Stepping into the inspiring beauty of the old Radcliffe College gym, Claire Mallardi took her customary place front and center — the air silent, her students transfixed.
“When she walked into each class it was like nothing I have ever seen since,” said Rika Burnham, a former student.
“It was as if her feet pulled these forces out of the ground, and her hands and arms extended into the universe, and her torso was electrified with energy. She would stand there, summoning these forces, and then suddenly she would click her fingers and the music would start.”
She arrived at Radcliffe in 1964 and became a lecturer on dramatic arts and artistic director emerita in her later years, still adding to her resume as a teacher into her 80s.
During some four decades of teaching at Harvard, Ms. Mallardi helped pioneer the recognition of dance as an academic discipline at universities nationally, where before the pursuit had been almost solely the province of conservatories and schools for the performing arts.
Many who studied with her kept in touch, seeking lessons beyond learning how to move through the space around them.
“She taught us the art of the dance, but equally she taught us a way of life,” Burnham said. “To see the spirit world, to question the world we thought was normal, to want less and be more, to think as outliers, to eat macrobiotic foods, to laugh at bureaucratic absurdity, to wear vintage hats, to dance in fields of brown paper, to love late nights in cheesy restaurants in Harvard Square.”
This was not what most students anticipated when they signed up for one of Ms. Mallardi’s classes, which initially were part of Radcliffe’s sports, dance, and recreation program.
At Radcliffe, and then at Harvard after the colleges became one, she encouraged students to use their minds as well as their bodies.
“This isn’t aerobics. If you just want to sweat, go somewhere else,” she would say. “Don’t just move your muscles, move your imaginations.”
She left a lasting impression on all her students, including those who sought careers in medicine, law, business, or academia. Some changed the course of their lives or incorporated her influence into their own paths into the arts.
“I would call her a mentor,” said the actress Lindsay Crouse. “I would really say that some of my early performing came from the confidence that I gained from working with her.”
Ms. Mallardi taught teachers, too. Among those she hired at Harvard was Tommy Neblett, who is now dean of dance at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She was, he recalled, a mentor as a teacher and as a choreographer.
“She had an amazing eye for choreography and for guiding young choreographers to distill their ideas down to a clear and precise work of art,” he said. "Her favorite expression was ‘no loose change – don’t clutter up your choreography with excess stuff.’ "
Christopher Caines, a dancer, director, and choreographer who runs the New York City company Christopher Caines Dance, said Ms. Mallardi’s “gift for teaching was that she was able to help people discover themselves.”
He went to Harvard planning to become a Celtic languages scholar and emerged a dancer.
“I would not have had the life I’ve had and the career I’ve had without Claire,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a day in my life as a theatrical professional when I haven’t thought of something she said. She lives on inside of me.”
Claire Mallardi was born in New York City on Dec. 9, 1928, and grew up in the Bronx. The youngest of three siblings, she was the daughter of Italian immigrants — Virgilio Mallardi, a tailor, and Serafina Cannella.
She initially taught herself to dance by memorizing what she saw in Fred Astaire movies, and then began formal training at the end of high school.
About that time, her parents died. Those who knew her well believed the expansive community of dancers and artists she gathered and nurtured the rest of her life was a way to compensate for that loss.
After graduating from Thomas Roosevelt High School in the Bronx she immersed herself in dance, working in stores during the day, then taking classes and rehearsing until past midnight.
Her teachers included luminaries of modern dance with whom she remained on a first-name basis: Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham.
She was 23 when her teacher Hanya Holm cast her as a dancer in a national touring production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” By then, Ms. Mallardi had already begun augmenting her professional dancing with teaching.
The long list of schools where she taught includes Boston, Brandeis, and Howard universities, Dartmouth and Bennington colleges, New England Conservatory, and the national ballet in Cuba, which provided her with an anecdote about hastily packing and running to a waiting boat as Fidel Castro marched into Havana in 1959.
She had been married when she first came to Boston but that relationship ended in divorce around the time she was offered a Radcliffe teaching post.
Ms. Mallardi had planned to only stay a few years. The fit turned out to be lasting, though not obvious at first. “They won’t even understand my English,” she thought, musing about how her Bronx accent would fall on Harvard ears.
“She was fiery. She was flame-like. She was vivid,” Burnham said. “There was nothing that was Harvard-packaged about her.”
Such traits drew many to Ms. Mallardi’s classes.
“She injected a certain street vibe that was really delicious, that was really wonderful, and that’s part of what allowed us to grow,” Crouse recalled. “There was a roughness about her and a delicacy about her at the same time. She was eclectic and so she brought us into a different kind of territory.”
Ms. Mallardi “believed in integrity above all. She felt you should never compromise your vision,” Caines said. “To her there was only one standard, and that was the highest. She didn’t leave people untransformed, ever.”
A service will be announced for Ms. Mallardi, who lived in Cambridge for many years and leaves a niece, Diane Bettge Norton of Fairfax, Va., and a nephew, Robert of Greenbelt, Md.
Ms. Mallardi encouraged her New York connections to conduct master classes when they stopped in Boston on tours, and she provided introductions to those dance masters when her best students headed into their own careers, even while she continued performing into the early 1970s.
She wanted her students to study with others and incorporate inspiration from other forms of art. Among her own less ordinary inspirations were stones she collected, which decorated her home and spilled out onto the steps of her third floor walk-up.
“They became her spirit greeters — welcoming the visitor to Claire-land as you climbed the steps,” Burnham recalled.
Ms. Mallardi, Burnham added, had a quality “of alertness, of astonishment. Complacency was anathema. Complacency was not where you wanted to be: Go deeper. Go further. Don’t be boring.”
In classes, Ms. Mallardi would gesture grandly, as if willing herself to fill the expansive Radcliffe gym.
“Don’t limit yourselves to your little bodies,” she’d tell students. “You have to be as big as this room. You have to be as big as the universe.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.