Teacher's Wisdom: David Howard

March 31, 2004

With this issue,
Dance Magazine begins a new monthly column where we ask distinguished dance teachers their advice about technique, performing, and health. Assistant Editor Tamara Johnson interviews master teacher David Howard.


Photo of David Howard from the DM Archives.


Turns generate so much excitement in the audience, and triples are becoming more common to see on stage, so this ability is very in demand. How can dancers learn to master multiple pirouettes?
I’ll do anything to get a person turning, whatever works. A lot of it is confidence, and a lot of it has to do with the shape of the foot. If you look at the structure of the foot of a boy who turns well, it’s generally very wide and has a large big toe, so there’s a broad platform on which to balance. I generally make students who are having trouble try turning with their hands flat on their chest so that they get their arms out of the way. Shorter arms, in terms of turning, are better than longer arms. Often you have someone with long arms, and the arms make too wide a pattern for the body. This is the worst thing in the world, so put them on your chest. Put them on your hips. Get them out of the way and experience the feeling of turning. And don’t be frightened if you fall over. Ballet dancers traditionally, if they fall over, feel it’s the worst thing in the world. They feel embarrassed. You have to understand, don’t do it too much! Don’t fall over like Gelsey [Kirkland] used to fall over. I mean, she’d be standing there and for no reason she’d crash to the ground. But it is part of the experience of learning. Kids don’t understand that.


Some dancers just seem to fly when they leave the ground. How can more terrestrial dancers improve the elevation and suspension of their jumps?
I often put weights on people and make them jump on a trampoline. If you jump on a trampoline you can’t use a plié. People say that the plie has a lot to do with the jump. It really doesn’t—if you look at people who jump very well, they bound away from the floor. Look at basketball players. When they’re doing jumping, they just bounce. You look at films of Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov]. He barely bends his knees. Basketball players are the same way. When they finish they bend, but in between times they just bounce—not into the floor, against the floor. If you’re working with a dancer all the time saying, “You’ve got to plié, got to plié, got to plié. I need more shape,” they get so caught up with the shape that they lose the power to get away from the floor. It’s a fine line.


It seems like ear-grazing extensions are becoming the rule, not the exception, but even if someone is extremely flexible, it can be difficult to raise a leg that high, especially to the front. How can a dancer improve his or her extension?
With extension, you’ve got to be able to get underneath it. To get that leg up, you can’t lift the leg; you’ve got to be pushing down on the supporting side, so you can get underneath the leg. I don’t use words like “pull up.” I use phrases like “contribute energy to the floor,” or “push against the floor.” I would let people be not that well placed in order to achieve something, and then work it back. There are ways of counterbalancing the body in relationship to the leg, and then working to correct the position from there, as a secondary idea. Because as soon as you get that leg up, you say, “Wow, I’ve never seen my leg here before. Usually I’m looking out to sea! I’m going to leave that leg there if it’s the last thing I do.” Gravity is a stronger force than we are and it will always pull you down. So if you use gravity to counter-lever the leg, you’re going to get better results.


I often work with weights. I make students put on small ankle weights. I do some things on the floor. There are a zillion stretching exercises I could give. One of the things is to make sure you do enough parallel stretching work, that it’s not all turned out [you stretch the hamstrings much more in parallel positions]. Make sure when you do a split that your back leg is turned in and not turned out. One thing that I round very helpful is to kneel on the floor with a slightly turned-out leg and do a développé.


You’ve worked with some of the most beloved dancers to grace the stage. In your opinion, what distinguishes the truly great ones?
I grew up with Margot Fonteyn, and people always used to say “What was it about Margot?” Well, she was a good dancer, but there were other people that could dance her off the stage and down the street. But when she came on the stage, you loved her, and you never wanted her to leave. Then there are other people who come onstage, and you think “Oh God, I wish she’d get dressed and go home and never come back!”


There’s just something about certain people. And that’s the interesting thing about the profession. It has nothing to do, often, with proportion or technique. It’s just something about a particular dancer that you like or you don’t like. There are a lot of very fine dancers out there, more so than when I was dancing. But I feel that there’s a little bit of a lack of passion—passion and love of the theater.


Dancers today are very narrow-minded. They don’t go and see anything. I think you have to be in love with the theater in a way—not just ballet, but going to see plays. I love going to see plays. Dancers today like ballet, and many will go and see one. But you mention the word acting and they’ll say, “What do you mean I have to act?” It’s not just about stretching your feet, you know. They’ll say, “Well, I’ve got to have stretched feet.” Yes, you do, but there’s nowhere in the story of Giselle where they talk about stretched feet.


David Howard is a former member of Sadler’s Wells Theater Ballet (now England’s Royal Ballet) and the Royal Ballet of Canada. He teaches at Steps and Broadway Dance Center in New York City, and has coached such international stars as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, among others.