Acclaimed prima ballerina Maritoni Rufino-Tordesillas discovers life after ballet pointes and “the golden years” of Philippine ballet

There’s something about Maritoni Rufino-Tordesillas that commands attention. She carries herself with the confidence and poise befitting a prima ballerina, the enlightened air of a devout yogi, and the calming presence of a teacher.

Indeed, Maritoni, who looks nothing like her age of 40, has ample material to teach and we’re not just talking about ballet.

She fell in love with ballet when she was eight. “I’ve always been an active kid,” shares Maritoni. “I think it was what drew me to ballet. I loved the movements, the physicality of it.” It was this love that eventually led her to move to New York in ’86 to train at the Neubert Ballet Institute in Carnegie Hall under a merit scholarship. Since then, she’s danced with the Eglevsky Ballet of New York, the Basel Ballet of Switzerland, and finally, she made her way back home as a principal dancer for the Philippine Ballet Theater.

“Working on a role is always memorable,” injects Maritoni, her eyes glowing as she warms up about her craft. “Sometimes, I enjoyed the process more than the performance itself. I loved the day-to-day in the studio, working, getting a character built up in my head, getting the nuances down, reading up on the role—like when I was Cio Cio in Madame Butterfly, I read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ even before it became a movie.” Clearly, it is this passion that’s landed her the prominent roles of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Odette in Swan Lake, Cinderella and Raymonda (by Jean Paul Comelin), and Kitri in Don Quixote in the company’s repertoire of classical and neo-classical ballets. “It was an exciting time to be at the Philippine Ballet in the ’90s. It was, they called it, ‘the golden years.’”

It was also in the ’90s, at the prime of her career as a premier ballerina, that she met then-future husband Roque, 41. “We had common friends,” relates Maritoni. “He actually saw me in a newspaper and was like, ‘I wanna go out with this girl!’ That was his kwento to our friends. We went out for four years and finally got married in 1996.”

Theirs is a relationship that’s grounded on friendship. “We’re friends, but at the same time lovers,” she laughs, almost shyly. “He’s someone I can be so comfortable with. I don’t have to put up any front. I can be myself, even my worst self! I don’t have to pretend.”

The couple has two lovely kids, 10-year-old Emilio, an artist like his dad, and five-year-old Tessa, a mini version of her mom. As a family, they love going to the beach, spending time by the sea, particularly in Balesin, an island in Quezon owned by Roque’s family. “We used to spend a lot of time there,” she recalls. “But now the resort is non-operational so when we’re there, we just pitch a tent. It’s a great place to take the kids because they could just roam around freely.”

Upon mentioning her kids, Maritoni’s face softens. Being a full-time, hands-on mom, she dotes on them and makes sure she spends time with each. “Emilio and I, we go out on dates,” she shares. “We love to eat all this exotic food like caviar, pâté, steak tartare…he’s so adventurous with food so I take him to a place that he likes, he chooses, and then with Tessa naman, she’s with me in class so that’s our bonding time together.”

By class, she means Danspace, the ballet school Maritoni put up the summer of 2000. “It was a natural step. Even while I was in the Philippine Ballet Theater, I was already teaching. And when I was about to retire, I was thinking of something to do and I could never really see myself in an office job.” Teaching, Maritoni learned, requires a different skill. “You have to know the language of a four-year-old, how to translate what you knew as a professional dancer into how to actually bring it out from them. Teaching the basics can be hard because sometimes you don’t remember, or maybe it’s just not in you to break down steps. So that’s something I had to learn and I still am learning. It’s a good thing I also had a stint in musical theater with Repertory Philippines—children’s theater. It helps me get the class interested, and at fast pace!”

When she’s not off teaching little kids pliés and arabesques, you’ll find Maritoni at Yoga Manila, a yoga studio she co-founded with friends who are also into the practice. “Side-by-side when I was starting Danspace, I was looking for a physical activity that I could get into,” she recalls. “Teaching ballet, while it’s physical, is not really for yourself. You’re not working your body. I was looking at several things—yoga, pilates, other forms of dance, but somehow I was drawn to yoga, Ashtanga in particular. It’s something I can do anytime, anywhere, and all I need is my mat.”

To deepen her practice, Maritoni took a yoga teacher training course under Paul Dallaghan at the Centered Yoga Institute in Koh Samui in Thailand. She took it with a group of friends (mostly moms), and they eventually started Yoga Manila together. Today, the outfit has three centers, with Maritoni teaching mainly Yoga Ed classes for kids K-8. “Tessa actually takes my classes,” she shares. “She’s in my ballet and yoga classes. Emilio sometimes comes to yoga. That’s actually a challenge, teaching your own kids. Like with ballet because it’s so structured, I had to be careful with Tessa—sometimes she ends up not wanting to go because napapagalitan. With yoga, it’s easier because the curriculum talaga is so holistic-based that the kids end up loving and being so empowered by it.”

Yoga, without a doubt, is where Maritoni finds her balance. “It’s like a performance for myself,” she reveals. “The tingling feeling you get after a good practice—it’s like the applause you get after a ballet performance. But the difference is that yoga stays with you. It’s not like when you wake up after a big performance, the next day parang nawala yung adrenaline mo and you feel bagsak. Yoga keeps me going. It’s very important that I practice every day because this is my ME time. It helps me center—the main goal of yoga is to quiet the mind. Eh our minds are so busy, our bodies even more, so for like an hour and a half, you’re there thinking of nothing but your breath, your core. After that, I’m okay na. I can be so busy!”

Whether it’s Danspace or yoga that’s keeping her busy these days, or she’s just spending time nurturing her family, one thing stands true: Maritoni Rufino-Tordesillas shines.

Published in HIPP Magazine, September 2009.
Photography by Sheila Juan-Catilo.