Staff Spotlight - Heather Visser

Heather Visser

Heather Visser first shook her booty on stage at the age of two as a “I’m A Little Teapot”! Since then she has gone on to teach hundreds of students and direct numerous jazz dance companies. She has also produced, choreographed and directed dozens of full length productions. Her first one being Aladdin for Petaluma School of Ballet’s Summer Intensive dance at the age of 19.


Heather has an extensive background in ballet from Petaluma School of Ballet, and was taken under the wing of Conna Lee Weinberg of Mindful Spine where she began her Pilates training. She found her first Pilates sessions to be humbling and life changing. She quickly became a Pilates and body alignment enthusiast. To enhance her knowledge and teaching skills she pursued formal training with STOTT Pilates and continues to train under the tutelage of Monica Anderson of Tone Fitness. You will find her referencing and using Pilates as a basis for helping her students understand how to properly use their bodies in movement and dance. You will often hear Heather saying to her students, “Every BODY is unique. You must learn how your body works in order to use it to its full creative potential. Not only is this awareness vital as a dancer but also as a healthy human being.” Heather takes her technical classic jazz background and incorporates it into contemporary, lyrical, musical theatre and jazz funk providing a variety that is exciting to all.

Her current achievements include starting her own dance studio Synergique, teaching at Sonoma State University, teaching at Tone Fitness, as well as Club 6 “being the change”, a dance party promoting positive movement for youth.

Heather’s greatest joy and passions in life are her beautiful little family, friends and the students whom she has had the honor of teaching. (Perhaps because of her first dance performance as a teacup) Heather loves speciality teas and has a beautiful collection of antique tea cups, many of which belonged to her beloved Nonnie and Grandma.

Helen and Heather Jump.jpg

Staff Spotlight - Zoura O'Neill

Zoura O’Neill - Co-Artistic Director

Ms. Zoura began her training at Petaluma School of Ballet under the direction of Mary Paula, and also also danced with Redwood Empire Ballet and Marin Ballet, where she performed in The Nutcracker and as well as in many spring shows. She trained with Anita Kane and at San Francisco Ballet with Harold Christensen, one of the original founders, where she was offered two full summer scholarships in 1978 and 1979 and was also invited to train year-round. She earned her associate’s degree from SRJC and her Bachelor of Arts from Sonoma State University, and has been on Staff at Petaluma School of Ballet since 1985. O’Neill was one of the original dancers of Petaluma City Ballet (now North Coast Ballet California) and now the Co-Artistic Director of NCBC.



What is your earliest memory of dance?

“I remember peeking through the door and watching my older sister take ballet--she’s the reason why I started dancing really. She was dancing with Mrs. Paula at Petaluma School of Ballet at the McNear building and I would stand in the doorway and watch her dance. Mrs. Paula would call me a light switch because I would take class for a while and then I’d stop and I’d try piano and then something else so she asked, ‘When are you going to stick with ballet with me?’”

What was the first ballet you ever saw?

La fille mal gardée was the first ballet I saw with Mrs. Paula. She took me to the ballet and I was probably 12 years old and she said to me, “Someday I’m going to see you up on that stage at the Opera House’.”

Why did you choose ballet over other styles of dance?

“I started with ballet and then I tried different things: I tried piano and musical theatre, and then I went to a studio that had other dance forms, so while I was there I learned acrobatics, tap, jazz and then ballet. When I got to an age to where I was going to get my toe shoes, I was taken to Petaluma School of Ballet for the classical ballet training that I needed to get my pointe shoes.”

Zoura o’neill as queen fortuna from Carmina Burana at marin ballet, 1984

Zoura o’neill as queen fortuna from Carmina Burana at marin ballet, 1984

Who did you look up to as a young dancer and why?

“We had master classes with Harold Christensen [at San Francisco Ballet] and it was always my favorite class every week. He was a challenging teacher, very strict, but he pushed us to a new level.”

What is the biggest challenge you face as a ballet teacher and what is the most rewarding thing?

“Especially with teaching younger children, to use a lot of visual imagery, because just to say to them, ‘Tendu means to stretch’, I have to come up with funny and new ways for them to visualize it before they can feel it in their body which is very challenging. The most rewarding thing is seeing a dancer really accomplish something, maybe get their pointe shoes or get their double pirouette, and seeing them go through all of the hard work and then finally reaching their dance goals.”

Zoura o’neill, Left, and lucia mclaughlin, 1979 or 1980

Zoura o’neill, Left, and lucia mclaughlin, 1979 or 1980

What is the most valuable thing ballet has taught you and how do you share that with your students?

“I think the most valuable thing is learning to be confident and not too hard on yourself which is very hard as a dancer. To always be confident and persevere, because you’re always going to have days where your pirouettes don't work or your petit allegro isn’t strong enough so to keep pushing through.”

What is your favorite thing you’ve ever choreographed?

“Andante Affettuoso. I was so drawn to New Age Composer, Brian Crains music.  This beautiful yet haunting Cello and Piano duet helped me to tell a story of loss and grief. The second movement, Butterfly Waltz, is so uplifting and one of my favorite pieces of music.  In this final part of my ballet the dancers expressed how coming together as a group to mourn for an individual helped in the process of letting go and finding peace and light through such a difficult time.”

What is your favorite ballet to perform?

“The Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet.”

Zoura O’neill with her daughter, hayley, in her first nutcracker as a flower presenter

Zoura O’neill with her daughter, hayley, in her first nutcracker as a flower presenter

What are you most proud of?

“My children. I’ve seen them go through some very difficult times, throughout their teenage years, and seeing them as confident, really beautiful people who are caring and helpful and want to reach out to the community makes me really proud.”

If you could share one piece of advice with your younger self during a challenging time what would it be?

“To try to look farther down the road than in this very moment.”

What are the words you live by?

“I think the joke around here is that I, as a teacher, say to, “Make good choices” but on the other side of that it’s to always be true to yourself and listen to your heart as a dancer or as a person and let it guide you.”

Staff Spotlight - Ann Derby

Ann Derby - Owner and Director of Petaluma School of Ballet

Mrs. Derby began her training in Petaluma under Mary Paula, then director of Petaluma School of Ballet. She continued her studies at San Francisco Ballet, dancing with Marin Ballet, Rhebus Modern Dance Company and Sonoma County Ballet Company. She has two Bachelor of Arts Degrees from San Francisco State University in Dance and Technical Theater and has taught dance for many years in Sonoma County, purchasing Petaluma School of Ballet in 1982 and becoming director of North Coast Ballet California in 1985.

Ann Ringstad Derby in 1972

Ann Ringstad Derby in 1972

How old were you when you started dancing?

“10 with Mrs. Paula at Petaluma School of Ballet.”

Was ballet always what you wanted to do or did you try out other styles of dance before pursuing ballet?

“Ballet, always. I was probably 5 or 6 and I saw a ballerina on television and I told my mom and dad that’s what I was going to do. So we went to the library and got the Thalia Mara first books of ballet. I knew all the steps and everything. When I was in 4th or 5th grade I had a friend who was taking ballet so I gave her my allowance to teach me ballet *laughs* five cents a week! And so she taught me ballet and then we moved to Petaluma in June of 1959 and in January of 1960, a friend of mine was taking ballet with Mrs. Paula at Hermann Sons Hall and I went and watched and I was sitting on the edge of my seat and Mrs. Paula asked if I’d like to join the class and I said yes and I did. I never stopped.”

Who was your biggest dance influence when you were a student? How did that person help you to become the person you are today?

“Three people: my mom and dad who said if I wanted to do this then I’d have to find out a way to pay for it, but that they would support me in anything I wanted to do as much as they could; and Mrs. Paula, who really made me want to be the best dancer I could possibly be.”

Who is your biggest influence as a dance teacher and why?

Harold Christensen from San Francisco Ballet and Marcia Dale Weary from Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, among others. His attention to detail, his demanding of perfection was so inspiring.  His demeanor, that ballet was so exciting and so important really has stuck with me all these years. Marcia had such an incredible gift with children and I would love to emulate that.  She trained such beautiful dancers.”

What is your favorite thing about teaching?

“My favorite thing about teaching is just being able to impact the dancers’ lives and help them find a passion through movement and that through dance I help them become productive young adults.”

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching?

“Technology. And in the changing world that as teachers we have to change somewhat with it, but [the] most challenging thing is the discipline and trying to instill discipline and yet maintain kindness.”

Ann Ringstad Derby and Marilyn Jasoni in the McNear Building, Nov. 1982

Ann Ringstad Derby and Marilyn Jasoni in the McNear Building, Nov. 1982

Ann Ringstad Derby as Snow White

Ann Ringstad Derby as Snow White

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be and why?

“Not to have such tunnel vision. To be a little bit broader: I would’ve brought in other forms of dance and that I had more background in other types of dance so that I could’ve been broader and so when I took over the studio I could’ve been more open rather than just ballet in the beginning because I think it just enhances ballet training.”

What is your favorite ballet?

“My very favorite ballet is Serenade by George Balanchine.”

What’s your favorite ballet in our repertoire?

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Ann Derby and Alfonso Acosta during a Nutcracker curtain call

Ann Derby and Alfonso Acosta during a Nutcracker curtain call

What’s your favorite contemporary ballet we’ve ever done?

“Hmmm… that’s a tough one. A Quirk in the Line, maybe. One of my favorite ballets is Tarantella by Robbie Nichols.”

What are you most proud of?

“My children.”

What are you most proud of (as it relates to the studio)?


“Longevity. Sheer stubbornness. Picking myself by my bootstraps when the going got tough and figuring out how to make it work.”

The Story of the Tutu

The Story of the Tutu

Written by Victoria Looseleaf. Reposted from Dance Magazine.

Fashion may be fickle, but tutu chic is bigger than ever these days. While singing star Björk caused a sensation draped in a white tulle dress with a swan’s head wrapped around her neck at the Academy Awards in 2001, French designer Christian Lacroix continues to churn out haute couture balletic frocks of organza and tulle (matching ballet flats are also de rigueur). And some may recall the astonishing sum of $94,800 that a collector paid for the Leslie Hurry­–designed tutu Margot Fonteyn wore in Swan Lake.

Indeed, the tutu has a storied past. With a name probably derived from the French children’s word “tu-tu”—meaning “bottom”—the costume is a product of evolution that made its debut in 1832, an instant classic, so to speak, that’s been swathed in magic ever since. Marie Taglioni, performing on pointe (also a novel development then) and wearing a costume sometimes credited to Eugène Lami, danced the title role in the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of her father Filippo’s La Sylphide.

Mesmerizing audiences in what was later dubbed a Romantic tutu, Taglioni’s costume consisted of a tight-fitting bodice that left the neck and shoulders bare, and a diaphanous, bell-shaped skirt. Falling halfway between the knees and ankles, it was made of layers of stiffened tarlatan, or highly starched, sheer cotton muslin that gave the illusion of fullness without being weighty. Voila! A new tradition—and fashion statement—was born.

While the dreamy appeal of a Romantic tutu is a joy to behold, romance can take a wrong turn. The first known tutu tragedy occurred in 1862, when 21-year-old Emma Livry, rehearsing for the Paris Opera Ballet, brushed her Romantic tutu skirt against an exposed gaslight, setting it on fire and causing her death eight months later from the burns she’d suffered.

Undeterred, the evolution of the tutu marched on. By 1870 other Italian ballerinas, bent on perfecting pointe work, had begun wearing tutus cut above the knee, allowing them to showcase a bit more of their gams and increasingly complicated footwork, with ruffled underpants attached to the skirt. Known later as classical tutus and made famous by ballets like Swan Lake, these freer garments climbed farther north, becoming even shorter when ballet entered the 20th century, the added tarlatan layers creating a flared-from-the-body effect. 

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes experimented with different lines and looks. In 1927 the Russian constructivists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner designed an ultra-modern tutu for Balanchine’s La Chatte, which had a transparent overskirt made of a plastic-like material.

In the 1940s, wire hoops were inserted to enable the skirt to stand out from the hips. Tulle, a stiffened silk, nylon, or rayon fabric, soon replaced tarlatan, making the hoop an option, rather than a necessity. Still, there’s a lot more to the tutu than, well, tulle. Its exterior splendor is made possible by an interior that supports the dancer (the bodice allows give, enabling the ballerina to move freely) and at the same time absorbs perspiration, while the voluptuousness of the skirt ingeniously conceals the trunks.

With up to nine supportive layers, each cut progressively wider, and a 10th decorative top layer, the finished classical tutu is often ornamented with sequins, beads, or faux jewels. All done by hand, the costume can easily cost $5,000, with less fancy ones available from $1,500.

A Romantic tutu, on the other hand, comprises five layers of tulle, each layer cut to about a 36-inch width. According to Jeanne Nolden, a tutu-maker who designs and builds costumes for Southern California’s Inland Pacific Ballet studio, between 25 and 30 yards of fabric are required per garment. Nolden says that it takes about 60 hours to make a basic tutu. “It can be tedious, time-consuming, frustrating, and difficult. You vow, ‘Never again!’—until the next time,” says Nolden. “It is truly a labor of love, but if tutus are properly cared for, they can last up to 20 years.”

A tutu frames a dancer’s movements, its construction supporting the physicality of ballet. Wearing a tutu generally marks a mature stage in a classical dancer’s career, since nothing exposes the precision of classical technique as does the brief, jutting skirt with the snug-fitting bodice. Each tutu has its own history, with clues about its stage life and its relationship to the body buried deep within its seams.

New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski recently wore a tutu that had been worn by Suzanne Farrell. She never saw Farrell dance, but the sense of abandon that Farrell projected is the stuff of legend. “It’s a weird feeling to think that she sweat in that costume,” says Kowroski. “I thought maybe it would give me more freedom just to know that I’m wearing her costume.” Then, only partly joking, she adds, “You never know what’s gonna come out. You don’t know if it has magic powers.”

American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy, who performed the role of Aurora in the company’s new Sleeping Beauty, says, “I love dancing in a tutu. It’s light and beautiful and creates part of the magic.” Murphy, whose mother began making tutus for her when she was 11, says that they are sometimes a problem for men. “A partner has to get used to the distance a stiff tutu creates between two people. He has to know where the ballerina needs to be by the feel of it, because the tutu limits his vision of her supporting leg.”

Occasionally the tutu does not fully cooperate. Vladimir Malakhov, ABT luminary and artistic director of the Staatsballett Berlin, describes an incident when he was partnering Amanda McKerrow in ABT’s Coppélia. “At the end of the adagio, a hook from my sleeve stuck in her dress,” recalls Malakhov. “I twisted my arm while lifting her behind my back, and when I put her down, I couldn’t lift my arm because I was stuck to her costume. It didn’t matter what position I took, we were stuck to each other. So I ripped open my sleeve and we did the variation.”

Ballerinas often have strong opinions about the style of tutu they prefer. When Baryshnikov was director of ABT, he created a Swan Lake that harked back to the 19th century when all the swans wore long tutus. However, Martine van Hamel wanted to wear short tutus as Odette and Odile for her 20th-anniversary performance. She preferred the way they “show the whole line” and she liked the more familiar tradition of short tutus for the Swan Queen. “I was going to hide them in my dressing room and wear them,” she admits. Instead, she called up Baryshnikov, who by then was no longer artistic director, and asked his permission. “He said absolutely, that’ll be fine.”

The gold standard of tutu design, Barbara Karinska, was a Russian-born émigré who built spectacular costumes for dance, film, theater, and opera. Although her Broadway and Hollywood career flourished, her heart belonged to dance, especially to the New York City Ballet and Balanchine. She dressed more than 75 Balanchine productions, and originated the “powder puff” tutu in 1950 for his Symphony in C. Its soft skirt distinguished it from the flat, horizontal “pancake” tutu (which is still favored by Russian dancers). Now housed in the basement of Lincoln Center in the wardrobe department of NYCB, Karinska’s surviving handiwork totals about 9,000 costumes.

“To help them stay stiff when they’re not being worn,” explains Holly Hynes, the designer who serves as consultant to NYCB’s costume shop, “short tutus are hung upside down.” Millinery spray starch can also help a tutu retain its shape, and layers of tulle are often replaced when a skirt loses stiffness. To keep the garments fresh, many are dry-cleaned after every three or four wearings (more ornate ones are dry-cleaned only before being returned to storage), while some are hand-washed after each performance.

Willa Kim has designed costumes for opera, television, theater, and more than 125 ballets, including ABT’s new production of Sleeping Beauty. Although Kim’s dance costumes are not usually traditional tutu-wear, she appreciates the garment. “The tutu is an invention that belongs to ballet,” says Kim, “and although it has been copied and has influenced designers and ready-to-wear, it is still an invention for the ballet and a remnant of the Romantic age. There are a lot of us who yearn for that kind of romanticism.”

Variations on a tutu theme have been rampant, with William Forsythe using a new design for his The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, created in 1996 for Ballett Frankfurt. They are flat circles made of stretch material, not tulle, but still recognizable as a tutu.

Oscar Wilde has said that fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” But it seems unlikely that the tutu, with its fabled history and beautiful complexities, will go that route any time soon. “It has persisted as a beloved silhouette for more than a hundred years,” Willa Kim says. “In the torso of the costume, you can include modern or stretch fabrics, but the silhouette has been set, is appreciated, and serves dance wonderfully.”

Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the 
Los Angeles Times and hosts a cable-access TV show on the arts.