Lea Salonga, Apl de Ap, Michael Cinco, Brilliante Mendoza and Arnel Pineda. Does these names ring a bell to you? Aside from the fact that they are all well-known worldwide because of their amazing talents and works of art, they are also proud to be Filipino. Filipinos have always made their marks wherever they go around the world, whichever field they would take. Whether they’d be half or full-blooded Filipinos, it doesn’t really matter—they would still have that courageous blood in their veins and their achievements would make millions of Filipinos around the globe proud. And to join the list of outstanding Filipinos worldwide, Stella Abrera just made a milestone for she recently been appointed to be a principal dancer at New York's American Ballet Theatre (ABT), making her the first Filipino American to reach the highest rank in the elite ballet company.
“I started lessons as a five-year-old, and I loved it from day one. I was totally in my element with my leotard and pink tights, and pink ballet slippers. And my bun. It was heaven.” Stella stated in her interview with NBC. Stella’s four older siblings were grown and out of the house. Her father, Jack Abrera, is an engineer and took the family across the globe for work. But despite ever-changing cultures and countries, her passion for ballet remained.
“We are not ballet dancers. She’s the first edition. Nobody in the family dances!” her mother, Aurora Abrera, laughed in an interview. “She loved dancing, so she was always at home at any of the studios,” she said.
Stella went on to study at Le Studio in Pasadena and at the West Coast Ballet Theatre in San Diego.
“Finding a ballet school was the No.1 priority, as I was obsessed. The school we found taught the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dance. When I was 16, Ross Stretton, the assistant artistic director of ABT was adjudicating one of my final exams. And he facilitated my audition for ABT. He plucked me out of the garden, you might say. Of course, Kevin (McKenzie, artistic director) had to give his OK.” Stella said.
She joined American Ballet Theatre as a member of its corps de ballet in 1996 and was appointed soloist in 2001.
“It was thrilling to do soloist roles while in the corp. Once they saw they could count on me, they promoted me. It was like being on a rocket.” she said explaining about her being a soloist at the age of 23.
Six (6) years ago, 2009 – just when she thought everything is falling on its right places in her life and career came something that she’s not prepared at all.
“And then it all came to a screeching halt, and my whole world turns upside down from a career standpoint. I had a really bad back injury, in combination with a sciatic nerve injury. It crept up on me. At first, I said, ‘My calf kind of hurts’ I pushed through it, but it never got better. I was in the midst of my first major injury.”
It took 18 months for her to get back on the stage. Her leg was also not functioning properly.
“It got to a point where grandmothers in walkers on the sidewalk would go faster than I was. Walking was a challenge. At this point I wasn't dancing.
She also added, “It's really connected to emotions, stress, and obviously, at this point, I'm in my prime. And I see everything slipping away. That was like rock bottom. To go from 1,000s of relives, calf rises and jumps, to where I was, to where I had to be again to dance was like climbing Mount Everest.”
But despite the fact that she experienced a really tough moment not only on her career but her life in general, she refuses to give up.
“I had this tendency to just put down my head and drive forward with full on perseverance and determination. I didn't give up. My dream needed to be fulfilled...I wanted it so bad, to get back on stage. I guess I always knew deep down it would happen. I wasn't going to allow myself (not to). I just did my exercises every day and inched along. I just thought, just one tiny baby step at a time to reach the top of the mountain.”
When asked about her feeling being the first Filipino-American to principal dancer at ABT, she said, “It means a lot to me. When I visited the Philippines to dance last year, I saw the devastation caused by the typhoon. The people are resilient. It made me proud to be Filipino. And now to see the internet and the hashtag #PinayPower in twitter and Instagram from Filipina dancers (in the U.S. and the Philippines, responding to the news of my promotion), I think that's awesome. If I can inspire them, that humbles me. And I hope I can.”
Now, 19 years after joining ABT, even with her grueling schedule of practice and performance, Stella stays close to her roots, giving back whenever she can. The dancer founded a charity, Steps Forward, in the Philippines, helping children gain access to education.