NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a contribution by Daniel Levi-Sanchez, a Dancer/Educator living with Myasthenia Gravis. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please visit this link.
The Fate of Dance
By Daniel Levi-Sanchez, a Dancer/Educator living with Myasthenia Gravis
I was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis in July 2019. By that time, it had generalized throughout my body, greatly limiting all that I do physically. As a way of coping with this change, I joined a Facebook group devoted to people coping with this illness. Quickly, I realized that I was one of the lucky ones who was diagnosed through bloodwork. Many others on the site have gone through the mill trying to get diagnosed, only to be told that their symptoms were “in their heads” or that it was something else. It seems to me that there are some medical professionals who prefer to “pass the buck” rather than help solve the problem…failure of imagination.
When I taught dance to the 5th graders at The Paul Robeson School in Brooklyn, my objective was less about teaching them how to dance and more about teaching them how to solve problems as a group. I did this by using the scientific method to solve problems using movement...MOVEMENT, not DANCE. If students discovered that a form of dance was required to solve a problem, then I would provide what was necessary for my students to learn the dance form to solve the problem. It was a living, breathing unit plan that ebbed and flowed based on creativity and imagination.
I've discovered that with dance in the public school system, there is nothing that states that we as dance educators should meet every person where they are. Instead, we are expected to treat our students as empty vessels. On the contrary, I believe that we should step into the dance studio with the assumption that our students already know how to dance. Our responsibility is to use what they know, provide them with what they don't know, and guide them on how to use this knowledge for the betterment of their future. Right now, we are often just teaching them dance forms and they are repeating these forms on stage, so that their parents and caregivers can be happy, the teacher can earn the coveted highly effective rating, and for the bureaucracy to say that dance is working. When the children graduate…where do they go…what do they do?
Going back to the beginning of this posting, some medical professionals suffer the same fate. They are force-fed information without the ability to take the patient's knowledge into account, synthesizing it with what they know, and taking it a bit further to see what the cause of illness may be even if it falls outside of the purview of their expertise…failure of imagination.
In the forward written by Thomas C. Shelling to Roberta Wohlstetter’s book, “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” he states, “There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.” In our teaching as dance educators, dance is not often taught as a tool that students can take with them through adulthood, but as a requirement, something to do, or an extracurricular activity. Today, most students - whether they take dance in public schools, are non-dance majors taking dance classes in colleges to fulfill credit requirements, or even private dance students - move on with their lives and leave dance at the doorstep after graduation. Dance needs to be viable, meaning that it needs to be, "capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions."
In other words, for dance to survive after students graduate from school and into their adult lives, then we - Dance Educators, Public School Teachers and Administrators, The Department of Education, Private Dance School Owners, and whatever entities that will listen - need to imagine another way of presenting Dance Education that may be unfamiliar, but not dismissed as being improbable for the viability of dance.
Before I became disabled in 2019, I created and implemented a movement class that was part technique/strength and part problem-solving, using the scientific method to solve a problem using movement – I called it Dance Lab. The class was broken up into 4 groups, and they initially had the opportunity and freedom to create their own works. I was the Artistic Director and would interject and facilitate where needed. One group that needed some work, and at times a referee, was my 5th grade boys’ group. The boys wanted to create a Kung Fu scene. Initially it was chaos – it just looked like a bunch of boys beating each other up (and sometimes it was a bunch of boys beating each other up).
After observing the group, we had a discussion and devised a central question, “How do you create a Kung Fu scene that is safe and can be repeated exactly the same each time it’s performed?” I provided the group with a few Kung Fu scenes and documentaries on the making of selected action films. They learned how the actors practiced the moves repeatedly, and how they could safely perform the scenes the same way each time. With that information through research, the boys were able to repeat their scenes, but only for a short duration.
At the end of their Kung Fu scene, which lasted around thirty seconds, they reverted to free form fighting…yikes. I then proposed that we extract some of the best moves that they created and teach them to each other. This resulted in three movement phrases of good length, from which they could create a dance in which all the movement came from the students. As a result, they learned how to work together, as well as how to repeat an experiment to come up with a solid conclusion to a central question, “How do we create a Kung Fu scene that is safe and can be repeated exactly the same each time it is performed?”
Unfortunately, when the administration learned of this class, because it was “unfamiliar,” they dismissed it, deeming it “improbable,” so Dance Lab was shut down.
Dance Lab was not, "capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions," which was the failure of imagination from an administration unwilling to see the possibility of how dance could be used to facilitate other subject matter as well as how dance could extend beyond public school and into adulthood. However, I believe that it was going in the right direction in terms of teaching dance so that it is a tool that a person can use beyond school and not as it exists today…a requirement, something to do, an extracurricular activity.
Daniel Levi-Sanchez performed with Twyla Tharp Dance, American Ballet Theatre and ODC/San Francisco and is a Dance Educator with an Educational Masters Degree in Dance Education from Rutgers University. He taught for three years at PS 191 in Crown Heights Brooklyn and currently resides in Kingston, Rhode Island.