Dancing with Diane
Diane Petersen started studying ballet when she was 4 and pursued it through a five-year career with the San Jose Dance Theatre. Since 1989 she has owned and operated Windsor Dance Academy. We asked this long-time resident some questions about herself, her business and her students.
How did you learn to dance?
My mom was my first teacher. When I was 4 she wanted me to have ballet lessons, but she couldn’t afford to send me somewhere. Instead, she turned our garage into a studio and starting her own classes for me and other kids in the neighborhood. She had done ballet all her life. To my mom’s surprise, the classes eventually grew to about 300 students.
As I got older I studied under different instructors, including Mr. and Mrs. Dmitri Romanoff and Paul Curtis. I attended the San Jose Dance Theater, Palo Alto Ballet School and then Marin Ballet School. I also continued dancing with my mom throughout that time.
I studied primarily ballet, but during summer sessions I also studied jazz, character dancing and pas de deux.
Did you always want to be a dance instructor?
I originally really wanted to be a professional dancer. It was my dream to dance with Joffrey Ballet, a professional ballet company. Each company has a height range requirement so that the corps of dancers maintains a visual and choreographic unison. Joffrey’s range was 5’2″ to 5’4″, but most are taller — 5’6″ or 5’7″. Since I’m 5’2″, Joffrey would have been a great fit for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get picked up by a company out of high school, so I changed my plan to include teaching dance instead.
How did you wind up in Windsor?
I grew up in San Jose, then got married and moved to Windsor. I’ve lived here for 23 years now. I opened Windsor Dance Academy right away, but I also still taught at the dance studio that I started right out of high school in 1983, the Sunnyvale Dance Academy. I would drive there, teach three days, then come back and teach three days here — all while I was pregnant with my daughter. Eventually my mom took over the Sunnyvale studio and brought her neighborhood students there.
Who are your students?
I teach ages 3 through adult, but most of my students are in elementary school. Little kids love to dance. They don’t typically have professional aspirations — they want to dance for fun and for exercise. I group people according to age and limit the classes to between 12 and 14 students. There are a lot of preschoolers, and another big group of 11-year-olds — they come back to ballet when they’re 11 because that’s when they can start wearing toe shoes. I have specific classes for adults as well.
I’ve been doing this a long time — long enough that some of my first students are now bringing their own kids to dance with me. It’s fun.
What types of dance do you offer?
I teach ballet. Amanda Lenney (Miss Mandy to the students) has been teaching with me for three years. She teaches ballet, jazz and hip-hop.
What are some trends you’ve seen in dance during your career?
Ballet is a huge part of the dancing world and it always has been, but hip-hop started to become popular about 10 years ago. When I was growing up, people liked to break dance. Break dancing was a street dance more than something you learned in dance schools, but music videos really pushed that style into the mainstream. Eventually it became hip-hop.
Hip-hop is defined as dancing to a specific beat — a big drum sound. The movements are sharp and precise. I actually had to go take a hip-hop class myself before I could start teaching it — it just wasn’t a style we learned when I was a student.
Have shows like Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance changed your business in any way?
More students are starting in junior high and high school now than I used to see, and I think shows like these may be one of the reasons — they show teenagers how fun dancing can be. Years ago, Footloose did the same thing, as did Fame. They’ve brought dance into the forefront of entertainment culture.
As a teacher, these programs help — you can pull choreography ideas from the shows. Miss Mandy sometimes even gives her hip-hop students notices to watch SYTYCD videos online so that they can see what they’re going to do in class.
What do you love about dancing?
I love the music, moving my body, stretching. I love all forms of dance. I’ve taken Scottish dance, ballroom dance, social dance, hula. I just like to move around. All the music is different and all styles are different, but they have a basic core that is common among all of them.
I love getting move around and be creative. It’s so neat to teach kids and watch them get better and better. I met my current husband dancing at Monroe Hall, so there’s proof that good things come from dancing.
What’s your favorite part of being a dance teacher?
I enjoy explaining steps in creative ways that help the students understand and remember. For the coupé, for example, your legs look like they’re shaping the number 4, so we all call out “Four!” together as we do that step. It’s just fun, and it’s great to see their minds and bodies working together.
Windsor Dance Academy is at 5455 Old Redwood Highway north of Airport Blvd. To learn more, visit www.windsordanceacademy.com.