Kamala Harris’ Berkeley ballet teacher fled the Russian Revolution and danced for royalty

Madame Bovie was a world-famous ballerina before teaching in Berkeley for 30 years.

Vala Bovie performed in the courts of Europe and North Africa before teaching ballet to Berkeley students, including future vice president Kamala Harris. Courtesy: Guy Bovie

Guy Bovie knew most of his mother’s harrowing and fantastical stories.

He knew she was born in 1910, escaped the Russian Revolution with her mother to become a world-renowned ballerina, survived Nazi-occupied France while raising Guy and his sister, then divorced her husband before immigrating to America and opening a Berkeley ballet studio.

But what Guy and his family learned in 2019, 26 years after Vala Bovie’s death, came out of the blue.

In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris recalled how a few French phrases had been drilled into her as a young girl by her ballet instructor. Later, when Harris enrolled at a mostly French-speaking high school in Montreal, the words of Guy’s mother made up the entirety of the future vice president’s vocabulary. 

“It was a difficult transition since the only French I knew was from my ballet classes, where Madame Bovie, my ballet teacher, would shout, ‘Demi–plié, and up!’” Harris wrote, referring to a half bend at the knees that strengthens legs and emphasizes posture. “I used to joke that I felt like a duck, because all day long at our new school I’d be saying ‘Quoi? Quoi? Quoi?’”

A young Kamala Harris (left) and friends at Madame Bovie’s ballet class in Berkeley. Courtesy: Mina Bissell

Guy was alerted to the passage by friends in France who stumbled on the book at a local store. He had already seen a photo on Facebook of Harris, as a child, walking near Vala Bovie’s North Berkeley ballet studio, but the depth of the connection was a shock. 

Born in 1964, Harris grew up in Berkeley and took classes in Bovie’s studio at 1805 Grove St., now Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The studio was about a mile from the yellow duplex on Bancroft Way that Harris shared with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a UC Berkeley cancer researcher, and her sister Maya. The family moved to Montreal when Kamala was 12.

Berkeley ballet teacher Madame Vala Bovie teaches a class of students on Jan. 4, 1973. An 8-year-old Kamala is believed to have been her pupil at the time. Courtesy: Guy Bovie

When Guy read in Harris’ memoir the single paragraph about his mother, he felt it gave a glimpse into the life of a woman whose love of art and culture is embodied by a vice president unafraid to dance or sing before the masses.  

At home in Berkeley

Bovie in her North Berkeley studio in December 1976. Credit: James R. Pease/The Berkeley Independent and Gazette (Newspapers.com)

Madame Bovie assisted her daughter Monique in opening the ballet studio in 1962, a year after she took the Queen Elizabeth passenger liner from France to visit Monique in California. She took over the studio from her daughter in 1969, and the Vala Bovie School of Classical Dance was born. 

“For the first time since leaving Russia, I felt that I was home,” Bovie told the Berkeley Independent and Gazette newspaper in a December 1976 profile.

It’s no surprise Bovie left an impression on Harris. Jeffrey Bovie recalls his grandmother’s “domineering” personality. “She was very eccentric,” said the Berkeley locksmith. “She lived life on her terms and to the fullest.”

Granddaughter Pascale Bovie learned ballet from Monique and Vala at age 2, and the Marin resident has photos of herself wearing ballet toe shoes at age 6. She recalls a strict but loving grandmother with “European manners.”

“She walked with a cane and banged her cane on the ground to help [children] keep pace,” Pascale said. “She called everybody ‘darling’ and spoke a mixture of French and Russian. She was a round-sculptured woman; she had hips. Very coquettish and feminine.

“She always tried to teach [the boys] to be gentlemanly, and let the women go first. It was always this old way of being brought up, being born in the early 1900s she had that way about her – good manners, discipline. You didn’t talk in the studio when grandma was teaching classes. The performances were fun; she had wonderful costumes.”

Madame Bovie dressed as an elderly man for a Christmas play. Courtesy: Guy Bovie

At the time of the 1976 Gazette article, Bovie was preparing a Christmas-themed ballet to be aired on KPIX Channel 5, in prime time. By then, Bovie had choreographed more than 50 ballets and wrote a children’s book titled J’apprends A Danser Toute Seule, translated to I Learn To Dance On My Own. Bovie rented theaters and auditoriums, hired 30- to 50-piece orchestras and sewed costumes for performances. Parents, friends and family assisted in building sets. A ballet based on the life of Santa Teresa de Avila was performed at the Old First Presbyterian Church on Van Ness Avenue in 1973; another that modeled period wardrobe was performed at the Garden of Good Things in Albany in 1978.

The ballet instructor rented a house behind the Grove Street studio, then moved to homes on Solano Avenue and Channing Way. She briefly lived in an Oakland apartment before returning to Berkeley. Bovie continued teaching until the week of her death in 1993.

A commanding teacher who just wanted her students to smile

Vice President Harris wasn’t Bovie’s only celebrity pupil.

Actress and dancer Tami Stromach, best known for playing The Childlike Empress in the 1984 film The Neverending Story, attended the Grove Street studio in the early 1980s. Stromach struggled to follow ballet instructions while in Iran and Israel, she told Dance.net. She would practice on her own while experienced students worked on plies and tendus at the barre apparatus. Everything changed when she came to Bovie, who was in her 70s.

“She was very commanding,” Stroman told the dance website. “At that point, something had shifted in me and I really wanted discipline so I became very, very, very disciplined. I took ballet every day and even stood at the barre and not in the center anymore!”

The actress said that extensive pointe work — during which a dancer puts all of their weight on fully extended toes — starting at age 9 under Bovie led to severe tendonitis in her feet.

“When you come to my studio, you leave all your troubles on the doorstep. You must relax.” — Madame Bovie

It’s unclear how much time Harris spent with Bovie; her office declined an interview request for this story. However, the vice president’s passion for dance remains to this day.

The New York Times reported in October 2020 that Harris, while attending high school in Montreal, was part of an all-female dance troupe. “The girls wore glittering homemade costumes and performed aerobically charged disco moves in front of the school and at homes for the elderly,” the paper wrote. “Ms. Harris was called Angel.” A friend recalled spending hours rehearsing with Harris.

In 2017, as a newly elected U.S. senator, Harris paid tribute to trailblazing ballet dancer Misty Copeland, who two years earlier became the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. “Misty Copeland applied to numerous ballet companies but was rejected because she had the ‘wrong body for ballet.’ #ShePersisted #WHM,” read Harris’ tweet for Women’s History Month.

Videos of Harris dancing on the campaign trail went viral. As a presidential candidate in 2019, she broke from speech preparation to bop in her chair to rapper Cardi B. When her run for president ended later that year, Harris celebrated with her staff by grooving to Beyonce. And while stumping for President Biden in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Harris danced on stage to Mary J. Blige under an umbrella in the Florida rain.

The politician’s embrace of music and dance prompted a backlash with racial overtones from right-wing pundits like Peggy Noonan, who mocked her for “dancing with drum lines and beginning rallies with ‘Wassup, Florida!’” while ignoring President Trump’s on-stage dancing.

1805 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where Bovie taught ballet, is now home to a tool company. Credit: Zac Farber

But Harris’ variety of joie de vivre was welcomed at the Grove Street ballet studio – as long as it didn’t interrupt Madame Bovie’s teaching, of course.

“I have noticed Americans tend to be more closed,” Bovie said in the 1976 article. “I tell the adults, ‘When you come to my studio, you leave all your troubles on the doorstep. You must relax.’ I see their shoulders tight, hips tight, so I usually start them with arm movements to loosen them up.

“But, do you know what I find the most difficult thing to do? Making Americans smile. When you smile, you relax 75 muscles, and when you laugh you double the number.”

Pascale Bovie remembers how her grandmother enjoyed her craft but lacked the business savvy to set herself up for a comfortable retirement.

“She always had a very good attitude, which was amazing,” Pascale said. “She definitely had a joy for life. She wouldn’t let things get her down. She wasn’t a business person by any stretch. She didn’t manage her studio all that well. She lived the moment and enjoyed what she was doing in that moment.”

All she could do was dance

Smiles were hard to come by during Bovie’s childhood, according to the Gazette story. 

Born Valentine Krivoussieff, she suffered from arthritis as a young child, and her mother used ballet to strengthen her 3-year-old daughter’s legs enough to walk. After nearly a year at a ballet school in present-day Ukraine, Vala was cured. Months later she began performing.

When Vala was 6, the Romanov monarchy was crumbling, and her Russian mother was forced by the Red Army to organize schools. Her Ukrainian father, who joined the anti-Soviet White Army, was believed to have been killed.

“There were a lot of orphaned children like myself, so we organized a community of children,” Bovie told the Gazette. “There were 17 boys and three girls, all 7 years and younger. The youngest was 1. Everyone shared what they had, and everyone was assigned tasks according to their skills. Some picked vegetables. Others washed stairs and cleaned houses in exchange for food.

“But when they asked me what I could do, all I could say was ‘dance.’ Everyone was delighted. One boy found a tambourine, others clapped, and we formed a dance troupe and collected money for food and clothing by performing for crowds in the streets.”

Madame Bovie danced before royalty in England, Monaco and Egypt. Courtesy: Guy Bovie

Vala was reunited with her mother and fled to Poland, where her grandfather had been mayor of Warsaw. In Poland, Vala’s mother met French and German ambassadors, who offered her scholarships to train in Paris and Berlin. By 15, she was choreographing ballets and became a principal dancer. She danced before Queen Mary and the Court of England, before the royal courts of Italy, Belgium and Monaco, and before King Farouk of Egypt.

Then a car accident nearly left her paralyzed. “I told them that if I couldn’t dance, I would die,” Bovie told the Gazette. “So mentally, while lying in bed, I started to imagine how my legs would be moving if I were doing ballet steps. By and by, muscles began to move, and I walked and danced again. The doctors could not believe it.”

Bovie married Roger Bovie in 1933 and settled in France, stepping away from ballet to raise children – Guy was born in 1939; Monique in 1940; and Christian, who died at childbirth, in 1941. 

The family lived in the small village of Le Vésinet, occupied by the German army during WWII. Guy, now living in San Rafael, recalls his mother covering him and Monique with mattresses as American forces bombed a nearby German communications center.

“Our house had a flat roof, and after the bombing my father would go on top of the house to remove shrapnel,” he said. “[German officers] barged into the house several times, my parents told me. My memory was completely blocked. One time I heard about it from my mother. Some Russian people she knew had asked her to hide some papers. She put them in the armoire, under the sheets. One time the Germans barged into the house, raised the sheets, found the papers and left.”

When allied forces liberated France in 1945, there was celebration in the streets of Paris. Vala invited four American soldiers for dinner. Guy kept in contact with the men until their deaths. 

Following the war, Bovie resumed teaching from a tiny studio in the family basement. Guy helped his mother organize rehearsals and served as a stand-in for absent ballerinas. Before one performance, Guy was handling last-minute maintenance when the curtain opened. He hid behind the set. The family soon moved to a larger estate with lavish gardens in the town of Chatou on the Seine river, and Bovie opened a studio in Paris that quickly attracted hundreds of students. 

Guy followed his mother to America in 1964, and struggled as an electronic engineer before working at a hospital. He later opened an antique restoration business in Emeryville, and helped build sets for his mother’s ballets.

Guy Bovie reads the French edition of Kamala Harris’ memoir. Credit: Nick Lozito

On a Sunday in 1993, Guy took 83-year-old Vala – “a very religious person” – to a Russian church in Berkeley. He remembers opening the church doors for her.

“That was the last time I saw her alive,” said Guy, who days later found Vala lying in a coma, the result of a brain hemorrhage. She died the day before Easter.

Somewhere, Guy said, are hours of audio recordings his mother made in preparing her own memoir — a task she never got around to. Guy keeps a tiny envelope of business cards Vala received from dignitaries and ambassadors across the world. He holds faint memories of her protection during war, and warmth upon immigrating to America. 

Guy now owns multiple copies of Harris’ memoir – in both English and French.

“Just to have Kamala Harris put her in a book, it really shows that she must have touched her,” said Guy, sitting in the living room of his San Rafael home. “It was really not needed, you know, but that was part of her youth. I’ll always remember what [my mother] left to people. How many people she has touched.”

Guy Bovie holds up a photo of his mother. Credit: Nick Lozito