Sofia Zobel Elizalde’s happy place is filled with sunshine, music, and the pitter-patter of little feet.
There is pink, lots of it, as well as feathers, and tiaras, and sparkly, pretty things.
In the dressing rooms, you will hear wisps of shared secrets, peals of giggles, and snatches of song.
Welcome to Sofia’s Steps Dance Studio, which is on its 22nd year. “I got married in January 1994, and then I opened Steps six months later. My husband’s been married to the school almost as long as he’s been married to me. We really cannot imagine life without this school. It’s like one of our children.”
Sofia with the Steps scholars from Centex Manila
Steps has between 250 and 300 children on its roster depending on the time of year. Instructors teach all types of dance from ballet to modern, from jazz to street dance and tap. They even have Zumba and Pilates for mothers who wish to take classes while their children are busy learning jetés and pas de bourrées.
“I always envisioned a school that would cover all types of dance, just like at the school where I went. Over there it was a great holistic approach to dance. I always thought that if I started a school in Manila I wanted it to be like this. That’s how it evolved,” Sofia says.
Sofia went to the Elmhurst School for Dance in England for four years. She was only 13 when she left the comfortable cocoon of her home in Manila to head out into the world. “I found myself having to make friends in a new environment. I was riding the train to school. My mom (Beatriz) taught us how to take the train from London to Elmhurst, and my sister Monica and I would take the train by ourselves. We never grew up thinking we were anybody special. We were just like everybody else,” she says.
Sofia as Clara in Ballet Philippines' The Nutcracker
Sofia went through the usual teenage angst other girls did. And the usual crushes. She was about 10 years old when she first met Patxi, who was 12. But then she went off to Elmhurst, and Patxi went off to boarding school in the U.S. and they would bump into each other when they were home in Manila on school holidays. The year Sofia turned 16, she started dating her Prince Charming. They dated on and off for about nine years till they finally got married in 1994.
“We would drift apart and do our own thing, and then we would find each other again. It was interesting. We kind of lived our lives on our own but then kept coming back to each other somehow. I know it’s a corny story, but I sincerely married my first love. Can you imagine?”
With Patxi in Marrakech celebrating two decades of marital bliss
“He knew me as a single dancer, and then he married me and then there was the school,” Sofia says. “He’s always had that perspective. He’s never questioned me about my dancing. It was kind of like a package. He married me and he married dance.”
When Sofia moved back from Elmhurst, she spent a year in Manila before heading off again into the world… this time to New York. "I stayed there for one year and wanted to stay longer, but my mom insisted that I go to college at that point. Mom said I would regret it if I didn’t. I really didn’t want to go. I just wanted to dance. So Mom and I made a deal. Mom said I could go to college and dance at the same time. She told me that after college I could go back to New York. I could do anything I wanted to do. But I had to finish college first. So I went home to Manila and went to school at Assumption College and danced at Ballet Philippines.”
Sofia says she is glad she listened to her mother, and she shares that advice with her own students. Sofia realizes how fortunate she is to have been supported by her family and by Patxi all through the years, and she knows how expensive a dance education can be. Some students started to drop out because of the expenses, and that's when she decided to put up the Steps Dance Studio Scholarship Foundation Inc. for the gifted children who may not have the financial capacity.
A certain number of Steps scholars are from Centex Manila, the Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education, a school put up by the Zobel family and the Department of Education for intelligent and gifted children from low-income families in Tondo.
“I started going to Centex with my family,” says Sofia. “The children were wonderful and very talented. I could see it. I could feel that they were hungry for other activities. So Coke Bolipata came in to handle its music department, and I offered to handle its dance program. We went to Centex to do a little audition, and to my surprise the entire class showed up. So now we audition the students regularly, and the scholarship program has grown.”
Sofia with Nonoy Froilan in Ballet Philippines’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream choreographed by Edna Vida
“I personally run the scholarship program,” says Sofia. “I have my angels, very generous individuals who donate regularly, and I’m very grateful to them." Among Sofia’s many “angels” are Patxi, of course, and her parents, Jaime and Beatriz Zobel. She also makes special mention of Gisela Montinola, whose mother, Pacita Madrigal, was a dancer. The Pacita Madrigal Fund supports ten Steps scholars a year. Another donor, Elaine Marden, funds annual scholarships to send two or three students to summer dance programs abroad.
From among the scholars and alumni, Steps has produced a number of dance professionals in the Philippines and abroad. Marcelino Libao was a scholar at the American Ballet Theatre in New York and is now part of the Corps de Ballet of the Hamburg Ballet; Jason Ignacio is a multi-awarded dancer, teacher, and choreographer based in Washington, D.C.; Lea Baduria is an actress and a professional dancer in Madrid.
When the lease at Steps’ last location ran out after 11 years, Sofia and Patxi had a long talk. That’s when they decided to build their own space for the school.
“We’d seen over the years how Steps helped a lot of kids. We saw how it’s been doing a lot of good things, so we decided to do it. It was something we really did on our own,” says Sofia. “I’m very happy Patxi loves the school as much as I do. He’s seen all the good things and he’s seen all the problems. He’s been so good and kind and so incredibly supportive of everything I do.”
Sofia, the seventh and youngest child of Jaime and Beatriz Zobel de Ayala, credits her parents with her love for dance. Sofia says her parents have always been supportive of her career all through the years.
“My parents were happy for me to take on the school. My career has been so very natural in my life. And up to this day my parents visit the school often. They come and watch classes. They’re so happy to see this,” says Sofia, who named the biggest studio in the school, the BMZ Hall, after her mother, Beatriz Miranda Zobel.
Chatting with her father, Jaime, backstage at The Nutcracker
Sofia’s siblings have all been supportive of Steps as well, as was evident during the new school’s launch when the Zobels showed up in full force. “We’re all very close. When one is doing something and calls on everyone else to be there, we’re all there,” says Sofia.
The Zobels get together regularly as a family, almost every Sunday, Sofia says. Christmases are spent together in the Philippines at least every other year, and Easter too, which Sofia says is a pretty big tradition for the family.
“We grew up always very grounded. If you ask our friends they’ll all say the same about us. Our parents made sure of that,” Sofia says. “And we’re doing the same for our children. All 24 cousins are all very close to each other. The older cousins look after the younger ones. They’re good to them. They’re good to one another.”
And today, Sofia is grounded in her own happy place. There are art works by her father and photographs of herself throughout her life of dance. On one side of the room, what Sofia calls her “memory wall” is covered with fun photos of her children and her students, as well as favorite letters written to her by students throughout the years.
With teachers and students at the very first incarnation of Steps on Estrella Street in Makati
“I love my office, I love my school, I love what I’m doing,” Sofia says. “Dancing is what I love and it’s what I do best. I just want to see the next generation enjoy it too. I want other people who are passionate about dance to really do it too.”
As for Sofia herself, she no longer dances as often as she used to. “Time goes by so fast. I feel so old,” she says. “The body is like a machine. It’s really for the youth, when you’re carefree and passionate. I tell my students, ‘make the most of it while you’re young.’”
Sofia in her studio
So Sofia keeps in shape by doing Pilates and going to the gym regularly. She runs on her treadmill and teaches a dance class every now and then. “And when nobody’s looking, I dance by myself. I lock the door in my little gym at home, I play the music and dance by myself,” she says.