While sharing the history of Pacific Ballet Academy in Mountain View, Marion Chaeff and her daughter, Rima, both used the ballet programs they were participating in or the class they were teaching as a time stamp to ensure they were speaking in chronological order.
It could be because the academy’s owners were being interviewed about their business and the 33-year run through which they have nurtured it, but it became increasingly obvious that no matter the topic, the conversation – and their lives – would always turn to ballet.
Pacific Ballet Academy, located at 295 Polaris Ave., offers a full range of youth and adult dance options for ages 3 1/2 and up, from pre-ballet to pre-professional training. Marion, founding director, and Rima, co-director, promote the philosophy that the quality of instruction is more important than the quantity.
A love – and life – of dance
When Marion’s husband took a job with long hours for an extended period of time, she returned to ballet. After having kids and watching them grow, she returned to ballet. When Rima’s hearing impairment, a lifelong struggle, deteriorated and stopped her from being able to understand her mother on the phone, she got a cochlear implant and returned to ballet.
“This is a family-owned business,” Marion said.
With her mother as her first ballet instructor, Rima said her love of dance and the family business meld only because Mation knew not to push her too far.
“She knew that she had the power to ruin it for me,” Rima said. “She was careful.”
Marion was born in Astoria, Ore., where there were no studios that offered instruction in classical ballet, but the largely Scandinavian population hosted parties that featured folk dancing.
“Later on, I watched a couple movies that made me very interested in ballet and saw a live performance of “Swan Lake” in Portland, and I thought, ‘You know, I want to be connected with this somehow. I’m not sure how this is going to happen,’” Marion said.
Rather than following her parents’ wish that she attend one year of college on their dime, as her older sister did, Marion left home at 19 and studied with American Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes in Denver, Dallas and New York City.
“I would have had to take the (classes) they wanted me to take,” Marion said of her parents. “But I told them I would rather pursue ballet and, of course, that was ridiculous to them.”
In New York, Marion met a Russian man struggling to become an actor. Instead, he became her husband, with whom she had two children.
The Chaeffs figured out when Rima was 2 years old that she was deaf. They moved to California, where schooling options would be better for their daughter. In New Jersey, where they were living at the time, the only option available to those with hearing impairments was to send them off to boarding school.
“My parents, thankfully, made the decision that they wanted me to try to learn how to speak instead of how to sign first,” Rima said.
Marion used M&M’s to get her quiet daughter to talk.
“I thought her little teeth were going to rot,” Marion said with a hearty laugh.
Rima attended a specialized school in Palo Alto until she auditioned for an arts school in Vienna, Austria, and was offered a three-year scholarship. After moving back to California, Rima danced with Ballet San Jose before moving on to the San Francisco Ballet School for three years, performing in its “Nutcracker” and Student Showcase performances. At Pacific Ballet, the Chaeffs run the same programs, with the Showcase every spring.
Rima mirrored the bravery her mother had shown when leaving home. She attended Chico State University and earned a computer science degree after deciding her deafness would likely be too large an obstacle in pursuing a professional career as a ballerina – she often had problems with feedback from her hearing aids when she danced in San Francisco.
After finding the engineering field to be less than self-sustaining before the boom of corporations such as Facebook and Google, Rima started to miss dancing and rehearsals. Her mother was teaching ballet at Blach Intermediate School in Los Altos, and the two opened Pacific Ballet Academy in 1985, with just a quarter of the property the booming business takes up today. The academy now boasts four studios.
More than three decades later, Marion looks on as Rima puts her hair up – the only time her implant is visible – and commands the ballerinas she’s teaching to dance en pointe to the barres and examines each one’s form. Describing herself as “very strict,” the younger Chaeff walks around and adjusts the advanced dancers, whispering reminders under the melody floating up from the piano in the corner.
“I’ve been around long enough now to where some of my former students are bringing in their children,” Rima said just before her class began. “Things have come around full circle.”
For more information on Pacific Ballet Academy, visit pacificballet.org.