Some people choose to become ballet teachers, but in the case of Christine Tjahjadi-Lopez, it was teaching that chose her. After 17 years of dance training, mainly focused on ballet, Tjahjadi-Lopez went on to pursue graduate studies in international trade at the University at Buffalo. A master’s project took her to Guatemala to conduct interviews with Mayan weavers, and she began teaching ballet to local children on the side. This side gig eventually led to what is now Transformación Ballet, a 501(c)(3) ballet school that offers dance classes to children across five towns in Guatemala, three of which are local orphanages: Panajachel (where the main studio is located), San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá and Santiago Atitlán, all located in the province of Sololá, as well as Villa Nueva, Ciudad de Guatemala.
In November 2016, Tjahjadi-Lopez started giving ballet lessons to five children in her empty living room (Transformación Ballet became a 501(c)(3) organization in 2019). She was led to teaching after befriending an accountant at her graduate internship, whose neighbor had a daughter that was interested in learning ballet. The word of mouth quickly spread. One of the students was studying with her on scholarship—a child Tjahjadi-Lopez met on the street who was helping her mother sell tortillas. “I invited her to ballet class and also started helping her with homework,” recalls Tjahjadi-Lopez.
She also began going to a local missionary house, where someone told her of a girl having a difficult time transitioning at a new orphanage. Tjahjadi-Lopez suggested she try ballet lessons. “They let her join, and within two weeks, I was told that her grades got better, she started getting along with the other girls in the orphanage, and her self-confidence increased. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, how I teach could actually change someone’s life!’”
From there, the classes grew “very quickly and organically,” as she puts it. Many of Tjahjadi-Lopez’ students come from situations of abandonment, trauma and abuse, so she and all of her in-person instructors are certified as “trauma-competent caregivers.” “How I teach isn’t about creating professionals right now, but creating children who believe in themselves and can see the world in a different way,” she says.
A Higher Calling
A native of Buffalo, New York and of Puerto Rican–Indonesian descent, Tjahjadi-Lopez, 29, moved around often growing up, due to her father’s job as an engineer. “I went to seven different schools and the only things that were consistent for me were family, God/church and dance class,” says Tjahjadi-Lopez.
Her most influential teachers include Cynthia Whiteway, at the Academy of Ballet in Buffalo, and Pamela Farry, of The Dance Pointe in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and founder of South Tulsa Children’s Ballet. While living in Wisconsin, Tjahjadi-Lopez taught tap and ballet classes to a family who couldn’t afford dance classes at a studio. It was Donatella Oppenheimer who inspired her current teaching philosophy.
“She shared with me how dancers relationships with dance (discipline, focus, commitment, beauty and growth) in many ways reflects our relationship with God. She said, ‘I understand when you say that God placed you where you are. I’ve always believed the same and that sharing this beautiful artform that instills focus, discipline as well as an appreciation to perform each move with finesse and attention to detail makes me think it’s God’s wish for us!’”
“I try my best to talk to each student at least once during class, and when I do, I give that student all my attention,” Tjahjadi-Lopez explains. “I started doing this because I realized the difference it made for them. Many of the children have very hard-working parents, who may not be very [available all the time]. If I can help validate the importance of their existence, I will take time in class to do that.”
For Tjahjadi-Lopez, who identifies as nondenominational Christian, the mission of Transformación Ballet is “to create community, discipline, and share the love of Christ through dance.” The school’s demographic includes students not only from local orphanages but from various economic backgrounds. “Some of their parents clean houses, make tortillas or sell artisan goods on the streets, while others are teachers, doctors and business owners! School systems and social circles are very defined here [in Guatemala], but our dance program’s structure breaks that barrier. It’s for everyone,” she says.
Prior to Transformación Ballet, the indigenous mountain region had difficulty maintaining consistent ballet instruction, since teachers were either from Guatemala City (the capital, three hours away) or were foreigners, so no one stayed in the area permanently. A teacher once attempted to open a ballet studio in the 1980s/1990s, but the area, still rather traditional in its mindset, was not yet open to the movements and attire required of ballet. As ballet has grown in current popular culture, so too has the students’ interest (Tjahjadi-Lopez’s students love watching Find Me in Paris or Angelina Ballerina).
A turning point came in 2017, when Tjahjadi-Lopez submitted a photo of her students for a hashtag campaign American Ballet Theatre was hosting on social media. Twelve winners were selected to win a T-shirt, and Tjahjadi-Lopez claimed one of the prizes. The win inspired her to start leveraging social media to connect with other schools across the globe, build relationships with potential sponsors (“ballet godparents,” as Transformacíon Ballet calls them), and identify scholarship and mentorship opportunities.
Her student Dulce Ximena was accepted into PointePeople’s mentorship program and was mentored by San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sasha De Sola. Since then, De Sola has sent the school donations and hosted a Q&A and workshops for the students. After PointePeople began sharing Transformación Ballet on social media, the school also received dancewear donations from stars like The Washington Ballet’s Katherine Barkman and Colorado Ballet’s Ever Larson.
It was also through social media that Vanessa Reinhart, a mom from Boulder City, Nevada, learned about Transformación Ballet and was inspired to support the school by becoming a ballet godparent in 2019. Reinhart’s daughter, Coco, a pre-professional ballet student, discovered the school on Instagram. Coco was able to teach at Transformación Ballet during a family trip to Guatemala. “The students were so inspired that they saw a brown ballerina. She was an example for them,” says Tjahjadi-Lopez.
“Being from Guatemala, I know the history of our country,” says Vanessa. “It is a poverty-stricken country. These children show so much gratitude and love even if you’re giving them a phone call or a small present. We learn more from them than they can ever learn from us.”
It was through Coco, who is a Brown Girls Do Ballet ambassador, that Tjahjadi-Lopez was able to connect with the nonprofit, which ended up making a donation that enabled the school to continue operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
A Future Full of Promise
Tjahjadi-Lopez teaches ballet six days a week in the studio space she rents on the second floor of a house (she also lives there). She also has the help of three other Guatemalan volunteer dance teachers. A local woman from Panajachel, Ligia Mendez, works as the school’s tutor and pre-ballet teacher. In addition to ballet, the students take in-person classes in jazz, lyrical and hip hop, as well as contemporary and Afrobeats virtually.
For Tjahjadi-Lopez, the biggest challenge is funding. The school now has more than 100 students, a mix of boys and girls, many of whom are on scholarship. The school was recently featured in an upcoming documentary, Where Coffee Takes You, created by Angelino’s Coffee, which ended up making a large donation to the school after observing the young students in the studio. Tjahjadi-Lopez also hopes to add another dance teacher who is passionate about sharing the love of Christ through ballet to the staff in the near future.
But the hard work is paying off. The first group of girls began pointe lessons in June of 2021; the first in the province of Sololá to ever dance on pointe. When Ana Paola Pich Landa, 12, received her first pair of pointe shoes, she was “so excited [she] wanted to cry!”
“Being part of Transformación Ballet has helped me meet new people and learn new dance styles to share with others,” says Manuela Sában Gutiérrez, 17, one of Tjahjadi-Lopez’s first students from the orphanage.
“I’m the first one in my family to dance ballet,” adds Pich Landa. “I want to be an example for my cousins that ballet is not just for people in another country, but that it can be part of our culture too.”