Not all dancers are great teachers; Michael Koob was one the best of both worlds. My colleague Emily Keeler, artistic director of the San Francisco Arts Education Project, says, “Michael taught from his heart and the very center of his artistry. He was courageous, modest, funny, iconoclastic, handsome as all get-out, and one of the best teachers our organization has ever seen.” Michael understood dance at its core. He respected the creative process and treasured the discovery of one’s own body in space as well as in connection with other dancers. Michael saw the beauty in movement. With integrity and artistry, Michael instilled these values, along with the love and magic of dance, in his students.
Growing up, Michael found dance to be his salvation, his place of security and acceptance–and with this discovery came the inspiration for all he taught. He brought his life and his love of dance to each and every class. He provided his students with a safe and nurturing place to learn the technique and exploration of movement. Support of fellow classmates and all honest movements were praised; put-downs were just not accepted. His dance classes were a place for children to connect with others through the joy of interaction and movement. They were fun, energetic and purposeful. His students knew they were honored, accepted and challenged. His classes provided a space for all children to discover themselves and their individual voices.
Michael was an amazing witness to the growth of children as movers, able to hold the space for each student’s discoveries and explorations. He also knew when to push his students, when they were ready to go to the next level. He encouraged them to explore in ways they shied away from. In this way, his classes were rigorous; he taught each student to self-critique with integrity, honesty and love. “What did you see that you liked? What did you see that was different?” he would often ask the students when they were watching their fellow dancers show their work. He had each notice the accomplishments of others–the many and different ways of moving.
Michael understood the very heart and meaning of dance for each child. He acknowledged each student’s strengths, whether it was a desire to be center stage or simply to experience the joy of being a part of a group. This is what the art of his teaching was: he understood that the heart of the lesson was not to be the perfect performer, but to stand in one’s place fully, completely and responsibly. He taught the elements of dance, the exploration of space, patterns and pathways. He encouraged all students to find their own movement and style, and then set them free–to share what they learned not only about dance, but also about themselves. His student dances were filled with each young performer’s pride in his accomplishments and the joy of just dancing.
Michael ended his classes with each student getting a chance to run across the floor to try and give him a high five. He was a tall man, so with his arms reaching high, students ran with gusto and jumped with intent just to slap his hand. Everyone succeeded, even the shortest; he made sure of that. In that simple exercise, each child learned to reach, jump, land, connect with his or her body, and experience the joy of moving through space beyond the notion of competition–all for the pure love and joy of moving. Michael’s actions constantly reminded me of our goals as teaching artists: to allow all children to feel excited about their movement, their dance. Once, while in the middle of a rehearsal for a show, his preschool class, sitting on the edge of the stage, slowly moved closer and closer onto the stage. When I asked him to move them back, he looked straight up at me and said, “They’re preschoolers.” He knew what was important–for a child to experience the magic of the theater–and what should be ignored.
Walking onto any school playground, he would be greeted–rather, swarmed–by smiling students happy to see him and hoping that today was their dance day. He had entire schools dancing. At one elementary school he regularly climbed through the principal’s office window onto the roof to lead the entire school in a morning ritual “mirror dance.”
It is no surprise that his love of dance and teaching and his understanding of the creative process, along with his connection to young dancers, would be known and appreciated in the public eye. He received the “Teacher of the Year” award from the Mayor’s Department of Youth and Their Families during the Celebration of the Young Week, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee declared September 18, 2011, as Michael Koob Day.
I spoke with one of his past students, Lloyd Waldo, now a 27-year-old composer, about his experience of dance class with Michael. He said it all: “Michael was extremely patient with me. We both knew I didn’t know what I was doing, but he ignored that and focused on what I could do. Today I suppose I use part of that core of confidence in everything I do: a knowledge that there’s no shame in being different.”
Camille Olivier-Salmon is program director for the San Francisco Arts Education Project (SFArtsED) and artistic director for Brisbane Dance Workshop. Camille is also a teaching artist in dance and has been teaching and directing Bay Area children for over 30 years. For 17 years she and Michael taught in collaboration for SFArtsED Summer Camp.