Twenty-four years ago, Danny Lewis rented a graduation gown for his first commencement ceremony at the New World School of the Arts, donning it in his new job as dean of the dance division.
Now he is putting on the same robe (he never returned it) for one last graduation. “It still fits me. It’s loose,” Lewis says, standing in his office and smiling as he pulls the black folds over his head, mocking the physical pride of the dancer he was before all that desk time expanded his waistline. On this April afternoon, he will accompany one last class of college dancers as they strut through downtown Miami and onto the stage of the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, embrace each one as they receive their diplomas, then watch proudly as they take their first official post-graduate steps into the world. “It’s a fabulous class,” says Lewis, 66. “My only function is to hug and kiss them and make a fool out of myself.” For the 22 students waiting downstairs, smiling as they hug Lewis and pose for photos, the dean is anything but a fool. Not only has he made New World into a national presence in the dance world, with graduates going on to perform with such top troupes as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Dance Company, but he also has been a mentor, friend and supporter who has kept them inspired and determined.
“He’s so passionate, we have to be passionate too,” says Ronderrick Mitchell, 27, who says Lewis persuaded him to keep dancing when he worried that his short stature would keep him from a career. “He really cares about us. You can always go to his office and pour your heart out. He’s like a father to us.”
Many of the students say they feel like Lewis’ artistic children. “He always told me I could do anything,” says Ariana Rosario, 21. “He’s another father to me. A lot of us feel that way.” Lewis already had an illustrious history as a dancer with the storied Jose Limon Dance Company, teacher at the famed Juilliard School and director of his Daniel Lewis Dance troupe, when he came to the fledgling New World School of the Arts in 1987 to run a department with one studio and fewer than 40 students. Teachers used to crouch behind his desk to change into their dance clothes.
Since then, New World’s dance division has become Lewis’ greatest legacy. A public school with the quality of a top-flight private conservatory, New World offers high-school diplomas and associate and bachelor of arts degrees in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami-Dade College and the University of Florida. Many of the choreographers, directors and dancers at the heart of Miami’s dance, performance and creative scene either studied or taught at New World, and its graduates can be found everywhere, from the casts of Broadway musicals to major modern dance troupes. “What I enjoyed most about this place was the being able to make a lot of things happen,” Lewis says. “That makes you feel good when you know you started something that’s working. What more could you ask? I’m a very lucky man.” Lewis’ first piece of luck was bad: he was born with a club foot. A doctor recommended tap dancing, not something a Brooklyn boy of the 1950s would ordinarily find appealing. Tapping not only enabled Lewis to overcome his disability, but it also took him to New York’s famed LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts (the Fame school) to study modern dance, then to the even-more-renowned Juilliard. There he met Jose Limon, the Mexican-American choreographer who was one of the pillars of modern dance in this country. Lewis became one Limon’s best-known and most-stalwart dancers from 1962 to 1974. As soon as he graduated from Juilliard in 1967, Lewis began teaching there, remaining until he left to take the deanship at New World in 1987. He would make his greatest mark as an educator, directly and indirectly influencing the lives of thousands.
The affection and respect that Lewis has aroused over the years was palpable at a tribute at Gus! man in February, at which the audience ranged from Lewis’ 60-something contemporaries (who made lots of joking references to his “stud muffin” status in the 1960s and ’70s) to joyful, screaming New World students. Robert Battle, a 1990 high-school graduate who has just become artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, spoke from the stage. “Danny always said to me, ‘When you come back, I want you to have your own company,’” Battle said, grinning. “So, Danny, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will that suffice?
Gerri Houlihan, a former New World teacher who is now co-dean at the American Dance Festival, spoke of how Lewis’ support had enabled her to start a company during her time in Miami. “I’m one of so many people Danny has done this for,” she said. “Danny has always had that ability to see someone’s desire and talent and to stay with them once h! e’s made that determination.” Lewis is conservative and tradition-minded in some ways, but he also has a probing curiosity and a strong faith in individual creativity and initiative. He could have had a comfortable place in the dance establishment at Juilliard, where he had become assistant director. Instead, he chose to run a start-up school in a city not known for culture. The training at New World is mostly traditional, the sort of classic modern dance, ballet and jazz prevalent during Lewis’ career, a combination he says gives his students a solid yet versatile technique that enables them to work in an intensely competitive field. “I believe in tradition,” he says. “These kids graduate doing traditional work. But any choreographer who asks them to do something, they can do it.” And yet, in Miami he became an enthusiastic advocate of ethnic dance, bringing in teachers of African, Caribbean and Spanish styles. “I had a dream of where I wanted things to go,”! Lewis says. “But I adapted as things came up. I hadn’t planned on doing world dance. But when I looked out my window here, how could I not?”
He has also been an early and ardent adapter of Internet and computer technology. In the mid-1990s he installed a high-speed, high-capacity Internet system in the school over the protests of teachers who thought the money would be better spent on toe shoes. Working with the Digital World Institute at the University of Florida, he has involved New World students in innovative multi-media projects, such as Hands Across the Water, broadcast on the BBC in 2006, in which a woman travels to cities on five continents on a musical quest. He enthusiastically touts The Virgin Queen, a piece the school presented this spring by British guest choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller, with a set made of elaborate projections. “Unless we change the way we present art and dance we’re gonna lose the audience,” Lewis says. “Technology needs to be melded into dance. It’s been melded into theater for years.” New World’s graduates reflect both sides of Lewis. Some are strongly aligned with traditions, such as Battle or the new members of the Martha Graham troupe who gave passionate, beautifully rendered performances of 60- to 80- year-old Graham works at the Gusman tribute. Others, such as Rosie Herrera, with her vivid, eclectic dance-theater pieces, or Heather Maloney, who runs the Inkub8 performance space in Wynwood, have more personal, Miami-specific visions, which they were able to forge because Lewis created a dance school here.
Lewis counts them as among his greatest achievements. “That was part of the dream that we would have choreographers doing original Miami work,” he says. Lewis will not miss the inevitable paperwork and bureaucracy of working within three massive, government-affiliated educational institutions! And he is considering a cooking class, now that eating at home! with wife Maureen O’Rourke, a massage therapist and teacher at New World, and son Quinn, 12, who has veered from the family tradition to study visual art but shares his father’s passion for computers seems a regular possibility. He will continue to advocate for arts in education and combining art and technology, helping to bring a digital-arts conference to Miami in 2012 and lobbying New World to establish an M.F.A. in dance and technology. Colleagues are already extending invitations, and he luxuriates in thoughts of guest teaching stints in which he will have all the fun of talking and working with kids, without administrative responsibilities.
But he will miss his students terribly, their “flying hormones,” their dramas, fleeting and profound. There was the boy, pressured by his father for being gay, who left a suicide note on his locker in the late 1980s (Lewis dispatched some college students, who found him in time). There was a girl who lived out of the back of her car but went on to join a major company. “We save lives,” Lewis says. “We do it every day of the week.”
He will miss sharing the triumphs of those who take what they’ve learned at New World into the world, such as the text message he received from Battle (“I got it!”) when he found out he had the Ailey job. Even after the high-school students graduate on June 9, Lewis will make one more journey with New World taking his college students to perform in Puerto Rico and Italy. When they leave for home, he will stay, celebrating the end of his time at New World and the beginning of the next stage of his life. “I’ll face west and wave,” he says. “I totally avoided walking out of this building in tears.”
Copyright (c) 2011 The Miami Herald