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.”