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Our 2017 DT Award Winners: Sylvia Palmer-Zetler

Photo by Vladimir Zabezhinsky, courtesy of The San Diego Tribune

Canadian-born Sylvia Palmer-Zetler didn't plan to be a ballet dancer or a master teacher—she started out as a tapper. "But I was attracted to the music of ballet and the barre," she says. "I made the big switch at 16, which was rather late. Excellent teachers helped me find a new way to move." For the past 30 years, as the artistic director of Southern California Ballet (SCB), a pre-professional company and academy in San Diego, she's been that teacher for the thousands of dancers who have passed through her doors and gone on to join companies, tours and universities. Now, at 78, she's retiring—and passing the torch to a former student.


Palmer-Zetler studied under Kay Armstrong in Vancouver, British Columbia, and won a scholarship to the National Ballet School of Canada (NBS) as a teenager. Though she went on to dance and tour internationally with the National Ballet of Canada (1960–67), teaching was her true calling. Palmer-Zetler earned her teaching license from the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in London, England, in 1974. She furthered her teacher training at NBS, eventually earning an MFA in creative teaching techniques. Her introduction to Cecchetti technique at NBS became a crucial part of her ballet instruction: She shaped her curriculum at SCB (previously known as Black Mountain Dance Centre, until 2015) around it. Today, she is one of only eight certified Cecchetti examiners in the U.S.

Photo by Mark Zetler, courtesy of SCB

Her mark is everywhere at SCB. She has choreographed and restaged countless ballets for the youth company. Boxes of costumes and props are stacked on studio shelves. Posters and portraits of star students cover the walls—including one of Martha Leebolt, who went on to join Northern Ballet, in Leeds, England. Leebolt and her husband Tobias Batley, another Northern Ballet dancer, will take over as co-directors of SCB in September.

Leebolt admires Palmer-Zetler's disciplined and generous teaching style. "She provided me with a platform to accomplish my dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer," she says. "She allowed all types of students to train, regardless of obstacles. I've been lucky to shadow Sylvia and learn from her." Leebolt promises to carry on Palmer-Zetler's vision by maintaining a professional environment at SCB—including the lavish productions she is known for.

Palmer-Zetler will continue as SCB's Cecchetti Training Program director. After studying the technique intensively, she knows she can offer her students solid preparation for their exams. "About 2,000 of my students have gotten diplomas and teaching certificates," she says. "When my youngest dancers arrive, they look like little jelly beans, and I make them gorgeous." Her reward is watching them pursue professional careers and go on to dance in college.

She looks forward to working three days a week and spending more time with her husband Mark, who helped her found the school and has run lights and tech all these years. She knows she leaves the company in good hands. "I'll finally get Mondays off," she says, "but I can't retire completely. Like I tell my students, dance is something we can't quit."

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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