The Powers of dance

May 18, 2010, 12:59 a.m.
In his social dance classes, Richard Powers puts fun first, a strategy that attracts 1000 students each quarter. Above, he is paired with Mirage Marrou ‘10. (Courtesy of Jason Chuang)

With Richard Powers, you really are dancing with the star.

In his office, shelves overflow with a mini-disk and CD collection ranging from 1950s lounge and blues to movie themes and rock and roll. Ten-year-old digital technology is juxtaposed next to by-the-minute data storage for music, along with powdered wax used in 19th century ballrooms to maintain floor finish. Original dance posters from Paris, Prague, London and Venice line the walls.

These trinkets are more than just mere adornment for Powers, an instructor in the drama department’s dance division. They represent an illustrious career as a groundbreaking dance connoisseur and a lifetime of passion for dance.

Powers ‘70 became interested in historic social dance while he was an undergraduate design engineer at Stanford. An undersupplied field at the time, his specialty made him a rare expert, placing him in high demand in the world of dance. Soon enough, he was busy teaching for the University of Cincinnati in addition to running national and international workshops.

In 1981, Powers coined the term “vintage dance” and founded Flying Cloud Academy of Vintage Dance — a non-profit organization devoted to conserving and continuing the legacy of historic ballroom dance. But the Farm was calling, and Powers answered. After refusing numerous offers to teach social dance at Stanford, he finally agreed to sign on to the team in 1992.

And students are lucky he did. Since 1992, Powers’ social dance class has become an immensely popular campus hallmark and a rite of passage for many students. On average, Powers instructs 1,000 students per quarter — not including his nationwide and international workshops.

“I loved the passion he had for dance, without the elitism that I typically associate with professional dancers and choreographers,” said Dominique Lyew ‘12 of the social dance classes.

Powers attributes the popularity of his classes to their “basis on the values and the needs of Stanford students.” He emphasized how his classes mold around the school’s rich diversity — and that adaptation is key.

“In social dancing you are constantly adapting as opposed to following somebody else’s set of strict rules,” Powers said. “This is a more alive way of dancing to respond to the moment.”

“Once the ball is snapped you don’t exactly follow the game plan,” he added, comparing his malleable dance style to the game of football. “You improvise.”

Powers stresses enjoyment in his classes — he pushes his students to explore how to have fun, and how to let their dance partners have more fun. He also reminds his class that “different does not mean wrong in social dance.”

Adulation from his current and past students attests to the success of this teaching method.

“He is such a creative instructor — he teaches in accepting ways,” said ShiYu Zhou ‘13. “Some people take it multiple times because they really love it.”

Jarek Lancaster ‘13 experienced Powers’ teaching in just one lesson through his Arts and Ideas Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) course. He praised Powers’ trial-and-error method of teaching dance.

“He’d do a dance move, throw you into it and tell you to do the best you can,” Lancaster said. “Then he taught the move which helped you out because you knew what you did wrong before and it made it easier to learn.”

Powers explained that respect is built into his technique — the lead doesn’t command, and the follower doesn’t obey. He reminisced on how this cooperative style particularly affected one of his former students.

“All my life I’ve been told to pay attention in class,” he said, quoting the student. “And now I’m paying attention to someone who is paying attention to me.”

And in some instances, Powers’ class has been truly life changing. Lyew said that Powers’ classes changed him from a shy, timid person to an outgoing leader.

“The biggest impression he left is his seeming belief that anyone can learn to dance,” Lyew said. “I believe that he truly sees social dance as fun first, and really made ballroom accessible to beginners.”

In addition to teaching, Powers has choreographed multiple ballroom dances for films such as Warner Brothers’ “North and South” and CBS’s “Spring Awakenings.” He specializes in historic and contemporary social dance, which includes ballroom, swing, tango, Latin and waltz. His dance partners are usually Angela Amarillas ‘97, Stanford’s first dance minor, and Mirage Marrou ‘10.

Power’s acclaim has stretched beyond just the Stanford bubble. As evidenced by Powers’ photo gallery on his website, he has had the pleasure to be acquainted with celebrities such as former President Bill Clinton, the renowned writer also named Richard Powers, Queen of Swing Dance Norma Miller and American jazz singer Cab Calloway. But for Powers, it is not always the stars that are the most memorable.

“Often, the people who impact me more are not the celebrities — it’s the students,” he said. “Things like that are more important to me than meeting Cab Calloway. It reminds me that I’m in the right place at the right time.”

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