Young at Heart

Longtime San Francisco teacher Tilly Abbe caters to the 6-and-under crowd

By Cheryl Ossola

A studio filled with 3- to 6-year-old aspiring ballerinas is enough to fill many a dance teacher’s heart with trepidation. Not Tilly Abbe’s, though. She’s been loving, and loving teaching, scores of little pink-clad girls (and a handful of boys) for nearly her entire teaching career, which spans more than 40 years. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Sometimes my life can be stressful and I come into the studio and it’s like therapy,” Abbe, aka Miss Tilly, says. “It makes me feel relaxed; I know exactly what I’m doing here.”

Isabella Caro, 3, mimics Miss Tilly as she practices flexing her feet. (Photo Jenny Abbe)

Ballet With Miss Tilly is a San Francisco institution and has been for years. Until a few months ago, when Abbe launched a school website, her reputation as the doyenne of the preschool set had spread almost entirely by word of mouth. She has never advertised and is not even listed in the phone book—yet there is usually a waiting list for her classes for 3-year-olds. Abbe teaches the little ones through age 6, then hands them off to Wendy Van Dyke, a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer who teaches the 7- to 12-year-olds. Rounding out the school, which has an enrollment of 400, are a theater arts division and classes for adults; Abbe hopes to include classes for teens in the future.

Abbe teaches her young charges in a bright, airy studio anchored by a gleaming grand piano at one end, over which looms a huge photograph of Rudolph Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova, taken by Abbe’s father, photographer James Abbe, in 1922. That environment is just one of the things that make the school distinctive. Another is the fact that every class has piano accompaniment—courtesy of Svetlana Raytselskaya (a 28-year veteran) and Olga Rutus (12 years)—which Abbe considers essential. “I’ve done it from the first day, because I don’t believe you can teach a good class without having live music,” she says, “especially with the very young children. The pianist needs to be flexible and able to ad lib.” If she had to cue up recorded music while teaching 3-year-olds, she adds, “by the time you’ve set the music you’ve lost their attention.”

But what makes this school truly unique is Abbe. Gentle but dynamic, a petite woman who’s old enough to have grown grandchildren, she teaches 20 classes a week, matching her students in energy and enthusiasm. A former dancer with San Francisco Ballet, she got her first taste of teaching as a student in the company’s school. Later, when she retired from dancing to marry, Lew Christensen, then SFB’s director, invited her to join the teaching staff. But when her schedule no longer meshed with her role as mother of two young children, she left and started her own school.

It wasn’t long before she zeroed in on very young children. Her daughter Iliza was 4 when the parents of Iliza’s preschool buddies suggested that Abbe start a class for little ones. The rest is history. “I started teaching them and loved it. I found that you really can do a lot with them. I’ve learned so much through the years from the 3- and 4-year-olds—every day you learn something,” Abbe says with a laugh.

One of the parents who urged Abbe to teach her children was Susan Barber, whose granddaughter, Virginia, now makes the weekly sojourn to Miss Tilly’s. Barber’s daughter Elizabeth was in that first class of preschoolers; her other daughter, Sarah, followed suit but transferred to San Francisco Ballet School when she was 7, on Abbe’s recommendation. There she developed the potential that her teacher had seen in her, going on to dance professionally with Ballet West and Smuin Ballet.

Barber’s feelings about Abbe haven’t changed over the years. “I felt, and I still feel, that Tilly has an amazing way of relating to children,” she says. “She is so respectful of their feelings; she doesn’t talk down to them.”

In a field in which many teachers favor teaching advanced students, Abbe remains fully committed to introducing youngsters to ballet. But dance is only one aspect of what she teaches. In these tiny dancers she plants the seeds of life skills—listening, staying on task, taking turns, accepting others and their differences. And along with the joy of movement, she teaches them to love reading, music, and the art of performance.

At a recent class of 3-year-olds, the children cheerfully left their parents at the door and raced to the bookshelf. Of the 10 girls, 9 wore pink, with one free thinker sporting lavender, and all wore skirts—their choice; there is no dress code. Mirroring her students’ love of color, on this wintry day Abbe had layered a pale green wrap sweater over a hot-pink leotard. “Aesthetics are important; [my school is] a beautiful environment. Ballet is a beautiful art, so I try to wear colors that are happy, alive, and pretty, that the children will relate to,” she says.

The children plopped down on the floor with books until everyone was present; then Abbe began the class with a song/story/puppet show. On this day the children chose “Beauty and the Beast.” Singing songs like “Mr. Moon” and “Butterfly,” Abbe acted out the story of Belle and the Beast with pencil puppets, interrupting the tale frequently to ask the children questions about it. Then, after singing “Miss Tilly’s Ballet,” a theme song written especially for Abbe by Chris Cahill, a music teacher friend, it was time to start moving.

Abbe directs the children in simple movements, constantly demanding their attention by asking questions. “What happened?” she asks, after telling the children to join hands, form a circle, then put their hands on their hips and take two big steps back. “It got bigger,” the children chime. They “play the piano” to warm up their fingers and awaken their shoulders with “Frère Jacques” (“Are You Sleeping?”). Every movement has an accompanying song, and most of it utilizes imagery, such as climbing stairs or being blown by the wind, fueled by a bit of “magic.” Abbe tests the children’s attentiveness with a game modeled on Simon Says that asks them to do certain movements with or without the command “Miss Tilly says . . .” Later, simple actions evolve into rhythm exercises with clapping and knee slapping. Coordination challenges follow, like a repeated pattern of touching the shoulders, extending the arms out, then reaching up.

Gentle but dynamic, a petite woman who’s old enough to have grown grandchildren, Abbe teaches 20 classes a week, matching her students in energy and enthusiasm.

Each skill is presented with imagination. “I have two secrets,” says Abbe, showing the children a skip and a chassé. The children “make a train,” lining up at one end of the room, then chassé across it and skip back, bringing imaginary gifts (cake is popular) to imaginary children “on the other side of the mountain.” As the class progresses the movements get bigger, and the children run, hop, skip, and gallop around the room. Class ends with a story, this time a book called Opening Night, which Abbe relates to the school’s spring recital. She poses questions with every turn of the page. “Why is the girl’s face pink?” she asks, hoping the children will recognize the effect of colored stage lights. Not this time. “Because she didn’t wear sunscreen,” shoots back one environmentally savvy child.

Ever respectful of the children, Abbe nevertheless runs a tight ship. Socializing is not permitted, and she’s quick to pull a child whose attention is drifting back into the action. But the children see past her no-nonsense attitude to the affection that underlies it. “Our bond is really special, and it’s partly because I love [teaching] so much. I love every single child that comes here, and they feel that,” says Abbe. During class, as if to prove her teacher’s point, Lavender Girl says, “You’re funny,” and smiles at her lovingly. “Oh, good,” replies Abbe.

Abbe’s goal with 3-year-olds—her favorite age group—is “to teach them to focus. And it works, by giving them my complete attention but a lot of expectations—‘You can’t talk while so-and-so is explaining about her cloud’—so that they really learn to listen.” However, she waits to introduce a listening game until the children are 4. “At 3 they’re not ready to do that; you have to gauge these things. Little ones are not going to listen. You have to ask them questions—if you do all the talking it goes through one ear and out the other.”

Classes for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds follow a similar format but get progressively more advanced in terms of both movement and concentration. Kindergarteners stand at the barre and learn the rudiments of ballet technique and simple choreography. Even though the demands made on them are more challenging, Abbe’s approach—playful yet designed to stimulate learning by engaging the children’s minds as well as their bodies—remains constant.

Abbe developed the curriculum on her own, but she credits her mother’s example for giving her a basic understanding of teaching. “My mother [Irene Abbe] was a very, very great teacher. She taught reading, so it was a different arena, but I grew up with that. She tutored children in the house, and I was around teaching always. I think it was in my blood.” Her curriculum evolved through trial and error, she says, but “with little children, you learn fast because they don’t give you much time. If you’re just bumbling around with the little ones, you’ll lose them.”

Key to Abbe’s philosophy of teaching is an awareness of child development, “so as not to expect more than they can do—but not to under-expect, either, because then they’re bored and you can’t keep their attention,” she says. “There’s a fine line between what you can expect and making them feel that they’re achieving something, feel important, feel like ballerinas.” She understands the appeal of ritual to children. “They really depend on [it]. If I leave something out, they’ll say, ‘Miss Tilly, you forgot to do the something, something, something!’ The continuity and ritual are important to them; they learn by that. And the way I sing with the music so that they feel the rhythm also helps them learn.” Her school song is part of the ritual, she says, “part of the whole package of Miss Tilly. One of my parents said that while her daughter was waiting for the ski lift, she was singing Miss Tilly’s song. I love it and they love it.”

A critical factor in Abbe’s enjoyment of working with young children is an appreciation of the process. “You have to teach them in such a way that they’re fascinated and stimulated, so that you keep their attention,” she explains. “And then you enjoy the result—both the student and the teacher can be so proud of what they do. It’s a lovely process, very fulfilling. And I enjoy the result as well as the process, because I know what the children are like when they come to me, and I see the difference.”

Sometimes the children who come to Abbe have behavioral or developmental problems, and she is in a position to spot them early on. She works with them for a while, trying to discern whether the problem will affect their ability to learn. If it might, she approaches the parents. But sometimes the controlled environment of the classroom is all a child needs. “Sometimes parents don’t follow through; they tell their child something or call their name but don’t insist that they respond,” Abbe says. “I wait to see if, after being immersed in my program, they still do that. And if I really think they should be tested [for a learning disability], I’ll recommend that. It helps to catch these things early. The children know they’re not learning things as easily or well as the ones around them, but they don’t know why. Then they become vulnerable and begin to feel that they’re failures. You try to give them the tools [to succeed] as soon as possible.”

Abbe’s sensitive approach is not lost on parents. “What I love about Miss Tilly is that she understands child development,” says Sheila Tenney, a kindergarten teacher whose daughter, Hannah, has been taking class with Abbe for nearly two years. “I thought I was sending Hannah for ballet lessons, but now I send her for Miss Tilly. She’s very clear; she’s very fair. She keeps the fantasy alive in children. It’s not about how well they dance, but having fun and listening and following directions and having pride in themselves.

“If more teachers came from this approach, where it’s not about what they’re learning but the love for what they’re learning, I think we’d see more accomplished children,” Tenney continues. “They’d be more likely to develop their own passion rather than the passion of the parent. We create a narcissistic lifestyle where we have to be the best, and that’s not what Miss Tilly is about. I don’t know if my daughter will ever be a ballerina, but I can tell you with certainty that she will always love ballet.”

With more than 40 years of teaching behind her and a phalanx of happy Bay Area parents and children, it’s clear that Abbe is a success. Ask her why and she’ll say, “I’ve always done a good job. I give it everything I can, and the parents know that. People call me from New York and London saying they’re moving here soon and so-and-so told them they’d better call ahead. And sometimes that is a referral from someone who took from me 20 years ago.” She pauses. “Maybe it sounds pompous, but I think it really is because I’ve done a good job and I love what I do.”

“Miss Tilly’s Ballet”
© 1993 Chris Cahill

It’s a wonderful day, so come on and let’s play at Miss Tilly’s Ballet.
Hands and feet held this way, pirouette and plié at Miss Tilly’s Ballet.
You can walk, you can point. You can tiptoe or jump.
You can step-slide or skip along. You can twirl or swirl or polka or hop,
Or swing your arms round you, then suddenly stop!
You’ll have a great time at Miss Tilly’s Ballet!