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Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Great Teaching


David Howard passed away last weekend.

     Howard's passing won't make national headlines or trend on Twitter, but the dance world, where his name is synonymous with great teaching and coaching, already feels the loss. Dancers, teachers, and colleagues who knew Howard better than I did (or at all) will write about his life and his legacy and how much he meant to them. I was just one of many students who'd take drop-in classes from him at Steps on Broadway every now and then, fighting for a good spot at the barre behind the retired ballerina or the musical theater gypsy or the occasional big name from ABT.
     David Howard's class was one of the first I took when I arrived in NYC as a college freshman. I couldn't figure out how to get from my college on the east side to the studio on 74th and Broadway via public transit (it would be several months before I learned to navigate the hell that is the crosstown bus) and was too shy to ask anyone, so I slung my ballet bag over my shoulder and walked all the way across central park, barely making it up the elevator and into class on time. Intimidated by the studio full of confident regulars, I spent most of that first class trying not to be noticed. Mr. Howard noticed, though, and offered a few pointed corrections about how I used my turn out.
    As I continued dropping into his classes during my years in the city, I noticed that all of his corrections focused on the whole dancer--the method behind the movement. His teaching and coaching didn't just turn out excellent technicians, but mature artists. While I never quite became a "regular" in Howard's class (so crowded!), he made an important impression on me as a dancer transitioning from my home training grounds to the wider world of dance.  
   I've been thinking a lot about what makes a great teacher lately. I never had ambitions or plans to teach full time and I often struggle with an intense longing to perform regularly again. Teaching requires a different kind of talent. Good dancers are not always good teachers and visa-versa. I used to think that teaching was something you did when you either couldn't dance anymore or failed to "make it" as a performer (what ever that means). I thought teaching (where dance was concerned) was somehow a less valuable way for an artist to spend her time.
   And honestly? Sometimes I still feel that way. When I'm correcting yet another sickled foot or trying to herd four year olds into a straight line or passing up other opportunities to perform regionally to spend my nights giving plie and tendu combinations, I wonder if what I do is meaningful.
 After two years of full time teaching, I'm convinced that it is. I watch students grow from little girls who take ballet as a hobby to mature dancers, artists in their own right. I read kind notes from parents telling me what a different dance has made to their son or daughter. I get to see the joy on an adult student's face as she performs a difficult turn with ease and grace.
    When David Howard passed, almost every dancer I know had some story or anecdote to share about how his teaching or coaching influenced them. There seemed to be even more of an outpouring from social media and dance blogs even than when the legendary Maria Tallchief died several months ago. And he did his most important work teaching others.
      These roaming thoughts are a reminder to myself about why I do what I do; one last piece of inspiration from a great teacher.

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