By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Ann Derby recalls “the moment.” She was watching television. There was a ballerina, and her life path suddenly glowed in front of her.
When she was 10, she paid a fellow fourth-grader her entire allowance, 25 cents a week, to pass on the ballet lessons her friend learned each Wednesday.
Later, after Derby’s parents moved to Petaluma, she applied that single-mindedness to ballet class with Mary Paula, owner of Petaluma School of Ballet, after being invited to join. “I never looked back,” Derby said. “I got a babysitting job and gave her my money every week. When I got to $7, she’d write me a receipt for the month.”
Derby taught her first class when she was 16, but her dream was to be a ballerina. The door to that dream was closed two years later when Derby was taking summer classes with the San Francisco Ballet. “Harold Christensen, the director, took me into his office,” Derby says, “and told me, ‘You do not have the body to be a dancer, but you can be a teacher.’
“I was devastated, but I knew he was right. And he gave me something better to replace it. He taught me how to teach, and that gave me longevity. As a dancer, by the time you’re 30, 40, your body can’t take the demands of professional dance.”
In 1982, she purchased Petaluma School of Ballet. “We are the longest-running ballet studio in Petaluma,” she said, “dating to 1959 and classes in Hermann Sons Hall.”
Derby is now 62. Although she can no longer dance due to hereditary foot problems, she knows the world of dance is hers as long as she wishes. “I fully expect Petaluma School of Ballet to hit 100 years,” she said confidently.
She has never lost her passion for dance and loves to pass it on. “We become a family here,” she says. “My students put so much joy into their dancing and have such fun here, yet in a structured, disciplined way. The time management skills learned through ballet will carry through their whole lives.”
Is ballet only for the young? Derby shakes her head.
“Any age can benefit from taking a class. And when you’ve had it in your life, it’s hard to find an exercise that works as well. Nothing matches a ballet class. Your entire body is toned. Every muscle, fingertips to toes, is worked, is stretched. There is a wonderful sense of movement, of being able to come outside yourself.”
Although Derby can’t do ballet, she is able to – mostly – replace it with Zumba Latin dance fitness classes. “It is so much fun,” she says. The school offers Zumba, jazz and hip-hop in addition to ballet and is expanding Zumba to daily classes because it’s so popular.
Petaluma City Ballet, the performing side of the ballet school, has been a nonprofit pre-professional ballet company since 1981 and is gearing up for the annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker.”
“We are a highly regarded company,” Derby says, “known nationally for our quality work.”
Part of that positive regard is due to her perfectionism. “I take a great deal of pride in what this school does,” she says. “Attention to detail is the difference, and it pays off. The children know if they look their best, they will dance their best. One reason I make sure our productions are top quality is that I still see myself up on that stage.”
Weathering the recession hasn’t been easy. “Funding has gotten difficult,” Derby says, “and corporate donations are smaller, so finding the funding is a huge challenge. We make it work, but it’s tough.”
Derby laughs as she adds up the roles in her personal repertory.
“Let’s see. There’s teacher, mom and wife. Disciplinarian, administrator, janitor, costumer. Can’t forget psychiatrist, secretary, designer and musician. And then there’s mediator, uncertified EMT, carpenter, artist. And of course, coffeepot princess.”
She has two biological children, “but uncounted numbers of ballet children. Probably 4,000 children have passed through here,” she says. “Every day I walk in and have these beautiful children who grow here. It’s a joy watching them.
“Ballet is such a disciplined art form, and it is an art form, and a sport. It takes a huge amount of physical and mental effort. If I can teach my students to love dance, they’ll dance through college and as adults. Kids who take dance can be costumers, sound or light designers, choreographers, or go into other theater areas. They’ll be audience members and patrons of not just dance but other forms of theater, keeping all the arts alive. If I can do that, have it spread out in ripples, I’ve done my job.”
She gestures around the office, orderly but bursting with schedules, drawings, scenery, fabric.
“What an incredible way to have a life. It fills me.”
A fundraiser for Petaluma City Ballet, “Country Music at Lagunitas,” takes place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Lagunitas Brewery, 1280 N. McDowell Blvd. The evening offers barbecue, beer, line dancing and country music with McKenna Faith. Tickets are $12 to $20. Call 765-2660 or go to petalumacityballet.org.