Directing a top-notch dance program for a quarter century would be success enough for almost anyone. Not for Daniel Lewis. His soon-to-conclude tenure as founding dean of dance at Miami’s New World School of the Arts is just one among his many notable professional incarnations. And, dancer to the core, he plans to keep on moving.
“I’m proud of leaving something really good behind in New World: a strong foundation for students that’s well-respected and recognized,” says Lewis, who was honored by the National Dance Education Organization last year with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “We—and I prefer using the plural given the remarkable efforts of my faculty—have made a lasting mark.”
The program Lewis developed has grown from a single studio, a couple of teachers, and under 40 students in 1987, to its current enrollment of almost 200 students who, guided by 17 faculty members, enjoy ample facilities, including four studios and a 250-seat theater. Quality has shot up with quantity. New World graduates have joined the ranks of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Urban Bush Women, and H.T. Chen & Dancers, among other noteworthy institutions. Whenever Lewis walks down Manhattan streets, his old stomping grounds, he can point to a musical here, a dance company there, and note with satisfaction how many of these feature NWSA graduates on their rosters. Still, his mind is set on all the miles he wants to travel, to conferences and teaching assignments, spreading the gospel of arts education. “Creativity,” he asserts, “is what makes us different from other animals.”
In Miami last February, during an evening of performances paying tribute to Lewis, Robert Battle (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s artistic director designate) joked about the dean’s transition: “Retirement? I’m just not buying it.” Perhaps NWSA’s most distinguished alumnus, Battle extolled the school’s inspiring education, which also helped mold Jamar Roberts and Amos Machanic, Jr., stellar performers in Ailey.
Staying creatively active fulfills a deep-seated craving for Lewis. It also obeys a basic tenet of his: to take gains from the past and invest them, refreshed and expanded, in the future of others, continuing the mission of his own mentors. As a kid from Brooklyn, already a step-happy hoofer, Lewis nurtured his talent at New York’s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. Yet it was at Juilliard, under the tutelage of modern dance luminary José Limón, that his artistic impulses fully blossomed.
“Limón taught me a reverence for the stage and a love for the art form,” Lewis says. And that’s what his direction at New World has always encouraged. In his authoritative book The Illustrated Dance Technique of José Limón, Lewis describes his stance in the studio, a recommendation for all educators: “I think of myself not so much as a teacher but as an artist, sharing my knowledge with other artists.”
Even before graduating from Juilliard in 1967, Lewis had commanded the stage with the Limón company. For 12 years he originated roles in A Choreographic Offering, Psalm, and The Unsung, among other landmark Limón works. As assistant to the choreographer, he also got a close-up view of how to run a troupe. That proved invaluable when he took over as artistic director for a year after Limón died and later led his own projects. The repertory group, Daniel Lewis Dance, became a haven for thought-provoking commissions, including works by Anna Sokolow. “From her,” says Lewis, “I learned how to make sure dances got done, then to step back, letting others enjoy their glory.”
Lewis never distanced himself from Juilliard, where he taught Limón technique, composition, and production, now all integral to the NWSA curriculum. There also came a chance for him to serve as assistant to Martha Hill, then Juilliard’s indefatigable director of dance. When she learned of a deanship opening at a brand-new arts school in South Florida, she recommended Lewis, knowing he yearned for a new challenge.
“I had been just about everywhere except Miami,” says Lewis. NWSA organizers drew him by offering a great deal of leeway in curriculum design while advocating an innovative high school-through-BFA course of study. This unique setup required Lewis to coordinate three degree-granting bodies that work in partnership with NWSA: the Miami-Dade County school system, Miami Dade College, and the University of Florida. “Our students can start earning college credit in high school, going on to get their bachelor’s in just three years,” Lewis explains. “That saves both time and money.”
Under Lewis’ guidance, the NWSA dance program has fostered a progressive understanding of “how to keep the body in shape, with all the necessary science behind it,” Lewis says. A respect for world traditions, including different styles of Spanish and African dance, further enhances the curriculum. As Lewis points out, eclectic training allows for “a proficiency that makes getting jobs easier.”
Tina Santos-Wahl, a ballet teacher at New World, concurs. Her own background stretching from classical ballet to Luigi, she comments, “Danny gives me the freedom to teach in a style of my own, incorporating different dance forms.”
Santos appreciates how Lewis upholds tradition (“he’s a walking history book,” she says), while championing the latest digital media in dance education and production. As a member of the International Digital Media & Arts Association’s advisory board, Lewis has arranged to bring their conference to Miami in 2012. And, as an ongoing resource for New World, he’ll continue to campaign for the establishment of an MFA in Dance and Technology at the school. “Kids in this generation are amazingly attuned to new media,” Lewis says, “and colleges have to be up on this to meet their changing needs.”
Guillermo Perez is a South Florida–based performing arts writer.
Photo by Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy Dance Teacher