When the clock struck midnight on Oct. 25, Richard Powers watched his class, Social Dance I, fill up on Axess in 22 seconds. This was a new record. The previous quarter had filled in 55 seconds, and the quarter before that, three minutes.
While most students have heard of Social Dance I, one of the most popular classes on campus, what is less know about Powers is his history in engineering and design. Powers holds patents for eight products — seven of which are sold on the market — including the trash compactor, the leak-proof hand sprayer, the childproof cap, and the tampon inserter.
Two days before Powers watched his classes fill, we were sitting in the basement of Arrillaga Recreation Center; he was wearing a baggy, worn-out Stanford sweatshirt that looked older than me, his forehead still damp with sweat from his last dance class.
As an undergrad at Purdue University, Powers studied mechanical engineering, and then came to Stanford to get his master’s in product design, with a focus in the creative process. As Chief Engineer for Apha Designs, Inc. and Vice President of the Genesis Design Group, Powers served big-name clients including NASA, Dupont, AT&T and Coca-Cola.
Powers’ parents — an oil painter and a musical theater set designer — were significant in his early creative development.
“[I was] very strongly influenced by building things and designing and painting, so it was natural for me,” Powers said.
However, Powers did not stay in engineering for long.
“If you have a company saying, ‘We just acquired these acres of forests. Come up with a way to use all the wood and paper,’ you can’t just say, ‘That doesn’t sound good for the environment.’ You say, ‘Yes, sir.’ … Quite a few aspects in the engineering world are not ethical and I just found that I could do more good, while doing less harm, in the world of social dance,” Powers said.
Before the age of 30, Powers retired from his nine-to-five job, paid off his house and devoted his life to what was then his hobby, historic social dance.
Since then, Powers has choreographed dances in film, television and on Broadway, and has led workshops all over the world. In 1992, Stanford asked him to teach social dance. In 1999, he was awarded the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for his contributions to education at Stanford, and he now teaches Social Dance I, II, III and DANCE 133: History of the Waltz.
Powers draws a parallel between dance and the ability to succeed in a competitive marketplace. The same dance principles he teaches in class also apply to the business world, he asserts. These parallels included the abilities to focus on others, welcome “chance intrusions” and work as a team by deeply listening to each other.
“Stanford wants its students to succeed in a competitive marketplace, and the downside, the unfortunate implication of phrasing it that way, makes it sound like you have to have a competitive attitude to succeed. That’s unfortunate, because the opposite is true … It is individuals with a competitive attitude who fail in today’s business world and this is because most businesses work in teams. You win when your team wins,” Powers said.
Former student and current teaching assistant for Social Dance I Melissa Carvell ‘13 emphasized that Powers himself is largely responsible for his classes’ appeal.
“Taking this class with Richard is unlike any class you will take with anybody else, dance class or otherwise,” Carvell said. “You can take it for the dance reasons … but you can take it for so many life reasons, and Richard is the most amazing person I’ve ever seen at integrating life lessons into dance.”
By many metrics, Powers is a successful person. However, what Powers considers his biggest success might be surprising to some.
His biggest success, he said, was a five-way tie. The first success of his life was his Stanford students, some of whom say that his classes have changed their lives. In fact, some of Powers’ students find more than the love for dance in his classes.
“Some of my students have met their life partners in my classes, and I used to think that’s because they liked finding somebody who knows how to dance, and I’ve realized more recently that that’s not the reason at all, they’ve found someone else who has these qualities: wanting others to win, deeply listening and adapting to change, and that is the definition of a great relationship,” Powers said.
Nick Enge ’09, M.S. ’11 and Carvell met through dance at Stanford: They were once enrolled in Powers’ classes, are now both teaching assistants under him, and became engaged on Oct. 23.
“It’s a dance love story, a little bit,” Enge said.
For the second success of his life, Powers didn’t hesitate. “My two sons,” he said, and their “healthy mindset and capabilities.”
The third is his marriage to his wife Tracey.
“We’ve been married 10 years and it still gets better every year,” Powers said.
His fourth success is his historic dance career and all of the traveling it has led to. Powers has led dance workshops in places like Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo, and most recently, Russia.
And his fifth success? His daily mindset, and how his life is what he views as the “perfect balance” between being busy, but not stressed.
“None of this really feels like work,” Powers said.
Through the course of my interview with Powers, I began to think differently about my own career path. I thought, will this really make me happy? Will I being doing more good than harm? By the end of the interview, I realized, after really listening to him, that I don’t have all the answers. And that’s okay.
“Our schools focus too much on what you do, and what you create, and what you produce, and that’s only half. I’ve always, my whole life, given equal emphasis to being receptive and curious, and watching closely, paying attention to others,” Powers said. “My life is definitely not about myself at all. Everyone else is much more interesting. I already know my own stories.”
Contact Jackie Mogensen at jmogie4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.