Marin’s John Lam Is Still Making Ballet History

NYC Dance Project: Ken Browar and Deborah Ory

Professional ballet dancer John Lam grew up in a poor household in San Rafael’s Canal District where the family — his parents were refugees from Vietnam — leaned heavily on community childcare services. When he was 4, something happened that changed his life forever.

That something was a visit from Performing Stars of Marin to the childcare center, with an offer of free dance lessons. For a hyperactive, shy kid, dancing was the perfect outlet — until he started getting teased. Lam quit for a day, but Performing Stars executive director Felecia Gaston wasn’t having it and took him to see male dancers perform with S.F. Ballet. “I realized ‘oh, so there are other men and boys that dance,’ ” Lam says. “So I decided to come back and there was something about it, the music and everything that I loved and I stuck with it.”

Lam found the dance studio to be a safe place that allowed him to “speak without vocalizing.” He says his parents weren’t very involved in his dance choices and there was no one forcing him to do it — he was self-driven. “It wasn’t the North American boxed-in support where every parent goes to every child’s game,” he says, adding that he holds no resentments about it. “That’s not our culture. And that’s fine.”

Recognizing that Lam had a talent and a passion to dance without fear, Marin Ballet artistic director Cynthia Lucas recommend he go to Canada’s National Ballet School, in Toronto (Marin Ballet also helped with a scholarship), where he was accepted at age 14. From there Lam’s first male role model, Mikko Nissinen, who knew the young phenom from his days directing Marin Ballet and had just become artistic director of Boston Ballet, recommended Lam join up.

His mom agreed, saying it is best to go somewhere where someone knows you, and Lam worked his way up, becoming the first Vietnamese American principal dancer in history to dance in a major ballet company.

But before any of that, Lam, returning home to his parents at the age of 20, had to tell them he was gay and engaged to a man 20 years his senior. “It was a hard thing for them to understand at first,” Lam says, explaining that it was a learning curve for his parents. “But they did come to our wedding and I’m very, very thankful to have parents that love me for who I am.”

Now, after 20 years of dancing at Boston Ballet, Lam has called it quits, performing his last show in May. “I’m in a place right now where I am at the top of my physical game and I want to leave the organization at the top,” he says, adding that ballet dancing is very hard on the body. “It doesn’t mean I’m retiring from dance; I’m going to be dictating what I want to do now.”

Beyond all the accolades from his peers at the ballet, there were a few other VIPs in attendance that made his grand finale even more special: Felecia Gaston, and his parents, who had never seen him dance professionally. “Afterward I asked my mother and father ‘How do you feel? Because this must have been a very epic situation for you to experience,’ ” Lam recalls.“My father said ‘I didn’t know that you were a big deal’ and my mother said ‘I’m just so proud of you that you were able to do this all alone.’ ” For Lam that was the highlight of the evening.

But this isn’t the end: watch for more from Lam, including a nonprofit called LamDanceWorks, a position as an associate professor of dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, a role in a new Amazon Prime show called Etoile, and a memoir. Clearly not even retirement can slow John Lam down.