Peggy Willis-Aarnio

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Peggy Willis-Aarnio
Peggy Willis-Aarnio.jpg
Born(1948-01-12)January 12, 1948
DiedJanuary 9, 2016(2016-01-09) (aged 67)
OccupationChoreographer, ballet teacher, author, historian of ballet

Peggy Willis-Aarnio (January 12, 1948 – January 9, 2016) was an American choreographer, historian, author and teacher of classical ballet. She was a professional dancer in the early 1970s with the Ft. Worth Ballet in Fort Worth, Texas.[1] She was the first American ballet teacher to be sanctioned as a "Certified Practitioner and Teacher of the Teaching Method of Classical Ballet" by the Vaganova Academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia.[1][2][3]


Willis-Aarnio with Natalia Dudinskaya in 1998

Willis-Aarnio was a Professor Emerita and former head of the Dance Program in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.[4] She retired from active teaching after thirty-one years, but remained on the Graduate Faculty. She received her B.F.A. and her M.F.A. Degrees from Texas Christian University in 1970 and 1972.[5]

She studied with John Barker of New York, and Valentina Roumiantseva of the Vaganova Ballet Academy of St. Petersburg, Russia.[6] In 1992, she received an invitation to complete her advanced level pedagogical studies in Teaching Method at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.[1] In 2002, she received her Ph.D. from Mellon University.

with Natalia Krassovska and Valery Panov.

Willis-Aarnio choreographed more than 80 original ballets, including Dracula: The Ballet which aired on PBS in 1982.[1] She created over 70 original ballets and modern ballet works for Texas Tech University students.[2]

She created two Classical Ballets for the Saint-Petersburg State and Academic Ballet (under the direction of Askold Makarov) and their guest soloist, Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Galina Mezentseva.[3][7] She created the Diamond Ballet in 1999 for the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre of Konstantin Tatchkine.[2][8] Other works by Peggy Willis-Aarnio are, Beethoven: A Classical Inspiration (2000) The Bluegrass Fantasy (2005) and The Seven Last Words of Christ (2007) (based on the production by Iris Hensley) choreographed for the Saint-Petersburg Classic Ballet Theatre of Marina Medvetskaya.[9]

with Galina Panova.

Willis-Aarnio's publications include, Agrippina Vaganova (1879–1951) : her place in the history of ballet and her impact on the future of classical dance, published in 2002 and the How to Teach Classical Ballet Series.[10][1] She wrote, directed and supervised the series, Music for the Classical Ballet Lesson with Ludmilla Petrovna Vlasenko as pianist and wrote,directed and narrated the video series, Classical Ballet Lesson which featured Galina Mezentseva.[10][11]

Early life[edit]

Peggy Willis-Aarnio was born in Tampa, Florida.[12] Her mother was Margaret Spangler Maria Dozier, a musician and professional model.[13] Her step-father, Walter H. Dozier, was a Naval Officer.[14] He was the Chief Pay Clerk for NATO.[15] The family moved to Naples, Italy, where her mother enrolled her at the age of 8 and her sister Sheila, at age 6, in ballet lessons with Peggy Burns, who had been trained at the Sadler Wells in London.[8][13] She returned to Florida when her father was stationed at the Navy Mine Defense Laboratory.

Willis-Aarnio graduated from Bay High School in 1966.[16] During her years at Bay High School, she held the office of president of the drama club, and secretary of her junior class. She won second place in the Panama City Beauty Pageant.[17] She attended Texas Christian University, where she was invited to perform in the American Festival in the UK.[12] During the summers of 1969, 1970 and 1971, she and her sister Sheila were hired as performers at Mr. Koplin's Tombstone Territory on Panama City Beach.[16] During her last summer there, at age 21, she was hired as director and choreographer.[16]

In 1972, she received an invitation to join the faculty at Texas Tech University as an assistant professor.[18] Willis-Aarnio's sister Sheila went on to a career in dance, performing professionally with Iris Hensley in Marietta, Georgia (now the Georgia Ballet), and also with the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy.[19] She studied and prepared for a second career in design while she was living in Pittsburgh, and earned a Degree in Interior Design from the Art Institute in Pittsburgh.[20]

Personal life[edit]

Willis-Aarnio was married to Paul Aarnio, son of the internationally renowned architect, Reino Aarnio and Sylvia (née Bachman) Aarnio, lyric soprano and graduate of the Juilliard School of Music.[21]

Paul Aarnio holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree (with honors), from Cornell University and is a retired Air force pilot.[22]

Peggy Willis-Aarnio and her sister Sheila Willis-Kleiman had a lifelong collaboration of teaching, performing, choroegraphing their entire lives together. They began their beginning ballet classes at the same time, attended Texas Christian University together, shared an apartment and taught ballet together to earn their way through college.


Peggy Willis-Aarnio died on January 9, 2016, three days before her 68th birthday from undisclosed causes.[14]

Awards and honors[edit]

Willis-Aarnio with Prince Philip in 1987

Willis-Aarnio received Texas Christian University's Alfie Special Achievement Award for her choreography in Gilbert and Sullivan's ballad operetta, Patience.[12] In 1998, she received the "Woman of Excellence Award in the Arts" from the YWCA, City of Lubbock, Texas.[23]

Willis-Aarnio held the honor of being the first American to choreograph a new classical ballet work for several top Russian Companies in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.[3] She was an honorary member and North American representative of the Society of Russian Style Ballet.[2] Her ballet company, The Willis Ballet, toured England in 1987 and performed for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.[8]

Willis-Aarnio was the only American to be certified to teach the Vaganova classical ballet training program outside of Russia, a rare achievement for anyone to achieve in their lifetime. Peggy and her sister Sheila Willis produced The Willis Ballet Educational DVD Library. They are educational videos showcasing Galina Mezentseva's training which lead her to becoming Kirov's Prima Ballerina. ″One of the most significant educational ballet videos of our time. And, Mezentseva turns a mere ballet lesson into a Work of Art!″ Olga Rozanova − Dance Critic, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Ballet, Choreography and Methodology, St Petersburg, Russia.

Peggy Willis- Aarnio published the book ″Agrippina Vaganova (1879- 1951) —Her Place in the History of Ballet and her Impact on the Future of Classical Dance–. She also produced numerous educational materials throughout her 32 years as a professor at Texas Tech University.


  1. ^ a b c d e Zuchowski, Dave. (March 23, 2003). The arts: Russian ballet at its most classic comes to washington. Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Retrieved 19 April 2014
  2. ^ a b c d Chandler, Chip. (February 18, 2001). Russian ballet dances for amarillo texas tech professor choreographs piece.Amarillo Globe News; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c P.C. native to choreograph classical ballet in russia. (August 13, 1995). Panama City News Herald; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  4. ^ Klinkerman, Liesl. (November 30, 2001) Students showcase their talents at the fall dance concert tonight,; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  5. ^ Hedlund, Cheryl. (June 1, 1998) Teaching faculty; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  6. ^ Ballet company prepares world premiere for Kerrville, The Kerrville Times via, October 5, 1999; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  7. ^ Graeme, Chris. (August 1, 1995). "Russia's most famous swan comes home again", The Moscow Times; retrieved April 19, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Simmons, Tony (November 17, 2002). "The Lady takes a Bow", The News Herald via; retrieved May 28, 2014.
  9. ^ De Vega, Ferdie. (March 14, 2003). Peggy's close collaboration with Marina M edvetskaya was based upon mutual respect for the art of classical ballet and their devoted committment for creating both original and unique works that encompassed the best of classical ballet production reflecting the classic training of their mutual companies, The Willis Ballet and the Saint -Petersburg Classic Ballet Theatre of Marina Medvetskaya. St. Petersburg Classic Ballet. Ocala Star Banner. Retrieved 18 March 2017
  10. ^ a b [1].Willis-Aarnio, P., Mezentzeva, G., Shokhina, E., Conservatory of Classical Ballet (Lubbock, Tex.), & Willis Ballet. (1993). Classical ballet lesson. Lubbock, Tex: Willis Ballet; accessed February 22, 2016.
  11. ^ [2].Willis-Aarnio, P., & Vlasenko, L. P. (1997). Music for the classical ballet lesson: Beginning level I. Lubbock, Tex: Willis Ballet Music Library.
  12. ^ a b c Ballet Company Slates Auditions. (October 6, 1972). Pampa Daily News, pg. 4.
  13. ^ a b Margaret Dozier obituary, Panama City News Herald,; accessed January 20, 2016.
  14. ^ a b "Peggy Willis-Aarnio obituary". Panama City News Herald. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
  15. ^ "Vetfriends". Retrieved December 28, 2016.
  16. ^ a b c Miss Peggy Willis makes the Dean's List (July 25, 1969), Panama City News Herald pg. 5a.
  17. ^ (1967, July 16). Panama City News Herald, p. 2.
  18. ^ BRANNON, L. (1972, July 30). Peggy Willis Earns Professorship. Panama City News-Herald, p. 22. Retrieved February 22, 2016, from
  19. ^ "Willis Sisters Dancers Combine Talents. (March 31, 1974). Panama City News Herald; retrieved June 7, 2014
  20. ^ "Alumni US Art Institute of Pittsburg". Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  21. ^ Laakso, Kathy. (November 6, 2012) Looking Back a window into Superior's Past. Zenith City Weekly; retrieved June 9, 2014.
  22. ^ Paul Aarnio profile,; accessed January 20, 2016.
  23. ^ Overton, Melony. (February 28, 1998) "YWCA recognizes Women of Excellence",; retrieved May 28, 2014.

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