Celebrity teacher David Howard shares his philosophy of teaching and learning.
“I’ve always liked to question things,” says renowned ballet teacher and coach David Howard. His success in training dancers, from adult beginners to seasoned ballerinas, is proof that Howard is asking the right questions. Never one to rest on his laurels, the master educator is also a tireless student of dance pedagogy. His teaching philosophy focuses on a scientific approach to movement, incorporating anatomy and kinesiology as well as movement dynamics and musicality.
He doesn’t hesitate to challenge the sanctity of the centuries-old traditions of ballet training: “I have to prove every day that I can do what I do, and then I have to reevaluate—is it working or isn’t it? Do the students look better?”
In the five years since he has closed his school, the David Howard Dance Center, Howard has not skipped a beat. He has taught in England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Japan and Mexico, in addition to maintaining a busy teaching schedule in New York City at Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway and at the Joffrey/New School University BFA program.
Born in London in 1937, Howard started his own dance training at age 10 at the Arts Educational School in England (whose alumni include Ben Stevenson, Lynn Semour and Julie Andrews) and continued at the Royal Academy of Dancing. He launched his professional career while in his teens, singing at Radio Luxembourg three times a week and appearing in television shows and movies, including Beau Brummell with Elizabeth Taylor. From 1955 to 1957 he danced at the London Palladium alongside variety show greats Debbie Reynolds, Liberace and Danny Kaye.
At 16, Howard had won a prestigious Adeline Genée medal at the Royal Academy of Dancing’s annual competition. Four years later, remembering the talented student, Dame Ninette de Valois offered him a job with the Royal Ballet (then Sadler’s Wells Ballet). Howard accepted the offer and stayed with the company for seven years. After a few years as a soloist with the National Ballet of Canada, he returned to England to work as a dancer with the Blue-Belle Girls and with Bob Fosse on Little Me. At 28, he retired from the stage. “I’d had it by then,” he says. “My plan was to become a hairdresser, because I was having problems with my back. Then [dance patron] Rebekah Harkness called. She was starting a school and was looking for some apprentice teachers. I came over in 1966 and it changed my life. I did my teacher training program with Jo Anna Kneeland and Ruth Petrinovich and was at Harkness House for 11 years, until I started my own school in 1977.”
Howard’s school opened during the ballet boom of the 70s, the same year that The Turning Point was released, and his classes attracted the inner circle of ballet’s luminaries. The film’s star, Mikhail Baryshnikov, took classes at the Upper West Side studio, as did Rudolf Nureyev; American Ballet Theatre principals Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland, Patrick Bissell and Cynthia Harvey and actress and balletomane Mary Tyler Moore. Howard worked closely with Kirkland in retooling her technique and coaching her for performances. Her raves about his teaching in her 1986 autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, further cemented Howard’s status as a celebrity teacher. The school was even profiled as a hub for dance “superstars” in People magazine in 1982.
The attention still surprises Howard. “I don’t know how the celebrity happened,” he says. “Madame Darvash once said ‘You must have a press agent,’ but I never did. I didn’t realize the effects of working with people like Gelsey and Misha and Natasha.” He remains close with all three and says that Baryshnikov still takes his class occasionally at Steps.
By the 1990s, the ballet boom was long over and rents in New York City were starting to skyrocket. In 1995, Howard closed the school. “People ask me if I’d like to open another school in the city, and if someone came up with the finances I’d be able to put together a great school, but dealing with that myself is just too much,” he explains.
In fact, four operations on his feet made Howard question whether he should change careers altogether. “I decided that I was still interested in teaching and realized that I’d have to find a new way of doing it,” he says. His limited mobility made him reexamine his teaching methods. “I was always moving around the room fixing and moving things,” he says. “I looked around one day and thought, ‘Does it really help if you keep doing things for people? Maybe you’ve got to cause them to think, rather than tell them what to do.’ So it became a matter of talking to them and finding the way to make it interesting. I’m standing up now but I’m still not walking around correcting like I did.”
He had been scheduled to teach at the Royal Ballet after his first surgery, but was forced to tell the company that he was still on crutches. “You teach a better class sitting down than most people do when they’re standing,” was the response of Monica Mason, the company’s assistant director and a former Royal Ballet principal, and so Howard led three weeks of classes without standing at all.
After his second round of surgeries, he received a call from Edith D’Addario, who asked him to teach in the Joffrey/New School University’s BFA program. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “I like working with the same people every day. I teach classical ballet and pas de deux and men’s class, and help with the rehearsals. I might start a teacher training program for them next year.”
An advocate for continuing education for teachers, Howard conducts workshops for dance teachers around the world, most recently holding a two-day seminar at Steps on Broadway. His courses focus on giving teachers information to reevaluate how they teach, rather than focusing on a specific style of schooling, such as Vaganova or Cecchetti. “I break down the whole—the barre work, the center work, the adagios, the allegros and the pirouettes kinesthetically,” explains Howard. “I always see dance and teaching from a movement point of view. I don’t see positions. To me, positions are like color, everyone sees them differently.
“I don’t solve students’ problems balletically,” he continues. “When looking at a student, I see two things: One is the body usage and the patterns that the body goes through, and the other is the balletic-technical situation. But only very rarely do I correct things from the balletic point of view. I always fix them from a kinesthetic point of view, as generally that is what is wrong. If the body is performing the right action, generally the line will be correct, too.”
During his more than 35 years as a professional educator, Howard has never stopped questioning the traditional methods of teaching ballet on his quest to become a better teacher. “One of the biggest problems with ballet training is that it is too slow, it takes too long and it is too expensive. Are we doing it the right way, or is this just the way that tradition has taught us?” he says. “It’s like plié in fourth position—a lot of us have taken that out because the deep knee bend creates too much torque on the knee—but there are a lot schools that still do it.
“I think the way that we teach is not effective. For example, with turning: first, students have to overcome the fear of failing. But instead of starting with a double, teachers will say, ‘Once you have a single, then you can do a double.’ It doesn’t work like that. It might be much better to say, ‘Get around three times, just spin around.’ They’ll say, ‘Turning isn’t spinning.’ No, it isn’t, but pirouettes have a lot of spinning feeling in them. It’s much better to get someone spinning and then refine it.”
His unorthodox teaching style was perfectly suited to Kirkland, who felt that her development had been limited by traditional ideas of ballet training. When she first came to Howard’s class at Harkness and asked his opinion, he told her, “Your head’s a bit big and your arms are short.” Kirkland’s response? “There’s not much I can do about my head, but how can I fix my arms?” Howard spent years working with the NYCB and ABT principal. “The wonderful thing about Gelsey was that she wanted to completely retrain herself,” he says. “She was fabulous because she would say, ‘I want to do it my way, not their way.’ She was a rebel, but because of her talent she could get away with it.”
Because Howard doesn’t focus on a specific school of teaching, his training can be effective for dancers with a wide range of backgrounds. “Years ago when City Ballet had a lockout, I said to Rebekah Harkness ‘Why don’t you let the kids from City Ballet come and take classes for free?’ So about 35 kids came over every day. When the season started, Mr. Balanchine thanked me. And I said, ‘It wasn’t me, it was Mrs. Harkness,’ and he replied, ‘Yes, dear, but you taught the classes.’ I think because I didn’t conflict with the style, the City Ballet dancers really appreciated it. I would give them a good class and they could go back and work in that style. I think in doing that I became useful to a lot of dancers.”
Howard continues to coach up-and-coming dancers, though usually without the knowledge of the professional schools they attend. “People do call me up from various known schools where they shouldn’t talk with anyone else but they do, as they have before and always will.” In addition to the students who risk alienating their full-time teachers to study with Howard, dancers also come to him for competition coaching. Boston Ballet principal Jennifer Gelfand wrote to Howard when she was just 10 to ask him to coach her for the Jackson competition—three-and-a-half years later she won a gold medal. He also coached Katherine Healy to her Varna and Jackson medals. The secret of his success? Howard says that it is a matter of taking the long view. “Teachers have to be visionary,” he explains. “The most important thing for a teacher to decide is, How do you want your student to look? When you train students, you train them for the future and not the past. When you teach 10-year-olds, you must be able to see what you want them to look like when they finish training. And you have to be willing to change your ideas along the way. You can’t go back later and add things that you neglected. It’s very difficult to retrain someone. It’s like baking a cake and taking it out of the oven and realizing, ‘I didn’t put the flour in.’ You can’t go back.”
In addition to his reputation for training stars, Howard is perhaps as well known across the country for the CDs and videos he has produced. “I’ve done more than 90 CDs, so I’m the CD man now,” he says. “I’ve used 15 different pianists. I’ve been very fortunate in working with some wonderful pianists: Lynn Stanford, Douglas Corbin, Steven Mitchell and now Joe Cross. They have made a wonderful contribution to my work—to me, the most important person in the studio is the pianist, even more than the teacher.”
He is currently setting up his own website, which will make available all of the CDs and videos, as well as a new ballet slipper that he is working on. “It’s going to be the most brilliant shoe in the world,” he says dryly. “You are going to be able to jump and turn and balance on it, it’s going to do everything for you. It’s going to be computerized.”
With or without his magic shoe, Howard’s students have a leg up on the competition. Howard takes job very seriously: “Dancers put their life in my hands for an hour and a half, it is my job to take care of it as well as I can,” he says. “It is one of the biggest responsibilities in the world.” DT
David Howard’s 15 Top Tips for Teachers
• Instead of talking to students for 15 minutes, put what you are trying to say in the steps.
• Give students a physical analysis to see the kind of bodies that they are working with. Look at the structure: the size of the head, the neck, the arms, the width of the hands, the length and width of the torso, the size of the hips, the length of the waist, legs and feet. Are they hyperextended or do they have bowed legs or tibial torsion? It is helpful to keep a file on students. What kind of exercises did you give the student? Did they work? What have you changed?
• To keep your teaching fresh, think about the way you put steps together. Teachers fall into familiar patterns in developing combinations and end up using the same kinds of steps in the same kind of order. For instance, if you work with the same group every day, give them a turning class one day. We talk about spotting but how many teachers give spotting exercises?
• Think about the kind of music that you use and try to vary the tempo. When working with CDs, teachers tend to use the same kind of music. Without an accompanist, you might do everything on a 3/4, and the CD isn’t going to say, "Hey, this is the eighth 3/4 you’ve used in a row, why don’t you do something on another time signature?"
• Study as much as you can. Learning more about music, anatomy and kinesiology will really open up your mind.
• A lot of what dance teachers say is very negative. Try saying, “I suggest you do this,” rather than “Don’t do that.” If you give the student possibilities, they won’t feel like they have failed.
• Watch other people teach.
• Make notes about what you do in class and refer back to them.
•To continue to grow as a teacher, you should go to as many seminars and watch as many videos as you can. There are also a lot of books that you can read and lots of performances you can attend.
• Take time to evaluate what you’re saying in class, and whether it’s working. Just because it worked for you as a student doesn’t mean it’s going to work for other people.
• Keep students curious by giving them new ideas all of the time. Rather than just repetition, give them information that they can work with.
• Your eye is your most valuable tool.
• The most important thing is to develop healthy human beings. Realize that not all students want to be professional dancers. Some are just doing it because they enjoy it and want to go on to something else.
• You have to establish emotional boundaries when you teach, just like a parent.
• Training a body in the healthiest, most efficient way should be your aim.