Benedicte Schoyen was having photographs taken of her and her dancing at the Santa Monica Dance Studio. The photographer was walking with a cane, and Schoyen found out that he had been diagnosed with cancer. So she organized a fundraiser at her dance studio to help him.
“She got all artist friends together to throw a concert and performance evening. And all the proceeds went to this man who was in need of medical help and couldn’t afford it,” said Jeffrey VanderByl, a longtime friend of Schoyen’s. “She constantly does things such as that to help others.”
Friends said Schoyen, a renowned ballet teacher based in Santa Monica, has an altruistic, hardworking and outgoing nature, further evidenced by a recent video she created aimed at encouraging youth to be more active.
Born in Oslo, Norway, Schoyen came to America 20 years ago to study jazz dance in Hollywood. She was only supposed to stay here for three weeks, but loved the diversity, talent and positive attitudes she found here so much, she decided to set up shop in Santa Monica.
“There’s a mentality here that you can do whatever you set out to do,” she said. “There’s an unwritten law in Norway passed on through generations, called a janpe, that says you shouldn’t think you’re better than anyone else.”
But she is still connected to her homeland, going back every summer to teach dance at summer school and to help choreograph the Eurovision Show songwriting contest for children.
She and her Scandinavian friends often reminiscence about life there, comparing and contrasting their respective birth countries, said Marie Bergenholtz, VanderByl’s wife who is originally from Sweden.
“Swedish people make jokes about the Norwegians and the other way around,” she said. “Sometimes I tell her ‘Yeah, yeah, you don’t know that because you’re Norwegian.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re Swedish.’ But it’s in a loving way.”
Outside of dance, Schoyen loves horseback riding and the outdoors, Bergenholtz said. Schoyen’s husband’s parents own a ranch, where she often goes riding.
“She loves animals. She loves people,” Bergenholtz said.
But dance will always remain her main passion, a passion which she takes very seriously, said Hans Mills, a friend.
“I’ve heard stories about people that show up and think she’s going to teach their kids some silly little dance,” he said. “But she thinks that if you’re going to learn it, you have to learn it right. She’s not a pushover when it comes to dancing.”
But taking dance seriously does not mean Schoyen is overly hard on her young students. On the contrary, one of the elements that make her a good dance teacher is her way of letting children have fun without the pressure of expecting them to become professionals, said Donna Heider, who’s now 20-year-old daughter began taking dance from Schoyen when she was 3. Schoyen teaches with the belief that everyone has the ability to dance, no matter their skill level, fitness or age when they start, Heider said.
Schoyen’s hard work and commitment to dance can come as a detriment, though, as she said she often finds herself overworking.
“When I first opened my dance studio, I worked every day for eight months,” she recalled. “I finally took a vacation for five days, but right after, I got so sick I ended up in the hospital. The doctor said it was because I was overworked.”
Her strong work ethic extended into her latest project, a video to spark a passion for activity and dance in children, “The Music Box — A Dance Along Fairytale.” In the five days she worked on it, she said she slept two hours each night and was more hands on “than a normal person should be.”
After 12 years of owning the Santa Monica Dance Studio on Arizona Avenue, Schoyen downsized and relocated to Pico Boulevard and 26th Street to focus on creating the video. It showcases ballet, jazz, hip hop and other forms of dance through a fairy tale that young viewers are meant to dance along to.
“The Music Box” will also be a vehicle for Schoyen’s charitability, with a portion of the proceeds being donated to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps treat children with cleft lips and cleft palates.
Though many programs aimed at promoting youth activity exist, Mills, who created the graphics for the video, said he thinks Schoyen’s vision differs from others in her ability to truly connect with the target audience.
“There’s so much crap out there for kids that keeps them staring at the TV,” he said. “Making something to get them active wasn’t a new concept, but this sounded smarter. Benedicte wasn’t talking down to the kids.”
Schoyen’s ability to connect with her students extends beyond children. Schoyen has the ability to read people — young or old — to find out what they need, said Bergenholtz, who first met Schoyen by taking one of her ballet classes.
“It’s not a problem if you have a personality like Benedicte that is a very open soul and a giving and nurturing personality,” Bergenholtz said. “You either have it or you don’t have it, and Benedicte definitely has it.”