Los Altos resident Shaya Ben-David dances approximately 19 hours a week at the Bay Area Dance School – and summer only means more dancing.
This summer, the 12-year-old attended American Ballet Theatre’s Young Dancer Intensive in New York, danced at Master Ballet Academy’s intensive in Arizona and competed in Georgia, where her near-constant training paid off when she won the title of Miss Junior Dance of America.
Shaya had to win the Dance Masters of California competition to compete at the Dance Masters of America competition last month. At both competitions, she performed “The Green Balloon,” a contemporary dance about a balloon that dreams of floating in the sky but is “sadly” popped and comes back to Earth, according to Shaya.
“My favorite part was the feeling that it gave me,” she said. “The music is so emotional that it felt like it was also my story, too. Even though I’m obviously not a balloon, I still feel connected to it in a way.”
Shaya competed over four days, which included learning a combination in four dance styles – tap, acrobatics, jazz and ballet – as well as an interview. All of the components are part of the contestant’s overall score, and she received the highest marks in her interview and ballet and jazz evaluations, according to Shaya’s mom, Erin Ben-David.
Before competing, Shaya said she likes to be alone. She’ll stretch and go over her dance twice, once “marking” the steps – a dancer’s term for roughly rehearsing the steps – and then a second time performing the routine at full energy.
“I don’t like to feel everyone’s nervous energy and stuff, so I kind of like to go into a corner and just be by myself,” she said.
She also has a lucky jacket, which she’s had since first grade, but the jacket didn’t adopt its “lucky” label until two years ago when Shaya had “bad luck” at a competition where she forgot it.
A passion for dance
Shaya’s extensive dancing and the nearly 20 competitions she participates in each year can make it hard to balance schoolwork, especially when she began middle school last year at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.
Shaya said she soon became used to the workload though, and added that she can’t imagine not dancing.
“I think about it sometimes – like, what if I just stopped dancing? What if I just never danced again?” she said. “And it makes me so sad to think about that, and so it’s just my identity and it’s what I’m known for and I like it.”
Erin said that taking Shaya from classes to competitions to intensives “does demand a lot on that side of the parent” but added that she’s “really grateful” she’s able to support her daughter. As a former dancer, Erin said she understands “that kind of love and passion.”
“I see how much joy she gets from it, so it brings me joy to help her out in any way I can,” Erin said.
Leyla Boissonnade, director of Bay Area Dance School, said Shaya is a “natural performer” who exemplifies how hard work can “sometimes transpire past just skill to produce a really strong dancer.” She noted that the Dance Masters of America competition is really a “test of endurance,” with all of its different facets of competition, and added that preparing for it required more focus on quickly learning and interpreting choreography.
“That is the real dance world – how easily can you recreate someone else’s choreography on your own body?” Boissonnade said.
Once Shaya returns from dancing in New York, she’ll be back at work in the studio. Her responsibilities as the national Miss Junior Dance of America titleholder include performing in Dance Masters of America’s competitions and conventions in other states if she’s invited.
The bulk of her time, however, will be spent working toward improving her dancing for future competitions – and reaching her ultimate goal of dancing on Broadway and commercially in TV shows and music videos.