In David Howard's Star-Filled Studio, Even Weight Watchers Belly Up to the Barre

UPDATED 11/15/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/15/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

"I teach to standing room only," says David Howard, and he isn't kidding. With 2,000 students enrolled in his Manhattan ballet school, and 40 classes going on each week, the place sometimes looks like Grand Central Station at rush hour. Howard, 45, personally teaches 17 two-hour classes each week, at the rate of $5 per student per session. "It's the same price as a first-run movie," he says, "but better value for your body."

Indeed, what Howard sells is not so much art as fitness. Though he coaches many top professionals, about half the students are amateurs who will never set foot onstage and come to him as an alternative to calisthenics or aerobic dancing. "When I have taken adult beginners' classes with other ballet teachers," says Vicki Baird, a marketing director, "maybe 20 students would show up. But at David's, 80 of us are standing at the ballet barre at 6:15 every night, just to catch him. He's the best thing to happen to physical fitness since jogging."

The prestige of Howard's dance studio rests on the attendance of the superstars of the dance world. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev are occasional barre-flies in the airy loft near Lincoln Center which houses the school. Two of American Ballet Theatre's principal dancers, Patrick Bissell and Cynthia Harvey, are regulars. Howard's pet pupils, though, are Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland; Makarova, a prima in ABT, often drops into the 6:15 adult beginner class to work out. "When one woman realized that Natalia Makarova was taking class next to her, she told me she was going home to have a nervous breakdown," laughs Vicki Baird. "But it gets easier to take when you realize famous dancers sweat as much as you do." Howard is the only person invited in to Makarova's dressing room before a performance, to guide her through her warm-up exercises. "Before a performance when I'm hysterical," says Makarova, "he has the personality to give me peace and calm me down."

Howard's association with Kirkland goes back to 1973, four years before he founded the school and while he was still director of the Harkness School of Ballet. "What I did with Gelsey was to break down the traditional ballet steps into the fundamental laws of physics," Howard recalls. "We talked about how the energy must always flow from her torso outward to her fingers and toes. And to create the illusion of weightlessness when being lifted into the air, she would have to thrust down toward the force of gravity to cause a reaction of her body springing high up in the air. Gelsey just ate it up." The payoff came when Howard watched Kirkland dance Giselle with Baryshnikov for the first time in August 1975: " 'By George, she's got it!' I remember thinking to myself."

David was born in London in 1937, on the eve of World War II. When his father went off to war, David, 3, and his mother were evacuated to Holyport, a small town in Berkshire, to escape the bombings. There was a dancing school on the village green, David recalls: "It was fate. It started with a Maypole dance. I was hooked."

As a young man Howard was a chorus boy in London musicals, a soloist with the Royal Ballet, even a can-can dancer backing up the towering Blue-Belle Girls at the Lido in Paris. To supplement his income, he taught dancing for 10 shillings (then about $1.40) a lesson. "As soon as I started, I realized I was much better at teaching than I was at performing," he says. He thereupon dropped his career as a dancer. In 1966 he heard about an opening for apprentice teachers at the Harkness Ballet in New York. He got the job and was apprenticed to Jo Anna Kneeland, who taught him about kinetics, the study of motion, as it applied to dance. By 1977 the Harkness Ballet was famous, and David Howard was New York's foremost ballet master. When he started his school the same year, his reputation went with him, and success was instant. Says massage therapist Robert Legrand, an expert on muscle anatomy: "David's knowledge of how to use the dynamics of the body is unsurpassed. Why, he could even teach ex-President Ford how not to trip."

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