Narrative and Interview by Tori Fisher
Ian Howe began his dance journey at the young age of five. He had watched Savion Glover perform on “Sesame Street,” which inspired him to learn tap dancing. He trained at a small dance studio in Woodinville, Washington and later transitioned to Backstage Dance Studio in nearby Bellevue, which became his new dance home. He trained in tap, jazz, lyrical, ballet, modern, and hip hop. Howe grew up as a competitive dancer and competed regionally and nationally. During this time, he took dance classes from professionals such as Frank Hatchet, Joe Tremaine, and Joe Lantieri, who were all quite influential throughout his career development.
After graduating from high school, Howe began to travel and perform around the world as a dancer and singer on Holland America Line cruise ships. He did this for about eight years before returning to shore to continue his teaching career at Backstage Dance Studio, where he choreographed multiple award-winning dance numbers. He later became owner and Artistic Director of Pacific West Performing Arts while continuing to travel around the U.S. teaching and choreographing. In 2021, Howe, along with Chris Wendorf and Fernando Naranjo, co-founded The Power of Three Dance Training Intensive. The company “brings together artists representing the midwest, east coast, and Pacific northwest, providing a unique experience of classes and choreography” (The Power of Three 2023). The goal of this program is to train dancers by offering a unique variety of classes developed from the many years of professional dance experience of the three founders.
Ian Howe was also Associate Director for the Third Shift Dance Youth Ensemble in Seattle. While with Third Shift Dance, Howe participated in many events, including live collaborative performances with musicians Caela Bailey, The Bad Tenants, Naomi Wachira, and Whitney Mongé, back up dancing for Fly Moon Royalty and Mike Illvester, performing in music videos with Vespera, Naomi Wachira & Whitney Mongé, collaborating with photographer Meagan Hall of Blue Cone Studios, becoming community partners with the Lupus Foundation of America, and performing on stages across the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles. Howe has also worked with choreographers Lauren Edson and Eva Stone. Additionally, he works with Platinum National Dance Competition, Platinum Performance Plus Competition & Convention, and Empire Dance Challenge as judge, emcee, and teacher. During his career, Howe has choreographed many musicals for Rosebud Children’s Theater Conservatory, such as Legally Blonde, Beauty and the Beast, and The Music Man.
Ian Howe has received many accolades from his students and other people with whom has worked. One student, Jodie Ramsdell, is quoted saying, “Ian has been such a positive influence at our dance studio. He has helped encourage great friendships among the girls, treating everyone equally regardless of ability. Ian’s enthusiasm for dance is inspiring to the girls in his class. He has a way about him that makes him very approachable” Another response from Stephanie Harper, owner of Harper & I Dance Studio, is quoted saying, “He provides energetic classes that significantly challenge dancers in all aspects: technique, performance, movement quality, catching onto choreography quickly, etc. Ian does not simply throw a master class at his students; he strives to leave a lasting, important message that dancers can apply to their weekly classes with their regular instructors. Having Ian at our studio is always a breath of fresh air and I know that our dancers will leave his class feeling inspired, challenged and positive about their dancing.”
In 2022 Ian Howe was featured in an interview facilitated by Seattle Dances that discussed the pandemic and how it affected the dance world. Howe talked about how he handled the difficult situation by transitioning to dance online. He taught dance through Zoom and pre-recorded videos. In his spare time, he offers free classes for the general public, teaching “whatever people want” on Facebook or Instagram Live. Even during a global pandemic, Howe discovered new ways to recalibrate and expand on his own potential as a dance artist while also cultivating virtual community and helping others continue their dance training during lockdown.
Not only does Howe teach and choreograph dance, but he also owns a dance photography business. He started this business out of necessity because he was in need of recital photos while teaching at a private studio. He already owned a majority of the necessary equipment, so he asked, “How hard could it be to just do it yourself?” Within six months, he had learned how to photograph and created a new business. Along with learning photography, he also learned videography and photo editing, skills that he relies on often as a teacher and choreographer and from which he generated new lines of income. In the following interview excerpt, Ian Howe describes his life and career. To hear his experiences through his voice is inspiring and paints a picture of that captures his spirit as an enterprising, generous dance professional.
How long have you been choreographing and what has led you to this career path?
Howe: I guess I’ve been choreographing since I was 15 or 16. What led me to this career path? Natural progression of… I think just the lifespan of the dancer. I mean, I grew up as a competitive dancer, and then at 18 I graduated and went on cruise ships for eight years as a dancer. In between, I would come home and choreograph and teach and all of that, but when I got home when I was 26 or 27, that’s when I fully got back into choreographing and teaching. So, it was just kind of the natural progression of that part of my career being done, and then moving back on land and figuring out what I wanted to do.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Howe: It depends on the day, depends on the mood, and depends on the time. I mean, it can come from anywhere. It can come from a conversation that I have with somebody. It can simply come from a song that I’ve listened to. I don’t necessarily have any one source that I pick inspiration from. It’s kind of whatever tickles my fancy at that moment. And then if it feels like something I vibe with and I can move with it, then we go with it. But yeah… so I would say overall it just depends on where I’m at, and what I’m doing.
What are the steps that you take in making a new dance?
Howe: It depends on the timeline that I have. It depends on who I have that I’m dancing with. If it’s dancers that I’m just kind of getting handed, like going into the studio and doing a competitive dance, I don’t always know who the dancers are, or how they move, or if I get to pick them. Usually, where a lot of my dances come from is just finding a song or a phrase, and then I’ll go in and have some basic elements picked out. Like, “I know I want this move to happen on this count,” or “I need this phrase to happen within this,” but for the most part, I will go in with a basic idea, especially if I don’t know the kids or the dancers, and then just start working with them. Just start placing them in random things and start pulling different things out. Then I try to really specifically build it on the dancers that are there with me. Especially because I tell them that they don’t move like me and I don’t move like them. They’re going to move individually compared to each other. So, I might have something really cool in my head that looks amazing and that I know I can do, but they may not be able to do it, so I’m going to have to modify something. Or just being honest with them: “I don’t know what I wanted here. So, let’s start moving through stuff and figure it out.” You know? Figure out what looks good, or what works. So that’s my process. It’s kind of chaotic in that way where I don’t really come in with a plan and, if I do, it’s a very basic plan. And then it’s like color by numbers. Fill in the gaps, you know? “Oh, great. You look good doing this.” “Okay, you’re going to go over there.” “This trio looks good.” … It hasn’t failed me yet.
What is your process for selecting and working with dancers or dance students?
Howe: Somebody who has the drive for it. I mean, obviously auditioning kids is the most general way to do that. Sometimes it’s people reaching out to me and we talk about what they want and we try to figure out something that works. But mainly I like to work with dancers that want to be there. Who want to learn. Who want to absorb and better themselves. I don’t know if I necessarily have a process. It’s more like who I want to work with. And they have to have kind of the same vibe. I feel like I’m very good at working with just about anybody, regardless of why they want to be there or if they’re just being told they have to be there. But I definitely prefer-as I feel like most choreographers would-dancers who actually want to be there. Who actually want to learn. Who are excited about the project or just might be excited to dance, because it speaks volumes to what the piece will be and their commitment to it.
What does success mean to you in your role as a choreographer?
Howe: Producing something that people are happy about. I want the dancers to be able to walk away knowing that they did something that they liked, or that they had fun with, or that they learned something. Not just about being able to do another dance. To me, that’s success. If I can elicit a response from the audience, like if they come out saying like, “Oh, that was great,” or “Oh, that wasn’t something I understand.” Like a response is a response. It’s making them think. Yeah, I think for me it’s more important that the dancers have something that they can look back on and be like, “Okay, that was really cool,” “that was thought provoking,” or “I didn’t like that because of these reasons.” Letting them have the opportunity to grow and figure out who and what they are as dancers. As far as the audience response, that’s kind of subjective to me because it’s going to be very subjective. Art is very subjective in that, you know . . . I’ve seen numbers where choreographers have this big, grandiose idea that they’re trying to portray, but if I have to read the synopsis of it to even understand it, that gets lost on me. I’m like, “Okay, you created a number that had all these elements and I have no clue how they go together.” Good for you for getting it out there, but…yeah. The audience reaction, to me, is kind of secondary to how the dancers perceive it and how they feel about it in the end and through the process, too. Because ultimately, they’re the ones that are bringing the piece, the story, the thought alive. I’m just the one that’s kind of conducting what it looks like.
What have been your biggest challenges and successes as a choreographer?
Howe: Biggest challenge has probably been getting over the humps. Getting over the patches of life where I did not like anything that I was producing or putting out there. Where I didn’t have any inspiration or at least inspiration that I liked. Well, I had things that I liked, but they weren’t necessarily inspiring. It’s like, “Oh, that’s a cool move,” or “That would be a cool idea,” but it’s not anything that made me want to get up and make something. I would say that, for me, that was the biggest challenge. The hurdle that I’ve gone over and getting to the point of acknowledging, “Yep. Sometimes I’ll put out crappy work. Sometimes there’s just going to be things that don’t necessarily meet the vision that I had,” and being okay with that.
I would say that, on the flip side, the biggest successes for me aren’t necessarily like works that I’ve put out. I’ve been proud of some works, like working with Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts over the pandemic and doing all of the rehearsals and choreography via Zoom. And then being able to go see them, and video it and everything. That was really cool. But I think a bigger success for me would probably be getting through the pandemic and still having an appreciation for dance, and still having a love and a wanting to continue and pursue and, you know, still make things. Because definitely during the first year of the pandemic, I was very mad at dance. Very mad at performing arts. Very mad at all those things because a lot of those things had been taken away. For me, right now, the biggest success would be just being able to find my way back to teaching and choreographing and being happy with that and trying to grow and expand in that space again.
Why do you think that dance is important?
Howe: I’m a studio owner and I’ve owned a studio for six years now. And just like everything else during the pandemic, things shut down and we had to flip the business and make everything online and figure out how to still provide to a community that isn’t set up to do dance class essentially over mediums that are not conducive to doing dance class. And over that first few years, especially that first year and a half, those mandates were coming out where you can have only so many kids in a classroom with so much square footage and you have to face all the same ways so you don’t sneeze in somebody’s face. And basically, just fighting against the stigma that dance and, by extension, the arts, is not an essential thing for kids. But dance specifically, dance is an essential thing. Dance challenges you mentally. It challenges you physically. It challenges you emotionally. And each person is going to react differently to how they interpret what dance is. Each person’s going to get a different feeling out of it. But just, you know, the scientific parts of it being like, dance helps increase mental acuity when you do certain things. It helps younger kids with their fine motor skills and larger motor skills. It helps with depression. All these things. So, to be told that dance is not essential during a time when kids and adults were suffering in their mental health, and not being able to get out and move, and being afraid to do things, and still being able to write a service and trying to get people who don’t dance to understand that. Dance is important. And whatever that means to whoever… If it’s the one kid that’s coming 30 minutes a week to the kid who’s dancing 20 hours a week. It’s still the same. It’s important. It’s an essential thing. That was probably a very wide-ranging answer to a very specific question, but I mean… that’s my best answer to it. It’s that I can’t separate parts of dance. I can’t separate parts of the arts. Dance arts is the big thing. Dance, music, painting, all of those random things. But, dance itself is just important to the society. Dance itself is important to people’s mental wellbeing. There are so many things that are proven about it that help people. And I don’t think we fully understand what that means yet. Are there other parts of the dance industry that still have issues? Yes. So, am I saying that it’s perfect? No. But I think it’s something that people need in their daily lives. Or something that should be more focused on as something that can help people with different, you know, learning disabilities and physical disabilities. For dance just to be considered an essential thing in general, not just something that me as a dance studio owner, choreography teacher, whatever you want to call me, is limiting it to a specific field…
What are your hopes for the field and for yourself?
Howe: For myself, I hope within the next year or so that all the programs that I’ve started still continue to blossom and still continue to grow. My dance studios that I have are seeing pre-pandemic enrollment numbers for the first time in three years, so that’s amazing. People are wanting to come back. They’re wanting to get into the dance studio. They’re wanting to move again, which is so amazing to see. But yeah, I personally don’t have any specific goals like in the next year or two. I just want to see things continue to expand. See people get involved again. And I hate saying it, but whatever the new normal is with whatever, that we just continue to figure it out and live with it and not let that hinder what’s going on.
The industry itself has some work. It definitely has some work that needs to happen. I hope that there continues to be more oversight. I don’t want things to be regulated necessarily, but I think that there needs to be more oversight on things that are happening. I hope that the industry and the field continues to grow to be inclusive with a lot of things. Not just color and race and gender and stuff like that, but more in a bigger sense of like groups wanting to collaborate with each other or trading ideas, you know. Not, “Oh, I went to this program so obviously I’m better than you,” or, “I got a better education,” or, “I grew up here.” I’m like, “No.” Like, I didn’t go to college and I own dance studios. I teach kids and you know, it’s like, you don’t need all that other stuff. Yeah, it’s all conversation. But, I just hope that the industry continues to grow in the sense of realizing that mistakes have been made. Mistakes are still being made. We can’t just brush it under the rug and then go back to how things were. And I don’t think that there is a strong enough voice within the community of people that are actually trying to fight for that, because I think those voices get brushed under the rug because there are bigger voices and stronger voices that have more money and more influence that brush it off. It’s like, “Oh, well we’re changing. Great.” But what does that change actually look like? What are you actually doing to implement that change? How are you setting goals for the people that you’re serving for that change? For me, I hope the industry continues to grow and take notice and confront each other in that sense.
Do you have any advice for someone who would want to be a choreographer in the future or do kind of what you are doing now?
Howe: Do everything. Just do everything. Do everything that you can whether you like it or not. If you don’t like it, don’t do it again. But you can say that you have that experience. Meet people. I mean, as cliche as all this sounds, meet people. Network with people. Take from different teachers. Take from different choreographers. Learn. Help them mold your voice. They aren’t your voice but let them help you mold your voice. Something that I didn’t learn until my early thirties was don’t be afraid to just put crap out there. I mean that… you’re going to produce crappy works. You’re in pretty great works, too, but you have to just put stuff out. And I think the last thing I would say is to continue to evolve. Not just in your space as a choreographer, but as a teacher. I started learning how to do video editing and photo editing so that I could learn about that aspect: “How does choreography look on video as opposed to on the stage?” and “What do you have to think about there?” Also, I am involved in stage managing, lights, and sound… all of that. The bigger vision you can have, the better, because you’re able to look at dance from different aspects.
In the beginning of your career, how did you get your name out there? How were you able to make these connections and be able to grow like that?
Howe: I was the annoying person that just emailed everybody personally like that. I just started emailing studios and emailing people and being like, “Hey, I want to come teach for you.” Or “Hey, can I come guest teach for you?” and I was just persistent, and I just taught and danced everywhere. I literally just built a good name for myself as a reliable person and as a reliable dancer. And then I started to meet people and started to keep connections with people, and it just got to a point of where… I am not saying that I’m a household name by any means, but here in the Seattle community, here in the Washington State community, people just kind of know who I am. It got to the point where I wasn’t having to audition for things. I didn’t have to reach out. People were reaching out to me. It just kind of naturally happened. But there was a lot of work that went into the back end. Again, schmoozing, networking, putting stuff out there. So, yeah. That would be the biggest thing. You just have to put yourself out there. It’s such a small world. The more people you know, the better. But creating a positive name for yourself is also key.
Is dance something that you’ve grown up doing? Did you think as a kid that you would want to make dance a career when you were older?
Howe: Yeah. I started dancing when I was five. By 10 I knew I was going to be a dance teacher. By 15 I was teaching my first dance class. So, I knew that was a thing. Owning a studio… that was kind of, “If it happens, great.” And this studio that I own now, it kind of fell into my lap. It was not anything that I thought I was going to be doing at my age. And everything else that I’ve created at this point has been out of either boredom or necessity. To be quite honest, the professional dance company… My co-founder and I, we were good friends and we thought, “Yeah, we can do something. Let’s create a company.” And then, the dance training intensive… Honestly, the three of us were just kind of drinking over Zoom and they’re like, “Hey, we want to do this.” So, I got a business license and then went from there. The dance photography business… that came out of necessity. I needed somebody to take recital photos for me, and I’m already invested in all the lighting equipment and everything for the pandemic. I was like, “How hard could it be?” And you know, less than six months later, I created the company and now I’m booked out the month of May for dance studios to take their photos. So, I’m still learning stuff and figuring things out.
But, that [learning on the fly] has been my “dance curse.” I tell people, “Just do stuff!” That’s essentially what it comes down to. Do stuff. Figure out what you like. Figure out what you don’t like. Figure out what makes you happy. Figure out what you don’t want to do and go from there. Make yourself useful. Diversify yourself. That’s the only way that you’re going to stay relevant in this industry, especially as you get older. I’m turning 37. I’m not old, but I’m old, you know? In the sense of where the dance industry is and what I’m doing, there’s a whole new generation that’s taking over stuff. So, I have to figure out how to make myself diversified in a way that people want to keep me around and see the relevance of what I’m doing.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?
Howe: I guess I would just like to encourage anybody to always question why you’re doing what you’re doing. If there’s something that you wholeheartedly feel, then go for it. But question it. Understand why you’re doing it. Understand why you’re in this industry. If it’s something that you still get excited about, something that you still see yourself doing, then keep going for it. But if not, don’t feel guilty about needing to take a break from something… Because it can be very fulfilling, but it can also be very, very draining.
Takeaways: Ian Howe’s Impact on Dance
Ian Howe has had a love and passion for dance for just about his entire life. He has trained under many different dance genres, such as tap, jazz, lyrical, ballet, modern, and hip-hop. He grew up as a competitive dancer before being offered a position as a performer on a cruise line. After returning back to land, Howe continued teaching and choreographing dance. Eventually, he opened up his own dance studio and co-founded The Power of 3 Dance Training Intensive. Howe is a great dance instructor and is loved by many of his students. He is known for being positive and encouraging, while still challenging his dancers to improve their dance skills.
Howe has been choreographing since he was a teenager, and it naturally became his career over time. His inspiration to create dance can be found anywhere, whether that be from a conversation with someone or simply a song he heard. When making a new dance, he may prepare an idea or two ahead of time, but overall, he likes to go with the flow and create the dance depending on what looks best with his dancers in the moment. When he is selecting dancers, Howe likes to look for dancers who have the drive and passion to be a part of the project.
As a choreographer, success to Ian Howe is when he is able to create something that people are happy with, especially his dancers. His biggest challenges and successes have been getting past the times where he didn’t feel inspired to create anything, and simply getting through the pandemic and still having a love for dance. Howe believes that dance is important because it can help improve one’s mental state and can challenge you physically and emotionally. Howe’s hopes for the future are to see his programs continue to grow and improve. As for the industry, he hopes that it continues to grow to be more inclusive and open for the future.
Howe’s advice for anyone wanting to be a choreographer would be to do anything and everything that comes your way. He said that that’s how he was able to get his name out there himself. He would reach out to people and build a name for himself as being good and reliable. One final thought from him was that you should always question what you’re doing and make sure you fully understand why you’re doing it.
I can tell just from interviewing him that Ian Howe is very passionate about what he does and really cares about the work that he puts in. Just from the way he talks, I can tell that he is just a very genuine and authentic type of person. He spoke with a positive tone and seemed very engaged during the whole interview. He showed enthusiasm when he was asked to be interviewed and seemed excited about the whole project in general. He really tries hard to get his name out there and grow as a choreographer. He strives to be known as a reliable and trustworthy choreographer who works well with his students and really makes an impact. He cares a lot about his students and really puts a lot of effort into improving their skills. Howe has made a huge impact in the Seattle area in his dance community.
Videos of Ian Howe’s Choreography:
“Ian Howe.” n.d. Ian Howe. Accessed December 9, 2022. http://ianhowedancer.com/.
Kiggins, Steve. 2021. “Gyms, Dance Studios Reopen under New Rules.” Q13 FOX. January 11, 2021. https://www.q13fox.com/news/gyms-dance-studios-reopen-under-new-rules.
Nagel, Risa. 2020. “THE NEW DANCE CLASSROOM.” Seattle Dances. April 8, 2020. http://seattledances.com/2020/04/the-new-dance-classroom/.