For campus staffer, life is good, but dancing is life

“Persons of Interest” is a weekly series exploring the lives of students, staff and faculty, both on- and off-campus.

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BERKELEY — Jane Schnorrenberg is sipping a decaf latte at the Free Speech Movement Café, discussing her dancing career and life at Berkeley, when she starts to recount an “audition” for one of her campus jobs. Immediately she catches the slip, laughs and corrects herself.

It’s an understandable mistake. A dancer since the age of 7, Schnorrenberg has a lot of sweat equity invested in striking that slippery “work-life balance,” doing her best to spin it all into a graceful pirouette. Long before she began working at Berkeley in 2004 — providing administrative support in California Hall and, for the past year or so, the College of Letters and Science — dancing and jobs were, for her, inextricably linked.

Schnorrenberg

Jane Schnorrenberg

It started with her mother’s job, in the laundry department of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. At least she thinks it did.

“When I was 6 or 7, I got hooked on this ballet thing,” she remembers, tracing her obsession to her older sister, who studied dance in high school. “I really wanted to dance. But my parents didn’t have much money.” A self-described “army brat,” she had three siblings, “and four kids on my dad’s salary…”

Out of the blue, her parents got a phone call from the Santa Rosa Ballet School. An anonymous donor, the director said, wanted to pay for young Jane’s ballet lessons. “So we bought leotards,” she says, “and my lessons were paid for five years,” at which point her dancing skills earned her a scholarship.

It was years more until she cracked the mystery. The donor, she believes, was a woman who worked in the laundry room with her mother. The woman raised Arabian horses and not only had no kids of her own, but didn’t much care for other folks’, either.

Schnorrenberg, in rehearsal

In rehearsal at UC Davis (Kegan Marling photo)

“When she was a child,” explains Schnorrenberg, “someone paid for her piano lessons. And apparently she had talent.”

The woman would give Jane a box of chocolates every Christmas, but they had only one conversation: “She said, ‘I can spot talent in horses, and in children.’ And that’s all she ever said to me.” Schnorrenberg now pays that generosity forward, sponsoring a young dancer in Berkeley.

The first in her family to attend college, Schnorrenberg went to Mills on a partial scholarship, focusing on dance while taking courses in things like French and art history — “you know,” she adds wryly, “useful, career-type stuff.”

Diploma in hand, she kept on dancing. But it wasn’t until she was laid off by a large broker’s office in San Francisco that she took her “other” career to the next step. With the aid of a severance package and a dance fellowship, she headed to UC Davis for a master of fine arts degree.

It was there that she met her mentor, professor Della Davidson, who invited Schnorrenberg to join her dance company and in 1994 brought her to London, one of a number of performance tours she’s taken abroad. She’s currently in rehearsal for a modern-dance “installation” partly conceived by Davidson, who died in March, transforming the piece into a kind of tribute. (The show’s title, and the snow fell softly on all the living and the dead, borrows the closing words of “The Dead,” the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners.)

“It’s funny how people think going on tour is so glamorous — well, sure, if you’re a movie star and you have an unlimited budget,” she says. “When you’re a dancer, you basically are really happy if you have a decent place to stay and you get a little food money. Mostly you just get to see the inside of a studio.”

To support such luxury, Schnorrenberg worked for years in jobs that gave her the flexibility to pursue her art. “I had to work around my dance gigs,” she says. “If we got a gig to go to New York, I had to sort of stop everything and catch up later.”

Like her mother’s at Santa Rosa Memorial, a lot of those jobs were in the medical industry. At Alta Bates she did shift work as a PBX operator, and provided financial counseling to pregnant couples. She worked in the office of a nephrologist, and as a receptionist/secretary for the Santa Clara Housing Authority.

“I have aaaalways had a day job,” she says, stretching the word to the breaking point.

Yet while she needed those jobs to support her dancing, it was dancing that brought her to Berkeley. She had just finished her MFA when a ballet-school classmate — and campus staffer — told her about a part-time opening in University Relations. She got the job, and the following year landed a full-time spot as an administrative specialist in the chancellor’s office.

Six months later a staffer in in the budget and finance office approached her, urging her to try for an opening there. She auditioned — interviewed, that is — and got the gig. In February 2011 she made a move to executive assistant in the College of Letters and Science, where, among other tasks, she now juggles schedules for four different deans.

“You know when you have someone who’s bad at calendaring,” she says, with evident pride in her day job. “Life can be real unhappy.”

Schnorrenberg, meanwhile, is happily balancing work and life. As in the dance world, “I’ve met a lot of really great friends on campus,” she says. Some of those friends — like her — have a foot in both dancing and academia.

“I feel pretty charmed,” she says.

Know a member of the campus community — staff, student or faculty — who might make a good subject for “Persons of Interest”? Send us a note at news@berkeley.edu.

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