How Dance is Taught / Daniel Levi-Sanchez

Episode Summary

How Dance is Taught an interview with dance educator and dancer Daniel Levi-Sanchez.

Episode Notes

How Dance is Taught / Daniel Levi-Sanchez

In this episode of DanceCast, Silva interviews the dance educator Daniel Levi-Sanchez. Daniel reflects on his formative years teaching himself street forms as well as eventually receiving more traditional training from the Inner-City Ensemble Theatre and Dance Co., from Juilliard, and from Twyla Tharp herself. Daniel advocates for a teaching style that empowers students instead of isolates them. He muses on how a ballet or jazz class will lose a lot of students if the class is presented in the public schools, or how students who go to a studio often end up dropping out after high school or college. In 2019, Daniel was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and acquired a disability. After successfully completing a dance challenge from an old colleague, Daniel began to revisit dance with a focus on dance teachers with disabilities.

Text by Emmaly Wiederholt

Daniel Levi-Sanchez, from Paterson, New Jersey, received his formal dance training from the Inner-City Ensemble Theatre and Dance Co. and the Juilliard School of Dance. He performed with Twyla Tharp Dance, American Ballet Theatre, and ODC/San Francisco and is a dance educator with a master’s degree in Education from Rutgers University. Daniel has taught ballet and modern dance at Rutgers University, Raritan Valley Community College, and for three years at PS 191, The Paul Robeson School in Crown Heights Brooklyn. In 2019, Daniel was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, a neuromuscular disorder brought on by an autoimmune response resulting in permanent disability. Today, Daniel is focusing on his health first, as well as finding ways of remaining involved in the dance community through advocacy for teachers with disabilities, advice for dancers and teachers, writing and testing the limits of what he can and cannot do in the hope of someday being able to teach again. Daniel currently resides in Kingston, Rhode Island.

This episode was published in collaboration with Stance on Dance.

And more about Silva does at Art Spark Texas check out the dance programs website,


Episode Transcription

Silva Laukkanen  0:27  

Welcome to Dance cast, the podcast in which I interview people who create inclusive dance all around the world. My name is Silva Laukkanen and I am your host


Welcome to Dance cast to Episode 60. In September 2021, I looked at my email inbox and saw this email titled teachers with disabilities. It had came to me through the NDEO disabilities forum that national dance education organization hosts for their members. And in that email Daniel Levi-Sanchez was talking about where are the dance teachers with disabilities? And why aren't we not talking about it? So of course, I wanted to talk to Daniel about this and ask him more what he meant and what his thinking was. Daniel Levi-Sanchez, from Paterson, New Jersey, received his formal dance training from the Inner City Ensamble Theatre and Dance Company and the Juilliard School of Dance. He performed with Twyla Tharp dance, American Ballet Theatre, and ODC San Francisco, and is a dance educator with a master's degree in education from Rutgers University. Daniel has taught ballet and modern dance at Rutgers University, Raritan Valley Community College, and for three years at PS 191. The Paul Robeson school in Crown Heights Brooklyn. In 2019, Danielle was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder brought on by an auto immune response, resulting in permanent disability. Today, Daniel is focusing on his health first, as well as finding ways of remaining involved in the dance community through advocacy for teachers with disabilities, advice for dancers and teachers, writing and testing the limits of what he can and cannot do in the hope of someday being able to teach again. He currently resides in Kingston, Rhode Island, and with Danielle recites also his dog who was a special guest in this episode as well. I hope you enjoy it. 

Silva Laukkanen

Hey, Daniel, thanks so much for meeting with me actually. So cool. I've been reading about you on your extensive dance teaching career.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  3:09  

Uh huh. Yeah, yeah.


Silva Laukkanen  3:11  



Daniel Levi-Sanchez  3:13  

A lot of dance in my, you know, started out young and then just this went from there. It's one thing after another.


Silva Laukkanen  3:23  

Yeah. Tell me a little bit. How did how did you actually end up into the dance world? What, like, what is your path?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  3:30  

Let me see. You know, being raised by, I was born and raised in Paterson, New Jersey, you know, back at a time where, you know, it wasn't a very, like, affluent place. I mean, even now, there's still you know, is it fairly poor neighborhood, my parents came from Puerto Rico. And, you know, I was, I was the last, I have older brother and sister. And, you know, throughout my life, as a child growing up, my mother listened to music all the time. We were always there was always a house party, on a weekend at, at at, at one of my relatives house either my uncle, my grandmother, it was always music and dance, music and dance. And I always felt like as a child, that music and dance, I mean, it you know, as a child, you learn, you learn how to speak through listening to others. And I feel like it because language is a form of communication. I also learned that music and dance as well are forms of communication, watching them dance and how they communicated with each other through music and movement, and my father was also a guitarist. I think I took that with me for the rest of my life because as, as I grew older, I I started to develop my own movement language, you know, through watching people like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, and, you know, and also all these other people, you know, in my family and dancing, the different styles, salsa, merenque, bolero, and all these, you know, all these different things. Some point in my life. I guess it was a teen when I was a teenager, I mean, I just kept dancing all the way through learning a lot of different styles, just from the street. And then I was taught as theater and dance company perform when I was a teenager, and they were doing jazz, they were doing the form. And I saw that and said, Wow, you know, just a whole other form of dance that I don't even know. So, I auditioned there, I think when I was 12, I didn't get in then. I was too young. But when I was 14, I audition. And they performed everywhere, you know, and they're from our, our home town, called the Inner City Ensemble. And they would perform the community performances, but also they performed in colleges, and in New York City, we we did a performances there as well, like a Lincoln Center outdoors. This is way back. I don't even know if they still do that. But um, I got a lot of my training from there, like Limon, Graham, ballet. And the you know, the great thing about this program is that it was all free. There was no Well, I mean, it was it was back in the day when when we had a government that supported the art really well. And we I was really lucky. I mean, everybody that was involved at this time was lucky. And we got really great training in in not only dance, but in theater as well. People like Olympia Dukakis came by and taught us about scene study. She's like the really great actress. Many of our teachers there were from Juilliard. They studied there. So I was really fortunate. And luckily, from there, then I feel I was old enough to graduate from high school. And I auditioned for Juilliard and New York University as well. And jewelry accepted me. And you know, for me at that time, I still, I still didn't think about performing with a professional dance company was just not in the cards. I mean, I didn't even I didn't even know you can have a career in dance. At that even even when I auditioned for Juilliard. All I kept thinking in my mind, I just want to keep dancing. I don't care if I'm dancing in the street. I don't care from dancing in my house. And at that time to I had already amassed all these different forms. I was also a breakdancer dancing in the streets. I was in a I was in a crew where we would go to clubs and we would compete against other break dancers and everything. So I got in I was accepted to Juilliard. I was there for like, about two years. I, you know, Juilliard was wasn't the best for me. And I think it's because there were several reasons one of them was I was not my academics were not great. You know, because I guess from where I came from, I was not studious in that way. You know, but I was in terms of dance I soared. I mean, I was I was in their little touring company and things like that. But after two years, we just decided it wasn't for me. So then I went and found other places to dance. I was a scholarship student at Alvin Ailey Dance Center. And I was there for several months at that time to have an opportunity to teach at a college in New Jersey. I teach dance there for about a year I did that and also dance with a small modern company from New Jersey at that time, and then I had this big audition with Twyla Tharp. And she had a big I guess we call it a cattle call where lots of guys came and performed and it was very bizarre for me, I remember going in you know, at that time, I've never seen her perform. I heard her name but you know, like I said, I wasn't. I think ignorance, if anything is what got me to, to, to move as high as I did and also not a need to be a star performer. I didn't care about that. All I wanted to do was dance. So I had this big audition, I went there wearing a I wore a mechanic's uniform, you know, like the or like mechanic like blue like a jumper suit.


Silva Laukkanen  10:18  

Like a one piece?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  10:20  

yeah, one piece, Pete over here, whatever, wasn't even my name, I don't even know what I don't even know the back said something as well. And I wore some tattered old sneakers. I don't know what what came of me to wear is that I look back at it. But I did, I wore I went to this audition, only one looking like some weird guy off the street. Uh, two weeks later, she called and said, she wanted to work with me. And at that time, their company was in South America. And she worked with me for about three months, it was just her and I and she was just basically coaching me on her on her style, and her way of movement, and we'd go into the room and she would go meet her in the studio. And we start either doing a warm up, or some sort of sometimes we'd have people come in and we're doing aerobics at the time. Then she would start off with those, she puts on a piece of music and she would improvise. And my, my goal as a dancer was to assimilate her movement, to not copy it. But I had to assimilate it, I had to assimilate her, her weight shifts her if her fingers doing something I needed to see every and absorb every ounce of of that so that I wasn't copying movement. But I was basically being Twyla. And learn her weight shifts, how she uses her feet, how she transitions from one movement to the other and how she uses movement. It was just fascinating. And


Silva Laukkanen  12:00  

that's a really interesting approach to movement and the technique, you know, like to assimilate to really feel it right, your own body.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  12:11  

Right, right. Yeah, because it doesn't work any other way. I mean, with with with her work, and, and you know, we would improvise for the longest time. And what happens from that is I always kind of like describe it as like a block of stone. So she's wiggling we would let whittle it until it becomes like a shape. So what happens is we have big improvisation. And eventually it gets whittled down to like an eight count phrase, or it could be a 16 count phrase, and that becomes the base could be the base of a larger work, the foundation of a larger work or different sections of, we did that a lot. And filmed it quite a bit.


Silva Laukkanen  13:02  

That sounds really cool.I would love to, you know that I would love to work like that.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  13:07  

Yeah, yeah, it you know, is it's so different than the traditional way. And it's still today, we still do this with a choreographers in the front and they'll be like, Okay, do this, you know, and, you know, they already have the phrase already, all you're doing is just copying. Whereas with the Tharp's way, you weren't copying, you were assimilating.


Silva Laukkanen  13:36  

Can I ask some because I found one of your resumes online, and I love the language that you use it in it and one of the things that you talked about your teaching of modern dance you say, and this is a quote, "use an authentic/ constructivist approach to presenting modern dance as a means of merging both the human and the dancer".


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  14:03  

Yeah, you know, that. And that is something they came out, mostly came out when I was a, when I was studying, getting a master's in dance education. This is way later on. And my at the later end of my life go up but when I was going, when I was getting my masters to become a dance educator, I I got to a point where and maybe it was a revelation, where I started looking at how I was taught as a dancer, and it's always been, you have the teacher and you have the dancer and the two never really come together. And with with dance education, one of the mandate is that, that all dancers should have access to dance and so that and also they should, let me see, have access to dance and, and, and is allowed to dance basically, to that degree, all students or all children should be allowed to dance. And in me thinking, if I were to teach children ballet, or to teach children jazz, I'm already eliminating several students in especially in a public school education, I may get one or two that understand or is excited about what I'm doing, everyone else I've already lost, it also merges with the way children should be taught in schools in general, as that children, you should teach the whole child that the teacher should have the knowledge to look at each child, and understand what their learning styles are. And in that way, you can reach the child and teach them that thing is what happens in in the schools as well as teachers will just teach to the class and lose a lot of the students. So as an educator in dance, I wondered, Is there a way to do that as well in dance in or facilitate, facilitate dance in the public school, and I've been I taught at one for three years, is to give them a chance to have ownership of the class. And the only way to do that is to look at what they bring to the table. All everybody can dance. Right. You know, but I think what happens is that a lot of people think dance is like, oh, ballet or jazz, I can't do that, you know, we were born and I go back to when I was a child, we all can express ourselves to me, I mean, to this whole thing, I'm doing this with my hands, right? During this whole interview, this can be a piece in and of itself, a person standing on stage with a spotlight on them and just doing this, that could be the beginning of something and then somebody else comes in. And I mean,


Silva Laukkanen  17:21  

add my solo, my head moments where I comminicate to you like nodding my head and my eyes and like, you know, like I'm constantly communicating. You're right, you're right, it is this is like a duet right here.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  17:35  

So then it became a revelation for me going, if I can somehow bring what they bring to the class, I bring what I bring to the class and somehow create, I wouldn't even say a technique, say a technique, it's like not even a style. It's just another way of I don't even I can't even come up with a title for it. But that feels good to me. That, because in that way, I was thinking that was thinking about the dance, the public school arena, I began to teach this way when I was a master's student as well, because I was teaching. My last year I taught BA students, they were not dance students, they were students like sciences and math. So when they came, because they do it just for credit, so my goal in that class was, you know, if we were working on a movement problem, I always kind of try to use a scientific method. You know, when you have a problem, you try to solve the problem through movement, I would ask if this person's major was math, let's just put dances I don't I don't want you to think like you have to do roles or jump or anything like that. How would you do it as a math student? How would you translate that physically in your body to to try to solve this problem? And in that way, if there's a way you can tie the two together, you can get these people that that are able to use what they already have to solve problems move in a movement sense, maybe they can take this beyond college, and bring it into their life in the professional realm, and use that to solve problems when they're at work. So I'm thinking of a way that how can we take dance, and give it a life beyond college, beyond the studios, you know, a lot of times that the kids take their classes in the studio, they graduate from high school and they're done. Dances done.


Silva Laukkanen  19:46  



Daniel Levi-Sanchez  19:47  

but how do we take it and go beyond that doesn't have to be dance per se. But if they can see dance as a tool, rather than a extracurricular activity, Then they can bring it with them to solve problems somewhere down the road. I mean, there's so much in dance that that can lend to that. So that's where that phrase was; How can we take dance and take it outside of this realm where it kind of stays there? And how do we bridge it? I think the same same way with in the public schools, if we can give them equity give them where they have ownership of the classroom, they're going to want to stay there. If they know they, what they have, they can bring to the table so.


Silva Laukkanen  20:38  

yeah, that's a really good point. You know, I always wonder this too like, why do people drop it completely? They don't become any kind of consumers of the art form dance, they don't come and go and watch dance. They come and they were like, what is it? What is it that we make it so elitist? And un, un-accessible in a way that people want to just drop it completely?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  21:01  

Right. Right. And I think a lot of it, I think a lot of it is our fault. It because we that's how we present ourselves to be we're like, huh, this is us, you know, we do this, this is the where we're like superhuman or dancers and you guys are not, or it's something


Silva Laukkanen  21:23  

and that it's really hard to reach this place. Like you need to work really hard. And this you know, only another quote from your, from your resume that I really love. It's "introduce ballet as a function of movement as a means of challenging the assumption that ballet is only for selected few". I love that too. Like I was really excited about your way of thinking dance education.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  21:50  

Yeah, well, I mean, I, I had the opportunity to teach ballet and when I was a mashes to them, but also when I graduated, I was an adjunct at at a school in New Jersey as a, at a college in New Jersey as well.


Silva Laukkanen  22:08  

You were at Rutgers, right?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  22:10  

Yeah. I graduated from from there. My Yes, after doing this many years that we're talking like, in my 40, I went to Rutgers. So in between there was a whole other life. I don't know, if we'll have time talk about


Silva Laukkanen  22:28  

Yeah, there was just it was a Twyla Tharp, and I'm sure there was a lot there between


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  22:35  

yeah, yeah, there was also just of my family life. I'll go back to that for a second. But like, in terms of ballet, when a person comes in and learns ballet, I feel like they should be given the opportunity to express the movement, the way they interpret it that to be. So if they're doing an arabesque, does the arm have to be at a certain level, does the head have to be a certain place, so everybody's arabesque is going to look different. And that's fine, because that is how they express it to be. Now if if I were teaching at ABT, or New York City Ballet, if I can't do that there, I mean, there is there's something, there's a strict regiment, and we all the dancers have to be taught the same technique and look the same way. And I totally understand that. But when you're teaching dancers, I mean, that they're not aspiring to be that, they just want somewhere where they can, they like ballet, but they want to feel like they're good at it, you know, or they want to feel like happy about doing it. And the only way to do that is to allow them to express it the way they feel like it can be expressed. And then they're like, they become more like happy about themselves and they want to they want to do it more. The teacher has to have a mindset and a belief that all dancers can express all movement and the way in and you know, I get that from Twyla because in Twyla's movement, I mean, if you ever you'll probably never see our her company doing it. You'll see ballet companies doing them, she was very like, insular when it comes to her showing her work with our company with with the Tharp company, they if you ever see the Tharp company doing in the upper room, you'd see a completely different looking company. You see dancers dancing, doing the same movement, but expressing it in a different way. Yeah.


Silva Laukkanen  22:36  

that's really fascinating. So but in 2019, your your career change drastically. And this is actually how I got to know about your work because you're raising really, really good questions. And this is you raise these questions at the NDEO online forum and around the NDEO practices who feels welcomed as a dancer educator to their, their organization? Do you want to talk about that a little bit yourself?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  25:23  

Yeah, well and well 2019 I was I was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. What myasthenia gravis is, it's a, it's a neuromuscular disorder brought on by immune auto immune response. What ended up happening was, I was coming off the train here, I'm in Rhode Island, and there's a train station nearby, my wife came to pick me up. So I see her there. And I'm like, oh, yeah, and we'll run up the stairs. So there's like three flights of stairs. After the first flight, all of a sudden, it felt like it kind of felt like, you know, you have a balloon, and all the air of balloon just went in my legs. So as I was going up, up, I was going down, down, and I ended up like, landing on the stairs. You know, it was like a gradual, like, loss of muscle strength. And I was like, wow, what just happened? I was completely befuddled. And I forced myself back up. And I worked my way across the, the way, and I got to my wife, and she was like, what happened? I said, I don't know, I first I said, I must be out of shape. You know, I was running up the stairs. And I'm like, weird, I don't know what happened. But from that day on, I never walk fine. Coordination wasn't there, I was constantly wobbling, I call it. So my strength never came back in my legs and basically just dropped out of dance all together that there was, I'm a lot better now. And I'm trying to get myself at a place where I'm a little bit more consistent. Because of the fluctuating nature desiase, at that time, I just thought, Well, that's it. I'm not dances over. I'm not gonna there's no way I can do it again. A really good friend of mine Dance Challenge. I got back on the Facebook I hadn't had on Facebook. And alongside Kevin who danced with ODC San Francisco with me like four or five years when I was there. And he did this dance challenge where he did I think about like, 32 counts of a dance phrase from a piece that was done in the past. And he did it in the kitchen and he said, Okay, all you ODC dancers I want to see you do this, see if you can remember this. So, you know, I saw it and said, Hmm, well, let me try it. At that time, I could barely move, I can't, I can't move fast. Every movement I make has to be very deliberate. And I have no balance. So I did the phrase, in a small part of my kitchen was very tight. I had the stove on my left. And I had a counter on my right. So I did the phrase in the way I could do it, but I use that to keep myself from falling. It was very, it was interesting. So but after that, I said, Geez, if I can do that, if I can still move slightly even even in that way. There may come a time where I, I may be able to do something like possibly teach people that have muscular disorders such as myself, like someone with muscular dystrophy or thinking maybe there's a way I can bridge, this idea of teaching and take it to people that have movement disorders, and try to first of all, you have to dispel their assumptions that "Oh, I can't dance" and you have to go "yes, if you can move, you can dance". So to get them into a place where they can use their movements to create, you know, and in that sense, they're not only having the opportunity to move, but they're also creating dance. And maybe they can create dance with each other. Maybe create a little something, you know, just in these things just started coming into my mind. So Oh, so But, back back to the NDEO thing. I at that point, I wasn't thinking too much about being an advocate. But at that point, as was that will let me is I mean, because I was a member of NDEO for a while one I lost my membership after time, so I went to renew my membership. And I noticed that there wasn't a criteria for me. You know, there was a criteria for professionals, retired for students and things like that and I tried to look at the fine print. And there was nothing there to past dance educators that are disabled. It doesn't mean that we can't teach or that we can't dance. And I was looking through that going, Well, I mean, I don't want to put retired because I'm not retired, I feel like I can still do this, I just have to wait to give myself some time, so that I can, you know, and I can also write. So I mean, I can write things, that's also a way of being involved in dance. So I sent an email to their, to their membership and then also the to Susan McGreevy. I noted I want to renew my membership, but I don't, I'm not, I don't not gonna accept any of these other cards, I'm not retired, I'm disabled but that doesn't mean that I'm broken, that I can't be used to I mean, I have a wealth of knowledge. And I feel like I feel like there's things that I can still contribute. So I got an email back saying, okay, they totally saw they missed that sort of, like, sort of a blind spot. They're working on it. And they did allow me to become a member. But not under any, like, any label. So I'm still waiting for them. But but that kind of like dawned on me, and started to have me thinking, there is a part of dance that have accepted people with disabilities, nd I love that. Sometimes I questioned the intentions behind it. But I try not to go there. But sometimes I do. If it's authentic, if people really do believe that people with disabilities have something to bring to the table, and they do, and that's great. But if it's just the kind of like a, you know, like a token. You know, I think that I don't agree with that at all.


Silva Laukkanen  32:33  

think it's good to question that. I think it's very good.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  32:37  

I think I think so too. But I started to wonder about things like that. And then also, there is nothing that says anything about bringing in dance teachers that are disabled. I just would like to see a place for teachers or educators with disabilities, nd that I mean, if anything, that's kind of what what brought in that question when I put that post.


Silva Laukkanen  33:10  

Those are really good questions. I think you raised a really good point. I think, you know, you start your letter /email for the NDEO online forum. Like "when we think of disability and dance, we tend to think about students with disabilities and neglect to think of the possibility of a dance teacher with a disability". And I think a lot of like, those questions also are like societal in a way that we are a product oriented society.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  33:40  



Silva Laukkanen  33:40  

we have a tick tock time. You know, it's capitalistic.


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  33:48  

Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree with that.


Silva Laukkanen  33:54  

So I have a one last question, Daniel. What is your dream? What is What do you want to see in the next five years? 10 years? What are you dreaming about?


Daniel Levi-Sanchez  34:07  

Well, I mean, I'm right now I'm still kind of distracted by this disease. But let's just say I'm at a place where I can function a good maybe two hours or so. I'd like to teach again, I love teaching. My wife and I we purchased this stage coats bar. And upstairs from here is a huge space that we've converted, really nice cherry wood floors, would be my dream is to use the upstairs space, to teach classes. I would probably start with adults before I start with children. Teaching an adult class very simple like a sunrise ballet class in the morning, just come in. We'll teach a nice ballet bar. We'll start with on the floor with some stretching. And I think I would very simply just start from there, nothing big because I feel like maybe from there other things can happen. And also the other thing is writing, I'd love to continue and that I'll just always continue to do, I get chills and excited about thinking about it. So I would say like five years down the road, that would that would be my my first step of dream everything else before that would just be me just trying to feel my way through with this disease and this new life


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