San Francisco Ballet School, the first professional training academy in the country, has numerous distinguished alumni. But Tilly Abbe (known to her young students “Miss Tilly”) may be one of the most recognizable to the multiple generations of San Franciscans who have experienced her thoughtful introduction to ballet. After dancing with San Francisco Ballet, Tilly has run Miss Tilly’s Ballet & Theater Arts in San Francisco, for much of her 40-year teaching career.
This summer, SF Ballet School will offer summer ballet camps and pre-ballet in Tilly’s charming Richmond District studios. Here, she talks about her San Francisco Ballet roots and her passion for teaching.
How did you get involved in ballet?
I started training at age 11 at [SF Ballet] School’s first studio, which was on Van Ness Avenue, opposite Davies Symphony Hall. Later the School moved to a church on Washington Street and eventually
, to 18th Avenue between Geary and Clement Streets; this was before the Franklin Street headquarters was built in the ’80s. [SF Ballet co-founder] Harold Christensen was the head of the school at the time and he was one of my teachers, along with [SF Ballet School co-founders and brothers] Lew and Willam Christensen.
What was the School and the Company like back then?
It was just a small group—we were like a family and Lew was like a father. There were four of us who were very young, having joined the Company at a particularly early age. My first Company tour was a bus trip to Oregon and Washington in 1955.
I was with the School and Company from age 11 to 20 and I did some incredible things. I was lucky enough to be a part of three Government sponsored tours to the Far East, Latin America and the Middle East in the late ’50s and got to travel the world. It was very exciting to see so much, so early on in my life. Those of us who were younger felt very protected and taken care of by the staff and the other dancers—it was a very supportive atmosphere.
Miss Tilly with a student // Courtesy of Miss Tilly's Ballet
How did you transition to teaching?
When we returned from the Middle East tour, I got married and decided to stop dancing, but in 1963 I started teaching at SF Ballet School. I taught at the School for about five and a half years
, before I started my own school. I had young children at the time so I needed more flexibility. Once I started teaching, I loved it immediately and have ever since!
Tell us about your school.
The mission of Miss Tilly’s is not to create professional dancers but to give young children self-esteem, self-confidence, and the foundation for many other important life skills. Ballet class gives children structure and a chance to learn respect for themselves and their fellow students. I don’t mix age groups, so the students get focused attention and training. I also conduct my classes to live piano, which is rare these days—it’s a hold-over from my professional career.
Although my school isn’t a feeder school necessarily, many of my students go on to SF Ballet School to train.
What role has dance played in your life?
I think my love of teaching comes from my mother, who was a beloved reading teacher at Hamlin School for 46 years. I have always loved dance—I feel lucky that I’ve found a way to blend the two into a life-long career.
SF Ballet has always been a part of my life and still is—I’m a Saturday night series subscriber; I have been a patron, a dancer, and a teacher there and I will always be connected to SF Ballet.