SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA is an area of such diversity that you may be unsurprised to learn that most of our dancers come from everywhere but San Jose. Whether they trained in Japan, Russia, or Bosnia, Ballet San Jose’s dancers bring to the table a host of different cultural perspectives. And this same multiculturalism is what makes San Jose the heart of the Silicon Valley, a hotbed of innovation and progress. The city itself seems to thrive on its ability to attract people from all over the world.
But what about the dancers who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area? What has it meant for them as people and as artists?
Meet Shannon Bynum and Sarah Stein, the only current Ballet San Jose dancers who were born and raised in the immediate area. While all BSJ dancers seem to have the same easy camaraderie with one another, it is immediately apparent that Shannon and Sarah have known each other for a long time. Last month, I grabbed dinner with them and talked to them about growing up in San Jose.
Reported by the 2010 U.S. Census to be the 10th largest city in the United States, San Jose is much like any other sprawling metropolitan area that blankets a number of smaller, lesser-known cities. “San Jose” could mean a lot of things to a Bay Area native, which is why I started out by asking Shannon and Sarah where they grew up.
It so happens that they are both from South San Jose.
“We actually went to the same high school,” Sarah said. “Santa Teresa High School.”
“I was a senior when she was a freshman!” Shannon added.
And how did they get their respective starts in dancing?
Shannon: I grew up dancing at a small studio off of Foxworthy and Almaden called the Atlas School of Dance. I learned to love dance there and developed a passion at such a young age. I will never forget some of the memories that came out of that small space!
Sarah: I’ve been dancing since I was about three years old. I started out with tap, jazz, lyrical and, of course, ballet. I did pretty much everything! But around age ten, I decided to dance strictly ballet. That was with San Jose Dance Theatre. When my teachers, Robert Kelley and Diane Cypher, eventually moved to Santa Cruz, I followed them to train and perform with a pre-professional school/company called Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre. I trained with Robert and Diane until my sophomore year of high school, and that is when I joined Ballet San Jose School!
Shannon: When I was in high school, I started to realize that I wanted to make a career out of dance. I made the commute to Palo Alto every day and joined Teen Dance Company of the Bay Area, which really prepared me for professional work. I learned so much about movement and artistry! TDC is run exactly like a professional dance company. The resident teachers and choreographers were the best, and they brought in guests all the time. Mia Michaels came twice to set choreography with us!
Sarah: I learned so much about performing from Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre as well. SCBT is a member and “Honor Company” of Regional Dance America. Every year, we traveled around the Pacific region for four days and took master classes and performed for other dancers.
Shannon: After high school, I moved to Fresno to dance for Martha Kelly-Fierro’s company MKF Altered Modalities. I attended CSU Fresno, where I also studied theatre. At the same time, I was training with former ABT Principal Melinda Cordell and [former San Jose Cleveland Ballet Principal] Grethel Domingo — now Grethel Raypon. Grethel was a big reason why I started getting serious about classical ballet. Eventually, I dedicated all of my time to studying with Grethel and training with Joffrey Ballet and ABT New York in their summer intensive programs.
In short: San Jose is the South Bay’s cultural hub, the center of a diverse Bay Area region that offers young dancers a variety of fantastic opportunities. I asked Shannon and Sarah how they thought growing up in San Jose had shaped them as dancers and performers.
Shannon: I think being a competition kid at Atlas and having the opportunity to work with all the big choreographers at TDC made me feel so at home on stage. There was some kind of performance every weekend. Most kids at that age only get to perform on stage a few times a year, so I really had a wonderful advantage. And I was so lucky. When I was a senior in high school my mom drove me to Fresno every Tuesday after school to take class at the Dance Studio of Fresno.
Sarah: That is amazing. My mom drove me to Santa Cruz every day after school for my training! I feel very lucky that she took the time to drive me.
Shannon: Exactly! We would leave straight from school and get to Fresno just in time for 5:30 class. Martha [Kelly-Fierro] would work with me until about 10:30 at night. Then my mom would drive me back to San Jose for school the next morning, and of course for dance the next afternoon. We would get home from Fresno at one in the morning. I remember being so tired. I can’t believe my mom did that for me. She is the strongest most amazing woman I know, and I love her so much for allowing me to live my dream at such a young age.
Sarah: When I was growing up in San Jose, my mom also took me to shows at Ballet San Jose (at the time it was the San Jose Cleveland Ballet). I saw the company perform Dennis Nahat’s Blue Suede Shoes, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. I even saw one of the “Kiddie Matinee” shows of The Nutcracker when I was in elementary school on a field trip. It is such a dream come true for me now to be one of those dancers performing in all of those ballets.
Although Shannon and Sarah went to the same high school, Ballet San Jose brought them together and really started their friendship.
Shannon: I remember one spring break from college — I was home in San Jose and took an open class at Ballet San Jose School. That’s where Sarah and I really became friends. Sarah was supposed to go to Italy with the School, but she was accepted to Boston Ballet that summer and chose to go. BSJS needed a girl to fill in and the timing was right! The School asked me to go to Italy with them, and that is how I became affiliated with Ballet San Jose.
Sarah: I was with BSJS for two years before I became a Company member with Ballet San Jose. Shannon and I both joined in 2006. I remember us both walking into our first day of work together!
Shannon: I am so happy that I chose ballet as my career.
And now that they are professional dancers, what do Shannon and Sarah love about living and working in San Jose?
Sarah: I love being able to live and work in the Bay Area. I feel so fortunate to be a dancer in the company, living in my home town and benefiting from the cultural activity all around us. I love that my family lives just ten minutes away and I can go home for family dinner on Sunday nights! My parents have many work and family friends who come to watch me perform. Many BSJ dancers don’t have their families close by; they have to travel from all over the world to come see them dance.
Shannon: I’m so proud to be from San Jose!
Sarah: It really is such an honor to be a part of Ballet San Jose. And I love how close all of us dancers are. BSJ is like a second family to me!
Shannon: I feel like this is what I was meant to do. I am so proud to dance for BSJ and represent San Jose, the place where I grew up and the diverse city that I love.