Victoria Lee remembers seeing ballet dancers for the first time as a child growing up in South Korea. She watched through a window during her sister's dance lesson and was amazed to see what people could do.
"They were like angels, coming and going, just flying," she recalled.
She begged her mother to sign her up for ballet classes too. Now, Lee is no longer the student but the teacher — imparting to her students at Victoria Ballet the same techniques, discipline and elegance that she discovered as a child.
Lee taught at a ballet studio in Korea until her family moved to the Bay Area for her husband's work in 2015. A couple of years later, at her daughter's urging, she opened up the first location of Victoria Ballet in Campbell. Since then, the ballet studio has grown in size and popularity, and last year, Lee began looking at the building at 370 California Ave. that now houses the ballet school's second location and a new venture, Victoria Art Studio. The building opened for classes in January.
At the new ballet studio, students from age 4 to adult are learning the art of dance from Lee and the other dance faculty, Cynthia Drayer and Andre Reyes. Both Drayer and Reyes danced professionally, including as Principal dancers in the San Francisco Ballet, before turning their skills to teaching at ballet schools around the country. The classes offered include all experience levels — from beginners who have never stepped up to the barre to pre-professional dancers.
Lee said teaching ballet is not just about training her students in the proper techniques — it's about teaching them how to cultivate a lifestyle of strong relationships and attention to beauty.
She sees overlap between the emphasis on respect in Korean culture and the history of ballet in royal courts, and her classes share aspects of Korean and ballet cultures alongside the pirouettes and pliés.
"In the Korean culture I have, respect is very important," Lee said. "So I just teach them, you have to respect your parents first, you have to respect your friends first. Better technique, worse technique, older or younger, it doesn't matter…. Manners are just original ballet culture."
Lee said one of her goals with Victoria Ballet is to make ballet less intimidating. It's as accessible as gymnastics or Pilates classes, she said — a form of art and exercise that anyone can try.
"People come in and they always say, 'I'm not flexible; this is my first time to do the ballet — can you accept me?'" she said. "Everyone can do it."
A hallmark of Lee's approach to teaching is keeping class sizes small so that teachers can pay attention to every dancer. She caps classes at eight students, which allows every ballet dancer to develop proper technique.
"I never give up on my students," she said.
The students at Victoria Ballet put on an annual performance of the Nutcracker, and they have won numerous awards at dance competitions around the Bay Area. Lee said her school typically ranks in the top three among Bay Area ballet schools.
Next door to the ballet studio, Victoria Art Studio hosts art classes for children ages 5-12 and a weekend oil painting class for adults. In the children's classes, students can try a range of media, including painting, drawing and sculpture.
"Our goal is to create a fun and supportive environment for kids and adults to express themselves and grow as artists," said Chelsey Eom, the director of Victoria Art Studio.
Like the ballet classes, the art classes are kept small so that children receive plenty of individual attention, Eom said. She trained as an artist in South Korea and San Francisco, and now, she said she wants to give her Palo Alto students a well-rounded art education.
Lee sees classes that foster creativity as being especially important here in STEM-heavy Silicon Valley, where she said people are often busy and driven at the expense of making time for art. That's why she calls Victoria Ballet a "life-changing project."
"The kids have to learn not only ballet, but why we need art and rest time, how to relax and enjoy art," she said.
Eom said she saw similar value in children being able to take art classes and explore their creative talents.
"I have seen firsthand how art can help students develop their creativity and self-expression," she said, "as well as a sense of achievement and satisfaction."
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