David Howard, legendary ballet teacher dies at 76

In March last year, David Howard, the New York-based ballet teacher told the Telegraph in the UK that age was catching up with him.

The reporter, Leah Hyslop, wrote: “He suffers increasingly from arthritis, and knows that eventually he will ‘need to call it a day’. As of yet, however, he’s not quite ready to let the curtain fall.”

The curtain fell on Sunday, 11 August when Howard died, aged 76.

Born in England, he had spent more than half his life teaching in the United States.

As David Edwards, his birth name, he won a silver medal at the Genee competition in London in 1954, aged 16, having trained at the Cone-Ripman School in London, later to become the Arts Educational School.

But ballet, as a calling, came later in his life. After leaving school, Howard danced in variety shows at the London Palladium at a time when the marquee names included Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney and Danny Kaye.

At this time, he changed his name to Howard because, he said, there were already three David Edwardses listed as members of Actors Equity.

After two years, he auditioned successfully for the Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet where he stayed for seven years, interrupted by one season at the National Ballet of Canada in 1963.

Aged only 24, he decided to quit ballet and moved to Europe to dance with the Bluebell Girls revue in Paris and Monte Carlo and in Bob Fosse’s musical, Little Me, in London.

Howard had begun to teach at the Arts Educational School when he received an offer to go to New York in 1966, to work as an apprentice teacher for Rebekah Harkness at the Harkness Ballet School.

He spent more than a decade with the Harkness Ballet before opening his own school near the Lincoln Centre in 1977. In the next 18 years he taught many famous dancers at the school before rising rents meant he was forced to close it down. After 1995, he became a freelance teacher spending much of his time teaching classes at the New York dance centre, Steps on Broadway.

One of the best insights into his personality is in The Art of Teaching Ballet, Ten Twentieth Century Masters, by Gretchen Ward Warren (published by the University Press of Florida in 1966).

Howard told the author that the most significant people who influenced his teaching were all the dancers he ever worked with.

“I have great respect for the wonderful teachers I had in England. People like George Goncharov, Anna Northcote, Eve Pettinger, Marian Knight, Vera Volkova, Maria Fay and Raymond Franchetti (in Paris) – all were important forces in my life. But as a young teacher, I was very fortunate to work with wonderful, wonderful professional dancers right from the beginning”.

Cynthia Harvey, a former ballerina with American Ballet Theatre recalled her days in class with Howard from 1975.

“My first class with him I remember he did all those balances at the barre he does, and I couldn’t let go of the barre.

“He actually came up to me and said ‘By the time you let go of the barre, the music will have stopped playing, the audience will have gone home, and you may as well be working at Woolworth’s.’

“I thought to myself ‘how dare he talk to me like this, embarrass me in front of the whole class’ but after class I went up to him and asked him to please explain how I could find my balance.

“He did so I wanted to go back and learn some more…. I never stop learning from what he has to say”.

Steps on Broadway has this tribute to him on its website:

“We are tremendously sad to announce that David Howard passed away Sunday night, August 11. Words cannot describe what David contributed to Steps, and to a wider universal community of dancers, for over fifty years. He is a true legend in his field, whose generosity of spirit, great sense of humor, and dedication to the art have inspired many generations of dancers.

We will miss him terribly”.

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David Howard, at Steps on Broadway

David Howard, photo © Victor Deliso