by Monica Guzman
Customers of Patrick James in Carmel know Olena Zenova well. She makes sure to welcome everyone who enters the store as if she were welcoming them into her own home. She may also be familiar from other clothing stores in the area, but retail has not always been her specialty. Zenova is a retired dancer and acrobat from the Moscow Circus.
Zenova grew up in Lviv, Ukraine where she attended schools for ballet, gymnastics, music and acting aside from general education. Her desire was to be a professional performer but feared that, in spite of her dedication, her career goals were unattainable.
One day after school, Zenova’s mother said her ballet teacher had called. Surprised, Zenova contacted her teacher who told her the Moscow Circus was in town. Zenova did not hesitate to audition and to her relief was hired. She moved to Moscow and began work immediately while she finished her last year of school.
Zenova describes her time in the circus as some of the best years of her life. During that period she had her daughter, was featured in films, and the circus allowed her to travel, which was something she always desired. In her words, she was a superstar.
Although the circus life made her feel like a celebrity, it was not always glamorous; most days were rushed and there were many dangers. Once during a show, a tiger entered the cage Zenova and other dancers were performing in. Luckily, the tiger remained calm, but it imprinted a startling experience into Zenova’s mind.
One of Zenova’s favorite memories was when she gave her first pay to her parents who then used the money to buy her a set of pearl earrings and a necklace. “This was a very special thing for me. Not many people had pearls, especially young people. I knew my parents were proud,” she said.
In 1991, Zenova retired. At this time, tension between Russia and Ukraine was high. Her Ukrainian status made her ineligible for employment in Russia and her daughter, who was Russian-born, could not attend Ukrainian schools. As a result, Zenova looked to the United States.
The fact that San Francisco held some of Zenova’s acquaintances, and an employment connection, made moving there seem attractive. The people she met made her feel at home. “I did not know English and had no money, but I met beautiful people who helped me and I am very thankful for them,” Zenova says.
Zenova found a new passion when she volunteered at Acrosports, a gymnastics, performance and circus arts non-profit in San Francisco, while working various jobs to make ends meet. She later taught at the Russian Center, Jewish Community Center, San Francisco Ballet, and as a private instructor.
While teaching, she made many visits to Las Vegas, Nevada. She worked with performers, many of whom performed in Cirque du Soleil, to perfect their skills. Her first experience in Vegas was at a performance and donation event at Wayne Newton’s house in the mid-90s. The city left her in awe. Zenova said she saw every show and won $1,800 with a quarter.
After 10 years teaching, her weakening hips prevented her from continuing. She felt her role as a teacher was pointless if she could not demonstrate. With this in mind, when a change in her personal life brought the opportunity to move to the Monterey Peninsula, she took it.
Zenova now has her mother with her and although her daughter is not nearby, they have a strong bond. She is very pleased with the current phase in her life, and has a great appreciation for everyone who has shown her affection.