By MARY CLOUD TAYLOR
Daily Inter Lake
Howard moved to the Flathead in 1996 with a limited ability to walk, much less dance.
Mental and physical trauma accrued from a past life in Oregon had left her scarred, physically, mentally and emotionally.
A brain injury along with a myriad of other issues kept Howard virtually bedbound and made everyday tasks like eating and dressing next to impossible without help.
She could hardly move on her own when she first visited Montana.
Upon arriving in the state, Howard said something unexplainable happened and she found herself suddenly capable of walking, a feat she had not managed successfully in years.
When her trip ended, she said she knew she belonged here, so together with her daughter and grandchildren she packed up all she had and moved to Columbia Falls.
Though still primarily bedridden after the move, Howard said one night she mustered enough strength to go out with her daughter to the Blue Moon, where she witnessed couples dancing in time to an upbeat band.
Though she had no background in dance at the time, she said she was drawn to it, and soon began forcing herself to attend the free lessons offered on Wednesday and Saturday nights.
“I came to a class and it was so scary,” she said. “I remember the hard part is standing out there and you’re going to dance but there’s people around and they’re watching.”
Howard stepped onto the floor without a partner and without ease, but despite the pain and confusion, she said she knew she needed something.
With the help of the instructor, she began to take painstaking steps forward, gradually gaining stamina as the different movements and patterns strengthened both her muscles and her mind.
Twice a week, every week, Howard returned, partner or no partner, for the next nine years, learning everything from rumba to swing to cha-cha and meeting new people from all walks of life who eventually became like family.
“It keeps me going. If it wasn’t for dance, I would be hibernating. Dance forces me out,” Howard said. “It is a wonderful escape. Whatever problems are going on, worries, stresses, I can come here and, for that two hours, forget about it.”
In 2007, her instructors decided to retire and pass the torch, asking Howard to step up and take their place.
After nearly 10 years of lessons, Howard said she still felt unqualified to teach, but she couldn’t let the lessons end and agreed to take over.
The transition from student to instructor challenged Howard in all new ways as she took the lead on the floor with the room’s full attention on her.
She pushed on, struggling at first with how to explain patterns and to learn, and then teach, both the men’s and women’s parts.
In time she developed a rhythm of her own and began adding different variations and switching up her techniques to help each student learn according to their needs.
“Everybody learns differently in different ways at different paces, but it can be done. Anyone can do it,” Howard said.
Over the last 15 years, she has taught students with a variety of physical limitations and learning challenges, but through her own experience with both, she said she gets it and does all she can to teach anyone to dance.
“If somebody really wants to learn to dance, I want to be able to help them do that,” Howard said. “I love it when someone gets bit by the bug and loves to dance.”
Starting with the basics and building up to more intermediate steps, Howard introduces both new and experienced dancers to the cha-cha, country waltz, two-step, night club, East and West Coast swing and more.
Though proficient in each, Howard said she never bores of the basics and her passion keeps her invested to the point of total devotion.
Throughout the week, she spends hour after hour preparing for classes — researching music, rehearsing patterns and working to keep things both fresh for the regulars and simple for beginners.
Her family, she said, would probably say dance has become her whole life.
“It’s a passion,” Howard said. “I dance for me. Every dance I do to execute that pattern, that movement, being in total control of the body, yes. I just got chills.”
Now she works to pass that passion on to others in hopes of providing the same escape and passion to others in a fun, relaxed atmostphere, whether she’s teaching a private lesson or to a room full of people.
“It doesn’t matter if I have 10 or 60. It’s like all of a sudden I’m not really aware of who’s there. It’s just about the dance,” she said. “It was so real for me, and it was such a blessing for me that I think what I want to do is enjoy focusing on those that are learning.”
Howard hosts her free dance lessons every Wednesday evening from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the Blue Moon Nite Club in Columbia Falls.
For more information, call 892-3110 or visit http://bluemoonmontana.com/index.html#dancehall.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.