Twenty-one years ago I met Koob–the name he is known by in the dance community–at a rehearsal with Six Thumbs Dance Theater at City College of San Francisco. Many things have changed since we first met. The cold, dank and dark City College building we danced in was demolished a few years ago to make way for a brand-new beautiful building with real dance studios. Footwork on 22nd St., where we performed together, is no longer there, although Dancers’ Group is alive and thriving. And I moved to the suburbs to start a family and consequently have lost touch with my “city” dance friends and colleagues. Although, like so many of us in mid-life, Koob and I hadn’t kept in touch as much as we’d have liked, Koob’s passing on December 31, 2011, has left a deep impression on me.
Koob was an intelligent, pure and thoughtful dance-maker. One of his great inspirations was Mary Wigman, and of course, the angst of German Expressionism. He had trained in Wigman technique under Hellmut Gottschild at Temple University. I never will forget one particular rehearsal with Six Thumbs, when he was setting The Have Nots, a piece about hunger and the disparity in life. The company was practicing a movement sequence in which we needed to be floppy like a rag doll so that our bodies could get to movement that was more relaxed, natural and authentic. I remember how hard this was for me, coming from a ballet background–just trying to relax and breathe and release in my joints. We had to practice it over and over so we could get the quality just right and really feel it in our bodies. My friend Claudine Naganuma recalls of that piece, “I have fond memories of nailing vegetables to the wall.” Her recollection brought me back to the whole process of creating that piece–figuring out how to prop up big slabs of wood against the beautiful windows at Footwork so that we could have a bleak, raw wood, hard-sounding surface to pound vegetables into, and then practicing hammering (because at first I could not pound a nail in straight). Koob was a choreographer with a lot of integrity, and he was also a dancer with integrity. As a dance partner, he was matter-of-fact, sincere and easy to work with. I never felt there was any ego involved; it was always about the dance.
Dance is a very intimate art form. When you dance, you get to connect with and know another person in a way that is uniquely inherent to dance. Moving with or against a fellow dancer’s timing, catching hold of each other at just the right moment, adjusting muscular tension to lift or rebound off the other dancer–these actions all require the body, mind and spirit to work synchronistically to get to know the other person–and they are all unique to dance. As dancers we have all experienced this connection, and when you get to know someone in that way, it leaves an embodied impression. I know that is one reason Koob’s life has made a lasting impact on me.
But there is another reason. He brought the pure beauty of dance not just to his dance colleagues, but also to over 20,000 children during his 20-year career as an artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Arts Education Project (SFArtsED). Koob was committed to bringing the connectivity, joy, safety, comfort, and self-expression that he found through dance to thousands of children. He was a master teacher of children, even the little ones. I remember that in the mid ’90s, when I had to leave my dance teaching position at my friend Debra’s preschool, Koob was the artist I recommended, because he intuitively understood children at their level–in their space and time. He had the ability to bring what he loved and what was important to him as a human being and artist–dance–to children in a deep and meaningful way.
Since then, I have worked with hundreds of dance teaching artists and can say with confidence that this is not a lifetime career for everyone. It is not easy to stay in a profession that is sometimes unrecognized and not supported by the general public, does not usually offer healthcare and retirement benefits, and requires traveling to different school sites and remembering the names of many children. Koob remembered each child’s name, and he taught about 1,000 children a week. It is also challenging to teach in less than desirable situations–dirty cafeteria floors, small stage spaces, classrooms crowded with chairs and tables. Koob managed to do this with grace and agility by getting to know the people at the school sites. When we worked together as SFArtsED, he told me which janitors I should get to know so that I could work with them to get the floor clean for dance class. Koob watched over me in other ways the first year I started at SFArtsED. He made a point of checking in with me about how my classes were going, and the first time my kids performed in Stern Grove for SFArtsED’s annual show, he gave me pointers and helped me manage my kids while also managing his own. I remember being extremely nervous that day, and I was grateful to have a colleague with more experience supporting me.
Koob represents for me everything that a truly gifted teaching artist can bring to their life’s work–dedication, community, honesty, humility, rigor, and truth about an artistic discipline. It is remarkable that he was able to do this in dance–an art form that is so undervalued, with only 9% of children in California receiving dance instruction in public schools. While teaching, he raised community awareness about the art form, so much so that Miraloma Elementary School renamed its auditorium after him. Dance, more than any other art form, gives one a place in this world, because when you are dancing, you get to be who you are in the moment–whole body, mind and spirit. This is what inspired Koob to dance in his youth, and this is the beautiful and joyous legacy he has left to thousands of children. Bravo, Koob!
Michael Koob: Dancer, Choreographer, Teacher
December 3, 1961-December 31, 2011
TRANSIT Dance Company (founder and director)
Rebecca Salzer Dance Theater
Six Thumbs Dance Theater
ZeroMoving Dance Company
SFartsED public schools – Alvarado, Argonne, Glen Park, Miraloma, Presidio Hill, Sunset, Rooftop
Brisbane Dance Workshop
Chinese American International School
Debra King Nursery School
French American International School
San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department Afterschool Programs
Schools of the Sacred Heart
A special scholarship fund has been set up in Mr. Koob’s name. Checks may be made payable to SFArtsED, with “Michael Koob” in the memo line, and sent to SFArtsED, c/o Norse Auditorium, 135 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102.
Nancy Ng is a teaching artist and the co-director of Luna Dance Institute. Since meeting Koob, she has taught thousands of children and hundreds of teachers through the art of dance.
This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of In Dance.