Tilly Abbe, a San Francisco ballet teacher for four decades, has never advertised. She never bothered with a Yellow Pages listing and for many years didn't even put a sign on her door.
Known as Miss Tilly to the thousands of children who've studied with her, Abbe never had to bother with outreach. Everything was word of mouth: Mothers told mothers, little girls told little girls, schoolteachers spread the word, and without the benefit of publicity she built a reputation as the city's pre-eminent ballet instructor for small children.
"If you do a good job, you really don't need to advertise -- in this city," Miss Tilly says. "That's the only explanation I can give."
Today, mothers still bring their little girls -- and occasionally their little boys -- to Miss Tilly's jewel box of a studio at California and 17th avenues. They have names like Delilah and Madison and Abigail, and they arrive in pink tutus with blue and yellow and lilac streamers. They spill out of their mothers' SUVs, rush into the airy rehearsal room with its shell-pink walls and grand piano and spend 60 minutes twirling, skipping, executing plies and port de bras, sitting on imaginary clouds, fingering spiderweb patterns in the air, turning into pumpkins and pretending to sleep until their prince awakens them.
Thousands of little girls have passed through Miss Tilly's doors. Danielle Steel's daughters studied here, and so did Robin Williams' son, Zak, and the children of House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi.
"Miss Tilly's is a San Francisco rite of passage," says Kate Goldstein-Breyer, 27, a New York restaurant publicist who studied here as a preschooler. "When I meet others who grew up in the city, they're likely to have gone to her classes, and it's something of a cultural connector."
Miss Tilly doesn't tell her age, but she has a daughter older than 40 and a grandson who's 18. She looks fantastic. The daughter of accomplished photographer James Abbe and schoolteacher Irene Abbe, she was born in Wyoming and reared in San Francisco. Her father, who became a radio news commentator, covered the U.N. Conference in 1945 and fell in love with the city. She danced with the San Francisco Ballet in the early '50s and went with the company on U.S. State Department tours of Africa, the Far East and Middle East. She taught first at the San Francisco Ballet School, then opened a studio in her Victorian home when a student's mother suggested she teach small children. Steadily, she built a customer base through referrals and word-of-mouth.
"There's kind of an elegance about it, but substance as well," Miss Tilly says, when asked what children and parents like about her program. "Playfulness, but structure. And there's a beauty about it. My studio has always been very pretty and nice to be in. And I think that I love the children and do a really good job with them."
Great teachers are rare, and Miss Tilly, whose mother was a reading teacher, knows how to connect with children, inspire them and draw their respect. "They walk in the studio and I make it very clear what my expectations are," she says. "As long as you're clear with children, they actually welcome the structure."
Studying with Miss Tilly, says Goldstein-Breyer, "was like being in the presence of a 'real' ballerina. She was always patient and she never raised her voice. Behaving badly would have seemed rude."
Today, Miss Tilly is wearing a hot-pink leotard, pale-pink tights and a cantaloupe-colored teaching sweater. "I dress in these happy colors all the time," she says. "The children are often dressed in pastel colors. They're like a little flower garden all around me." Her hair is honey-colored, she wears a gold chain around her neck and her posture is perfect.
Class begins with a story, told with pencil puppets that Miss Tilly voices and animates. Some days it's "Beauty and the Beast," on others "The Little Mermaid." The dancing begins, and Olga Rutus, a vivacious, red-haired Russian emigre who moved here 15 years ago, accompanies on piano, improvising trills and arpeggios that perfectly suit each exercise. Behind Olga is a large vertical photograph: Rudolph Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova, taken in 1922 by Miss Tilly's father.
Generally, the children are rapt, a bit awed, and do as Miss Tilly requests. But some students have poor concentration; others are easily distracted by their image in the enormous mirror that runs the length of the studio. Form and precision aren't emphasized; at this age, she says, it's too early for that.
Regrettably, she says, she's never had many boys take ballet class. "Out of 400 students, we may have six boys. In fact, the only classes that I have boys are the younger classes -- before they actually get to school and learn from another kid that this is 'sissy' stuff. It even happened with my four grandsons, all of whom were taking my class as little children. As soon as they went off to school they decided it was not the best thing for them to do."
Miss Tilly teaches 20 classes per week, all preschoolers and kindergartners. Wendy Van Dyck, a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer, joined the teaching staff this year and works with 7- to 12-year olds -- the traditional age to start a ballet career. Miss Tilly's daughter, Iliza Abbe, teaches theater arts in the adjoining studio.
The fees are steep: $460 for a four-month session, $920 for a year. Occasionally, she waives or reduces the fee if a student's family is in financial trouble or a parent is ill.
Tuition includes a gala performance at year's end, when Miss Tilly books the Herbst Theatre for a week, rehearses her students for three days and then mounts four performances, two on Thursday and two on Friday, with six classes participating in each performance. Seventy to 100 children perform in each show, and attendance is by invitation only.
Although a few former students have gone on to dancing glory -- Nancy Dixon was a San Francisco Ballet soloist, Amanda Wells performs with the Stephen Petronio company in New York -- Miss Tilly says professional careers are "not the goal of my school. The goal is to provide every child with a wonderful experience and socialization skills that will serve throughout their life. ... It certainly has nothing to do with becoming a dancer. It has much more to do with just being a person in life and enjoying dance and music and having a wonderful experience."
Miss Tilly radiates good cheer but her life, apart from the students whose company she cherishes, hasn't been free of pain. She was married twice, once to a manufacturer of corrugated cartons and later to a psychiatrist. Her daughter Jennifer, a photographer with a son and daughter, was the result of the first marriage; Iliza, mother of three boys, came from the second.
"The men I chose were quite complex, and it was a difficult situation," Miss Tilly says without chagrin. Single more than 20 years, she never depended on her ex-husbands for alimony ("They weren't very responsible") and built a career out of necessity. Her social life today includes dinner, ballet and opera with friends. She travels each summer to Europe and says she likes being unattached: "Frankly, I had two marriages with so much conflict that it was a great relief to be out of it."
The unreliability of men was always a theme. Her father, 56 years her senior, was married three times before he met her mother, and abandoned his third wife and three children to marry Tilly's mother. A roue and adventurer, James Abbe had a zest for life but, until his later years, no staying power with women.
"His life would make a good movie," his daughter says. In the 1920s and '30s Abbe photographed politicians, stage and film stars -- Hitler and Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin and Josephine Baker -- and scored the biggest coup of his career when he finagled his way into the Kremlin and, according to Miss Tilly, "tricked" Stalin into posing for him. The result: a rare snapshot of the Soviet dictator smiling.
"He called his photography 'a ticket' to the world," Miss Tilly says. "It was partly because of him that I became a dancer. In fact, I'm named after a dancer he photographed, Tilly Losch. He loved ballet, and his favorite subject to photograph was Anna Pavlova. I knew how much he loved dancers, and of course it was very important to me to please my father."
Forty years after she started teaching, Miss Tilly has no plans to retire. The lease on her studio expires in two years, in fact, and she's already scouting for a new location.
"I can't imagine stopping it. It gives me great pleasure. I think the satisfaction of watching the transformation in these children and seeing how they respond so beautifully to what I offer them -- and they give a lot back. They're very, very sweet and loving, and we establish a relationship that goes on and on."