Dr. Margaret E. Willis, PhD: Professor Peggy Willis-Aarnio of Panama City Beach, known to her friends as Peggy, passed away at Gulf Coast Medical Hospital at 11:30 PM, January 9th 2016.
Peggy and her family arrived in Panama City Beach in June of 1958 after her father, CWO4 Walter H. Dozier, completed an accompanied tour with the USN 6th Fleet in Naples, Italy. While in Naples, Peggy was exposed to Ballet instruction, which would be the defining event for the rest of her life.
In Panama City, she began Ballet studies with Virginia Sweet. Mrs. Sweet, and her Chiropodist Husband, John, had established their school in “the Cove,” and were both local legends in the arts and dance. Peggy was a “natural” and excelled both in the school and in dance and theatrical activities first at Beach Elementary School, then at Jinks Middle School and, finally at Bay High. While at Bay High, she was Miss Tommy Thomas Chevrolet in the Panama City Beauty Pageant, and she and her partner, the late Marvin Elmore, won the Southeastern Ballroom Championship in Atlanta
She graduated from Bay High with the Class of 1966, and was accepted to the Classical Ballet Fine Arts Program at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Ft. Worth, TX. This was the next step in what would become her lifetime vocation.
The TCU Ballet Program was established in 1947 and at that time, TCU was considered to have had the finest Classical Ballet Training Program at the university level in the US. There, Peggy excelled in her Ballet Studies, and also found that she had a gift for Choreography. In one instance, when her sister, Sheila, was entered in the Miss Panama City Beauty Pageant in 1968, it was Peggy’s choreography of Espana for Sheila that enabled her to win First Place in the Talent Division. This was the beginning of a collaboration and a dance bond that was to last a lifetime.
Also, while in Ft Worth, Peggy joined the Ft. Worth Ballet where she was promoted to Soloist. While at TCU, in her graduate years, she and her classmates were able to see some imported films of Ballet artists performing for the Kirov and the Bolshoi Theatres in Russia. What they were able to do was absolutely spectacular and beyond anything the TCU students were capable of. Peggy made a promise to herself, she was going to learn how to get these results with her American students… That became her dream.
She graduated in 1970 with a BFA in Classical Ballet, and in 1972 with an MFA in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Dance in June, 1972 from TCU. In September of 1972, Peggy arrived at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock, Texas, with her shiny new MFA, to take on her new job as Associate Professor of Classical Ballet in the Department of Physical Education and Dance.
Ironically, in the Fall of 1972, her department at TTU received a letter from a man named John Barker from New York City, announcing that he knew about the Russian Teaching Program and he would be offering a course on it to teachers to be held in New York over the Christmas Holiday. None of her peers seemed interested, so she grabbed the letter and said she would go “check it out.” Little did she know that she was about to take the first step to actually achieve her dream and more.
As they say, “The Rest Is History”… She immediately saw the value in what Barker had to offer, and for the next seven years, she was in New York every Christmas Break, every Spring Break and every Summer until she had studied every year of the Russian Syllabus at least twice. As she finished each level, she immediately put it into practice in her classes at TTU. People began to notice the superior qualities of her students, and she also began to do bigger ballet performances to give her students better, more professional performing experiences and to get her program more national attention. She produced her own version of Copelia and even a full length original Ballet called Dracula, The Ballet, which was broadcast nationwide on PBS in 1981.
She was also now starting to attract the attention of performers and other dance professionals from Russia who were curious about this young American who seemed to be on to their same wavelength. Ultimately, this resulted in her being invited by Valery Panov and his famous Ballerina wife, Galina Panova to Stage and Produce Valery’s new, world premiere production of Giselle at TTU! Now the door was finally opening for her, and after working with Prima Ballerina Galina Mezentseva in 1990 to 1992, she was invited at the insistence of Mezentseva to come to the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia to finish her Ballet Pedagogical studies, at the source of the knowledge of Teaching Method, in 1993.
While she was in St. Petersburg, she met Prof. Askold Makarov, the director of one of the major Ballet companies of Russia, who was looking for someone to present his company on tour in North America. Peggy accepted the challenge and a great professional marriage was born, which, by the time it was over 21 years later, had used three major Russian Companies to bring true Russian Classical Ballet to over 420 venues all over North America and Western Europe.
How could she follow up on something like this? By working with and directing the efforts of Prima Ballerina, Mezentseva and Master Pianist, Ludmilla Vlasenko, Peggy scripted, produced and directed the only comprehensive video record of the complete Russian Ballet Teaching system presented in an eight DVD set along with study guides, and an eight volume set of music CD’s to provide the first-ever examples of music of the correct tempo and character for all the exercises of the eight year teaching syllabus.
In the process of doing this project, she took one more page out of Agripinna Vaganova’s Playbook (she was the teacher who first codified the syllabus)… by starting a series of Annual International Teaching Congresses to help better “spread the word” worldwide about teaching method. Vagonava first proposed this in the 1930’s but Communist world politics wouldn’t permit it… Peggy finally made it work with Congress number One in 1997 in Lubbock, TX. The most recent Congress, number 17, was in Rockwall, TX in July, 2015.
During this time, she also took the time to do the research for and write the first and only English Language Professional Biography of Teacher Agripina Vaganova. More recently she was working on producing a second eight CD Music Set, and she was writing Book III in the How To Teach Ballet Series, when she died.
Did I mention also, that she was designated as the North American Representative of the International Society of Russian Style Ballet, Headquartered in London (a position she held until the Society was disbanded in 2008 with the death of its Founder AND Director, Anna Lendrum). She also found the time to open and direct her own ballet school, The Conservatory of Classical Ballet in Lubbock TX in 1979.
In 2003, after 31 years “in the Saddle,” including 21 years as the Head of the Dance Division, she retired as Professor Emeritus from the Department of Theatre and Dance. Upon her retirement from TTU, she moved back “home” to Panama City Beach and brought her Conservatory with her. The new school was built and opened for business on the Beach in August, 2004. The school was to be her “gift” to this community to inspire the next generation of boys and girls to seek a career in the Arts (especially in Dance) just as she was inspired by Virginia Sweet. She continued to support it and teach the advanced classes until 2014 when operations were curtailed and finally suspended due to health concerns.
This is a long list of accomplishments for a sweet, honest, hard-working incredibly imaginative and intelligent woman from the Panhandle of Florida. Sadly, there is so much more that should be mentioned, but this article is already long. Her spirit, professionalism, enthusiasm, dedication and energy will surely be missed.
Peggy was preceded in death by her father, CWO4 Walter H. Dozier and her mother, Margaret S. Dozier.
She is survived by her beloved husband, her Twin Flame, Major Paul R. Aarnio, USAF, Ret., and her sister, Sheila M. Kleiman, her brother-in-law, Morris Kleiman, PhD, her nephew, Jeremy A. Kleiman and her brother, Ronald Dozier and his Wife, Becky Dozier, and her brothers , Walter H. Dozier Jr, and James Dozier.
Funeral services will be held 11:00 A.M. Saturday, January 16, 2016 at Kent-Forest Lawn Funeral Home with Reverend Virgil Tillman officiating.
Interment will follow at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery.
The family will receive friends one hour prior to services at the funeral home.
Expressions of sympathy may be viewed or expressed at www.kentforestlawn.com
Arrangements by Kent-Forest Lawn Funeral Home and Cemeteries