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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Richard Powers: 'We're integrating the old with the new...'


Photos: L.A. Cicero

When Richard Powers' students take the stage for the annual social dance extravaganza this weekend, their performance will be the culmination of his life's work -- well, half of his life. The engineer/product designer cum dance historian and swing king has forged a new approach that fuses the best of the ballroom traditions with the best of the boomers, Xers and the next generation.

Dubbed "Dance Vortex," the show will take place Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Roble Dance Studio. It is being billed as "a maelstrom of social dances, from the cancan to swing." The main focus of the evenings will be on the ragtime dances.

"What I want to do this time is use the dances as an example to demonstrate American creativity, crossover and individuality, which began at the turn of the 20th century," says Powers, a lecturer in the Drama Department's Dance Division. "We'll show the 19th-century dances, when Americans behaved in the proper way, which was European -- we dressed and danced in the European manner. And then at the end of the 19th century, we began to see that we were different, and we started to feel less self-conscious."

By the turn of the century, he said, Americans began to enjoy ragtime music and dance, and soon it caught on in Paris and London. "We grew less embarrassed about our differences from European culture and increasingly proud of our uniqueness, and that continues to this day."

The concert will feature the Stanford Vintage Dance Ensemble, Danse Libre and Decadance. "They'll mix and match hustle and the west coast and salsa and club two-step and swing all together and do a fusion to some music that just came out," Powers says of Decadance, which like Danse Libre features current and former students. "They completely embody everything I have been teaching."

Powers, shown here with Angela Amarillas, a former student and frequent instructing partner, has become fascinated with the concept of partnering. He defines the leading and following roles as "requiring a highly active attention to possibilities."

Powers' efforts garnered him a Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award at last year's commencement for distinctive contributions to undergraduate education.

"Richard has built that whole area of the program," says division coordinator Susan Cashion, who hired him in 1992 to add diversity to the program. "Students just have a wonderful time with him."

During a typical academic quarter Powers teaches nine classes. "Social Dances of North America I and II" and the "Vintage Dance Ensemble" class are part of the division's regular offerings. Then there are the three non-credit offerings sponsored by the Associated Students, which give graduate students, who often have course credit limitations, access to Powers' expertise. He also teaches three classes at the Palo Alto Women's Club, where the majority of students come from campus. Still, students line up at the beginning of each quarter -- often in the wee hours of the morning -- to vie for a spot in his Dance Division classes.

Powers, who is married and has two young sons, also holds annual workshops in Prague, Tokyo, New York and Cincinnati. He recently led a Waltz Weekend workshop in northwest Georgia. And he's gearing up for his annual summer dance week on the Farm, which will feature octogenarian swing legends as well as those now on the cutting edge of today's social dance styles.

"We're integrating the old with the new. Half the staff are focusing on the traditions and half are the best that we can find for the newer ones," Powers says. Stanford Xtensive will take place on campus July 9-14. For more information, see

Norma Miller, one of the principal lindy hoppers in the 1937 film A Day at the Races, will return for her second stint as a teacher for Stanford dance week this summer.

"This is the first time I've seen this dance organization at Stanford," Miller said when she was here for last year's dance week. "It is immense." She was even more jazzed when a group of young dancers recreated a routine from the movie.

"The kids came out and did what we did in our first film. I didn't know anybody even wanted to do that. When you're my age, here comes a 20-year-old -- what do they want with me? You mean you learned how to do this? You could learn how to be a computer expert!" Miller thought out loud.

In December, Powers organized an 80th birthday fete for Miller at the recently restored Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, the venue, he notes, of Benny Goodman's first California gig. "That was a magical night. It was the first time a woman in swing had been honored in that way," he says.

Powers' life has not always been strictly ballroom. Asked if he had an interest in dance as a kid growing up in Chicago, Powers says, "None." It was basically a generational thing, he explains. "My grandfather Powers taught dance at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. My parents met at a swing dance, but my whole generation skipped couple dancing. A lot of boys in my generation were not drawn to dancing. We grew up with girls dancing with girls and the twist and the frug," while the boys hung close to the wall.

Powers spent his undergraduate years at Purdue, where he earned a degree in engineering. His next stop was Stanford, but not in the Dance Division. Powers was a student in the early years of the product design program, which was created by mechanical engineering Professor Emeritus Robert McKim in 1958. Powers also was one of the first students to pursue an individually designed major. He graduated from Stanford in 1970 with a master's in design and the creative process.

The next stop was Cincinnati, where he worked for a consulting firm, Alpha Designs, and did freelance design work for companies such as Procter and Gamble. He holds seven U.S. and international patents, including one for the spray-pump nozzle that screws onto bottles of window cleaner.

While living in Cincinnati, Powers founded an artists collective and studied calligraphy, then tai chi and kendo -- a Japanese art similar to fencing. "The best way to understand calligraphy and the spirit of it was not by more practice but by understanding the movement. So I took tai chi, which is the essence of that kind of flowing movement that you find in calligraphy. I would never have guessed that while I was trying to understand one concept, I would discover a part of myself that was totally neglected," he says.

In 1981 Powers founded the Flying Cloud Academy of Vintage Dance and a year later the Flying Cloud Troupe, a 30-member performing company. He also co-founded the supporting Fleeting Moments Waltz and Quickstep Orchestra. Powers' other credits include training dancers for the 1989 film Glory and choreographing the ballroom dance scenes for ABC's North and South in 1985 and for PBS' Mrs. Perkins' Ball in 1986.

"I would never have guessed that while I was trying to understand one concept, I would discover a part of myself that was totally neglected," said Powers, a former engineer and product designer. In the 1970s, Powers began studying tai chi to understand the movement of calligraphy and ultimately got hooked on vintage dance.

Megs Booker, a former consulting professor in the Drama Department who spent many years in New York theater before coming to the Bay Area, says Powers' reputation as a historian and performer is well deserved. "He is exceptionally good with period dances, especially American period pieces. He does everything from the lindy hop and the fox trot. He's a wonderful teacher and is also magical to watch. That makes him a real treasure," says Booker, who is now a visiting professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Powers considers the segue from engineering to dance a natural one. "When I was a freshman, they hand-picked a few engineering students coming in every year whom they thought showed the greatest potential, then followed them. When we graduated, we all got together at the dean's office, and none of us was going to continue in engineering. They considered that a success because we got the bigger picture. I'm sure Bob McKim would look at this as a logical progression of what they taught us as opposed to a divergence," Powers says.

Powers' background may serve him well in the classes he teaches, which almost always attract more men. Moreover, 40 percent of his students are studying engineering.

Perhaps, he speculates, they can identify with someone who seems "a little like them, someone who has gone through the same struggles that they went through." He says his classroom approach is to restate things in several ways using physical terms, visual explanations or even engineering speak. "If somebody is in human biology, that'll go by them and then they'll catch the next way that I approach it."

He finds that once many of his students leave the Farm, the real world can be a bit jarring. "I hear my friends, my students who graduated who are now working in Silicon Valley. Just when they were blossoming into the arts and dance and self-expression, all of a sudden they have a seven-day-a-week, 12-hour-a-day [job] in a completely tech field. I hear a lot of frustration and unhappiness." He encourages them to try to find ways to keep their creative selves alive. He acknowledges that many of these recent grads are simply paying off loans and may ultimately get back to their art. "They have a lot of life ahead of them," he says.

A new partnering paradigm

One of Powers' primary interests of late is partnering. Two generations ago, he says, the man was the leader and the woman was the follower in ballroom dance. "He was literally the author of her dancing," he says. Then one generation ago, the baby boomers started rebelling against that and came up with a more equal definition of partnering, "where she has some say and he has some flexibility."

In his classes, Powers emphasizes the need for the male dancer to be "very responsive and receptive. The receptive mind is this mind I'm talking about -- the alive mind, in the moment, as opposed to already knowing what you're going to do ahead of time, planning it out like the old-school dance. I define the leading role as requiring a highly active attention to possibilities. Not long ago the following role was seen as opposite of leading. But I see the following role as also requiring a highly active attention to possibilities. In sports they call that flowstate."

Powers' sports analogies worked for at least one student. Cardinal hoopster Mark Madsen took Powers to lunch last year to express how much his social dance class had meant to him. "He told me that it had improved his game. He said, 'The coaches teach us to look down, look up and shoot. In cross-step waltz, you taught us to always look over your shoulder and use the widest possible peripheral vision.' More active attention, more possibilities," Powers adds.

Another student told Powers that learning to be receptive to her partner on the dance floor taught her to pick up on subtle cues at home, thus improving her relationship with her roommate.

The concept of partnering is so fascinating to Powers that he spent the entire fall quarter in northwest Georgia thinking and writing about ways to teach it. The hundreds of pages Powers wrote have provided the perfect overview for redesigning his Social Dance I class, which now will have three weekly sessions instead of two. During the additional session he will integrate the practice of dance with the intellectual concepts of appreciating one's partner, being flexible and "welcoming chance intrusions."

A new generational shift

Powers, who owns one of the most extensive private collections of dance manuals, is optimistic about the future of social dance. After World Wars I and II, he says, men, who had previously flocked to the ballrooms, shunned dancing.

"After the wars, dancing became considered less masculine. I guess it was going through the whole boot camp experience that poisoned a lot of men," he says.

A new crop of men is returning to the dance floor, even as their roles there are changing. "I really like that the current generation here seems to have kept those aspects of their parents' subculture revolution that work and rejected those that don't, and the aspect that works is more gender equality," Powers notes.

He points out that one of the other characteristics of Generation X and those who have come of age since then is that they are continually trying to decipher "what is real. I think our younger generation is more streetwise and has a little more common sense because they have to. Otherwise, the hype is too overwhelming," Powers says. He adds that so much has been pitched to them -- "ideologies as well as products" -- that things like borrowing the music of others are attempts to assess what has value. "That's what the whole sampling culture is about. Because the only way you know for sure is to try it.

"As a whole generation, they're not buying the whole party line of ballroom dance: 'Do it this way, because it's in the syllabus.' 'Do it this way, because I said so.' They are being playful and creative and they find that they can do something that works. They're more responsive than they used to be to creativity and crossover and genuine partnering in my classes than they were eight years ago."

Tickets for Dance Vortex will be available at the door Friday and Saturday. The cost is $8 for students and $10 for non-students. For more information, contact the Dance Division at 723-1234.