s easy and what’s hard, so I try to tell her what to do so she could get better.”
Maritoni allows Tessa her choices especially when it comes to her other interests and passions, and things close to a teenaged girl’s heart.

Tessa admits to liking sports, although “I have not participated in one. I just enjoy watching my classmates.”

Her mom says “she’s good in school.” She likes Science and Math, “which are the subjects my Dad is good at.” Tessa claims that the Assumption nuns are not super-strict.

Tessa has two sets of friends, those from her school, and those in ballet. “We like going to the mall and watch movies. Or sometimes we go to each other’s houses,” she says.
Her all-time favorite movie is Clueless. Her favorite actor is Tom Holland, who played Spider-Man. No, she does not have a favorite actress. She watches Modern Family on television.
She loves French fries.

Her favorite destination is New York, where she and her mom once spent the whole summer vacation so she could study with the American Ballet Theater. “I want to live in New York,” she says. “It’s so busy. I really got the feel of the city by going to the studio alone, and I enjoyed the experience.”’

No to a boyfriend until 25

In Manila, today, Tessa goes to school as early as 7:15 a.m. She attends ballet classes every Monday to Thursday and Saturday. No, her mom is not her only teacher.

“I am not the only teacher in Danspace,” says Maritoni. “I also have other teachers, my contemporaries in Philippine Ballet Theater. So if there are five classes a week, I teach three and the other teachers teach two.”

Not unexpectedly, the younger pupils look up to Tessa, being a recipient of many medals and trophies. To them, she says the same thing that her mother tells her: “I just tell them to enjoy it. It’s not about the competition and winning. It’s more about having fun and learning from it.”

Tessa sees herself studying in a ballet school in New York five years from now. Maritoni divulges, “We’re working on that, for her to audition to ballet schools abroad. We’re hoping she gets to enroll in one place where you have both ballet and academics. That would be ideal.”

Already, Maritoni has every reason to feel good that her efforts at coaching Tessa have brought good results. Seeing her off to a good school abroad would add to her fulfillment, of course.

Does she have any advice to mothers who would like their children to do well in ballet? Maritoni says, “To give their all-out support. As to myself, I am a masahista (masseuse) to her, a nutritionist, so it’s more like guiding her what to eat, I oversee her training even if she has other teachers and coaches in the school. And also, being her mother, I consider it my responsibility to make her a well-rounded person. I should make sure that she does not forget her studies, and that she should friends outside of ballet. I also expose her to cultural shows. Parang a mom is like a backbone.” Of course, in the future, should a company ask Tessa to join them, she will agree.

Where boyfriends are concerned, though, “She will have to be at least 25 years old before she could have a boyfriend,” she says teasingly, although she sounds like she means it.
Maritoni feels good that her parents, Tony and Mita Rufino, are both “super-kilig” with the way Tessa has been reaping laurels.

Tessa, on her part, looks forward to studying abroad. Her dream role, so far, is Kitri in Don Quixote.

Already, because of ballet, her body has formed well with appropriate curves. She is, like her mother, beautiful, she could actually join a beauty contest and win when the time comes. So, what if a beauty contest scout asks her to join one?

“No,” she says, ‘I would rather concentrate on ballet because I express myself better in dance.” She has no objection to being a product ambassador, “as long as it does not get in the way of my studies, both academics and ballet.”

Yes, she would also encourage her daughter to do ballet, when the time comes.

Tessa has learned a lot from ballet, among them, “being comfortable with myself and others.
I have learned to look at life more positively because ballet can be frustrating, Ballet is not easy but it has its rewards if you work hard for them. You just have to keep going to reach your aim.”

Her ultimate wish is “to become successful and to be happy with what I am doing.”
Maritoni counsels her daughter to “just to be the best that she can be. To go for her dreams. And to give it her all.”

Her immediate wish for Tessa is that “she gets into that professional school. Hopefully at age 15 or 16. My second wish is she does well in the CCP Ballet Competition this coming November.

“Just dance your best,” she tells Tessa, qualified as one of the 30 finalists out of a hundred who auditioned. “Just dance your heart out, and, of course, enjoy!”

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