Now her own dance school, L'Ecole de Danse in Palo Alto, is about to turn 20. She's artistic director, teacher and costume designer, stitching every silky skirt for every dancer. When someone asks her why her school is important to her, Montessuit-Morgan's eyes fill with happy tears.
"It's a big family; that's the way I want to see it. I want each student to hear her name in each class," she says.
Although some of her pupils have become professional dancers, that's not the point. Montessuit-Morgan says her goal for the school is simple: "When you have knowledge, you have to give it to people."
No need to ask this woman if she has job satisfaction.
Today, in the dance studio at the Cubberley Community Center where the school holds its classes, there's an extra spark in the air despite the day's indolent heat. L'Ecole de Danse puts on a formal all-school performance every other year, and the coming performance -- also a 20th anniversary celebration -- is just around the corner, on June 2 and 3.
The program includes pieces set to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Glazunov's "Paquita," as well as a presentation of all the school's students -- about 40 -- in white tutus to Pachelbel's "Canon."
For the 14- to 18-year-old girls now clustering in the studio, class will double as a performance rehearsal. The circular fabric carrying cases on the floor will reveal costumes in a luxurious bright pink with pale tutus, for them to try on and dance in. Montessuit-Morgan has also sewn matching hair ornaments and puffy pieces to adorn dancers' graceful arms.
For now, the students start by warming up in black leotards, tights and toe shoes with school choreographer Florean Saqellari presiding. The girls' practiced moves make it clear that the school takes its standards of classical ballet seriously. But the atmosphere feels comfortable, and the teachers' corrections never sound strict.
In fact, Montessuit-Morgan says she takes care not to be authoritarian.
"I'm teaching more than ballet," she said. "When you teach, you can be like a parent: firm, but tender."
It's a balanced approach that sits well with Elise Mullen, who has studied at L'Ecole de Danse for six-and-a-half years. The poised Palo Alto High School senior, who may minor in dance at Cal Poly, likes feeling comfortable in ballet class, but also appreciates being asked to work hard.
"I like the discipline," she said. "It gives me a routine, a schedule. It challenges my body -- and my mind, to memorize the combinations."
Classes here are kept small, averaging about 12 students. That's part of the "family" ambiance its founder was striving for when she started the school in 1987.
Born in France, Montessuit-Morgan trained there and in Switzerland, performing with Youra Tcheremissinoff's company throughout Europe. She moved to the United States in 1977, first living in Texas and then in the Bay Area, where her previous work included teaching with the Academy of Ballet in San Francisco and Western Ballet in Mountain View.
She now has what she envisioned: an intimate school teaching a broad curriculum for teens and children as young as 4, and beginning, intermediate and advanced classes for adults. Students are trained in the classical Cecchetti and Vaganova styles of ballet.
Sometimes students span the generations. Janette Tavs' 12-year-old daughter has studied here for three or four years, and Tavs fits in an adult class for herself as well.
"You can be a star even if you're there just for that one class," she said.
A major component, of course, is the music. Montessuit-Morgan uses only classical music, "in case students don't hear it at home." She encourages her students to feel emotionally connected to what they hear, and she makes sure even the little ones know the composers' names.
"We get to talk about Mozart, and they're 6 years old," she said.
Most of the students are female -- boys still tend to go into athletics. Montessuit-Morgan sighs. She's cheerier when mentioning one of her male students, Benoit Piernot. He's been accepted to the Academy of Ballet in San Francisco and may become a professional dancer.
Most students don't go pro, but find a way to fold ballet into their lives. Take Mathilde Pignol, 26, who comes to class five times a week but still calls dance "just a hobby," secondary to her high-tech work.
"When I was a kid, my parents asked me if I wanted to be a dancer. I said no; it's not intellectual enough," she recalled. "I said, 'What about math?'"
Still, here she is, and has been for the last two-and-a-half years. Pignol originally studied dance as a child in Paris but gave it up after moving to the United States at 14, because she couldn't find a teacher she liked. That changed when she met Montessuit-Morgan.
"It's her dedication to teaching, the potential that she sees in people," Pignol said. "In every student she'll see not where they are right now, but where they can be."
What: L'Ecole de Danse's 20th-anniversary performances, with dances including a piece set to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and a pas de deux set to Rachmaninoff.
Where: Cubberley Center Theater, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, June 2; and 1 p.m. Sunday, June 3.
Cost: Tickets are $15.
Info: Go to http://www.lecolededanse.net .