EPISODE 06: THE STORY ABOUT

Dance and Grit

dance and grit

with Daniel Hunalp

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If you give a kid, a child, 45 minutes in the middle of their school day to just be free physically and even if you just put music on and let him dance, I know that that 45 minutes is going to make the rest of their day easier.

Jamie
We’ve all heard the old quote, “life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we’re joined by professional dancing and dance educator Daniel Hunalp, who has performed alongside Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Hilary Duff and Debbie Ryan on ABC and performed across America in musicals including West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma. Daniel, we could not be more thrilled to have you on the show today. Thanks for agreeing to do a podcast episode!

Daniel
Absolutely, thanks for having me on board.

Jamie
Yes, we can’t wait to hear your thoughts on dance and dance education, so to get started, I’d love for you to share an overview of some of your dance experiences, and really, how you fell in love with dance with some of our listeners?

Daniel
Certainly. Uh, well, I started training when I was five years old. Um, and it was nothing to do with me wanting to dance, to be honest with you, it was my grandfather. My grandfather loved the old Hollywood movies. He did not want me to grow up to be the typical Florida baseball playing jock, which is exactly what I wanted to do. Uh, so Grandpa made me start taking ballet classes at the age of five. And so from there, I was so fortunate. Born and raised here just outside Orlando, Florida, in a town called Deltona. Ah, that we had a lot of contacts at young ages with professional experiences through the Walt Disney World Company. So my first real big moment would have been a commercial that I did with Disney, when I believe I was eight years old. It was right after the very first Santa Clause movie came out. You know, the fantastic film with Tim Allen, um and so I actually got to play the lead elf in the commercial, and that was just one of the first experiences and from there, it just kind of took off and… the more I did, the more I fell in love with it. I had some awesome experiences where I got to go on scholarships to Sarasota Ballet. I went there three year, three summers in a row on scholarship, and then following that, I did a couple of seasons with Broadway Theater Project, which was out in Tampa, which is at the time was directed and run by Ann Reinking. I also went there on scholarship and then from there I was 17 at that time now. And so I got an offer to go and do my first show, which was a collaboration with a company in Vegas. The show was entitled Iron Beats, but it was a collaboration with Tap Dogs. So it was six, there were five guys and the handful girls, and we did a tap dog style Irish show, which was a really, really interesting collaboration and fun to do where we did some Irish dancing as well. And from there it just kept building and I did Disney cruise line. I did a couple tours, I did West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, National Tours. Did the whole thing in New York City, found out very quickly that New York City was not a town for me.  A, I don’t like cold. I’m a born and bred Florida boy. And so the cold was really hard for me. I was able to work. I still did the grind just like everybody else up there. But then, after about two years, I was offered a union contract to come back to Orlando. And so in 2009, I came back and I have not left since. And I’ve been really lucky and fortunate here to still be working as professional dancer. And you know, the story keeps writing itself.

Jamie
Incredible! Just from your answers alone, it sounds like between Irish dance and tap dance and musical theater dance and even ballet, it sounds like you studied many different styles and genres of dance instead of focusing on one. So what would you say are some of the benefits of learning different genres and techniques?

Daniel
Well, the school that I grew up, I’ll give a shout out. It’s called Miriam and Valerie’s School of Dance Arts. It was in Sanford, Florida. That was actually one of the biggest things that my studio owners, Miriam and Valerie, pride… they were so proud of, that there were many students from the school that had already gone on to work that they didn’t just train a one-trick pony. So in the education at this school, the curriculum, we weren’t allowed to just do one thing. You came into the school, you did everything, you know… there is obviously that turning point. When you were 13… 12, 13… where you start to decide, or well some for some people, I can speak for myself, I decided that it wasn’t recreational for me. This was what I was going to do. But around that age, you have to kind of make that choice of “Okay, is this what I’m doing? I’m putting it all in?” Or do I just want to come and take a hip hop class once a week? So I chose at a really early age and the number one thing is, and I stress this to my students weekly: It is not valuable in the least… If… Say I’m a director of a show and I have someone on in an audition where they tell me “Oh, I can do ballet”, but then the guy next to them or the girl next to them can do ballet, tap and jazz. That is an easy decision on who I’m going to bring into the room with me. Because think about it, I just tripled my flexibility of what I’m able to create for my show. So, and I tell that to my kids, all the time. You have to be able to do as many things as you can. Every show I’ve been part of, I’ve been trying to learn something from the one person, or the two people in the cast that do something so far outside of my realm of what I do. I’ve learned the most ridiculous things. I taught myself for my first show, how to ride a unicycle because one guy in the show knew how and I didn’t. So I taught myself how to ride it. A unicycle…

Jamie
Wow …

Daniel
So, how to… do… walk on stilts… taught myself how to juggle four balls and pins on a unicycle because this guy could do it and I couldn’t do it. You know, I picked up Argentinean bolos, which is like back in the day, the Argentinians used to use these bolos to get the cows to herd. But they started creating in Vegas and putting them in shows so you can create beats when you come around with it because it’s a piece of marble that you hit the ground with so you can create beats. So I taught myself how to make beats while I tap dance so I can incorporate the two. It’s just all of these different things, even outside of dance form. When it comes to what are you gonna be able to make a distinct differential between yourself and anybody else? The more things you can do, the way more likely you are to be able to be cast. I got thrown in the show one time because I was the only person that could do a hat trick. And I know I had the worst voice in the show.

Jamie
And that was the reason the director and the choreographer said “we need you!”

Daniel
We need you because you could do hat tricks and we don’t have time to teach people. That whole show my mike was muted, but I was still singing for the rafters.

Jamie
So being a Renaissance man and a jack of all trades sounds super important and thinking about your variety of dance experiences, I do have to ask you because a lot of educators and even arts educators believe that dance is such a female-dominated art form. And as much as I love Gene Kelly and the old movies and like you alluded to your grandfather back when you were a young boy just getting into dance, it seems to be sort of a dying art form for men. Do you see more men, here we are in 2020, coming into the profession? And are you working with men and young boys, up-and-coming dancers in your studio currently?

Daniel
Yes, I’m actually gonna answer that backwards. I do have a handful of gentleman that train with me at the school. There’s just a few, though. I have seen… there’s quite a big lull in the want of men to dance right now that they… I… it has to do with… It goes back to our world politics at the moment. People are scared to do it. They’re going to get bullied. They’re going to get this and it… It’s saddening, you know, to go back on my childhood real quick, being a man growing up dancing. We had over 20 guys at my dance studio…

Jamie
Unheard of today…

Daniel
There were over 20 of… oh, absolutely unheard of. Unless you’re in Cuba. Yeah, pretty much unheard of. The Cuban ballet schools have more men than they do girls. And – 

 Jamie
I didn’t know that…

Daniel
I can’t tell you why because I’ve never been. But that is a fact. I wish that I could know the answer as to why? Because I feel like we’re in such a point in time where people are more comfortable being themselves now than they ever have been, which is a contradiction to having less men wanting to dance. That make sense?

Jamie
Absolutely, absolutely.  

Daniel
So, I don’t I don’t really know where it is. And I think it could potentially go back to people’s… people’s values right now are different than they were 27 years ago, when my grandpa made me dance? Like it was just so different. Like, you know, I mentioned to you earlier. When it comes to the techie side of things, that’s not me. I’m a very ‘hands-on push myself to grow’ kind of person and I feel like we’re in such a technical age where maybe a parent may not want to push their kid to go out and do things, because that’s not what they did. So they don’t want to go out and be physical. And I see this stuff all the time. My students, everything they do is on a computer, even for their school work. There’s no notebooks anymore. Everyone’s on a computer.

Jamie
Right.

Daniel
Doing their stuff on a computer… So I feel like it’s really easy for them to get trapped in that world. And I mean, that’s gonna go off on a whole different subject, really. I have a couple of guys, and the couple of guys that we do have are really making massive strides and really want to do it. Growing up as a male in a dance studio, I think has definitely… there was always the stigma of ‘men shouldn’t dance’. Dance is just for girls, and I pride myself on, I believe, having changed a lot of people’s minds on that. Growing up I mentioned earlier, my grandpa didn’t want me to be that baseball playing jock. He wanted me to, you know, have something of more value and what he thought was gonna really build and characterize and build me into the man I am today. And he’s absolutely right. But I also was that baseball playing jock. So I did both, and I played all American League. I played, I toured in the summers playing baseball, and I was really skilled, but I would not have been nearly as skilled without dance. Dance is… you know, what gave me the agility to be able to play with guys who were seven inches taller than me when I was a freshman in high school, because because of dance and my agility from it, it made me way stronger of an athlete. And also, I believe it changes your determination. I knew that physically, I was not the size of these other guys, but because of things I had taught, I’ve been taught in dance class. I was able to critique myself in such a manner inside my own head that made me be able to play with them.

Jamie
Unfortunately, though, as you know, we do not often hear of dance classes embedded in students’ school days, particularly in elementary and middle school. High school is a little bit different. Why do you think this is? And should this change? 

Daniel
I do believe it should change, but I think that that kind of goes back to the government dollar. And I mean, I can speak for Florida. I don’t really know anything about outside of our state, but I know that the government here has been pulling a lot of the funds.

Jamie
Everywhere. Every state.

Daniel
Okay, every state. Yeah, because I have a few teach- I have a few friends that are also dance instructors at dance schools in the evening, who are also dance teachers at school. And they are having a tremendously hard time trying to keep up with even the funds that get lowered every year. They keep trying to pull more and more money away from it. I think, though, if you give a child I mean so if you’re in elementary school or let’s say middle school because they have seven classes a day, so if they’re there for six and a half, 7 hours, you have 45 to 50 minutes per class. I know for a fact that dance I know that that 45 minutes is going to make the rest of their day easier and way less stress because I feel like it’s just also segmented. Everything that they do, and dance kind of frees our mind and frees our body up to be creative. I believe it needs to be in every school system, even if they just have to take it one time. Just allow them to have it. I mean, it’s meditation in its own way.

Jamie
Certainly, and the oxygenation to the brain. And, like you said, the creativity aspect and that flowing into different subjects even when they’re not dancing. If they had a part of their day devoted to dance, I positively agree. It, uh, it would be a better school day for everyone. Teachers included.  

Daniel
Without a doubt, yeah.

Jamie
And there’s just so many benefits that you read about related to dance. I see video clips online of dancers in their nineties who are still flexible and limber. So can you talk about some of the health benefits of dance?

Daniel
Certainly, and I get I can relate that directly to myself. I’m a cancer survivor and…

Jamie
Congratulations, that’s huge.

Daniel
Thank you very much. I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was 25 and so that took me out of work, obviously. And so I sat for a year and four months doing the strongest chemotherapy that you could do. And I know that, emotionally, dance was one of my biggest pushes for me to get through. Because the day that it happened and I spoke to my my doctor that I ended up working with, I told him what I did, and immediately he told me, “you’re never gonna do that again.” That was…

Jamie
Devastating.  

Daniel
Yeah, and I think that could not have been any better of words for him to say to me that day.  

Jamie
Really?  

Daniel
Absolutely. I don’t like being told I can’t do something. I will physically push myself to the limit to try to be able to do something that I can’t do it. And so I think, had he said, “everything’s gonna be fine,” a lot of the things that I did when I was sick and going through chemo, I wouldn’t have done. I got up every morning when I was in the hospital. I would get up with my, you know, fun little IV stand and push it down to the window because there was a bar on the window, and I would wake up every morning, go to a ballet bar window.  

Jamie
What?  

Daniel
With my chemo in my arms…

Jamie
Even going through chemo.

Daniel
I would do it because it it helped me still feel that I was the same. And then emotionally, it gave me something to make sure I pushed myself to get back to.

Jamie
So not only health benefits, but health in relation… not just physical, but also mental and emotional. Just through dance.

Daniel
Yes, absolutely. Well, because that was… your whole career, I spent it on stage and now within a blink of an eye, this doctor who doesn’t know me, doesn’t know my story, anything, is telling me “okay, you’re never gonna do this again” and he basically told me, “ya need to figure out what you’re gonna do after this, you know, because you’re gonna be lucky if you live through it.” Well, that was never a thought in my mind that I wasn’t gonna live through it, ’cause I knew I was. And he even said that my endurance of my body had everything to do with the way I came through. Yeah, I was on medicines that most people would be violently ill and not move from bed. And I would just walk around the tent tower and just talk to people while I’m getting my medicines.

Jamie
No way.  

Daniel
Yeah, I’m at the bar, waking up in the morning, I had weights that I would carry around and do a little workouts and stuff and they were just… They were pretty astonished with the way my body was able to endure it, and that has to do with dance. That has to do with all of the training that I took as a kid where it’s mind over matter, and you just have to tell yourself ‘this is gonna be fine, yeah, this isn’t ideal, but I’m gonna be good and I have something to get back to, so let’s go ahead and do this – give me two more chemos this week – let’s go!’ You know, and that dance had al- almost everything to do with it.

Jamie
I think I speak for all of our listeners where we’re just in awe of your perseverance and your grit and how you got through this and this idea that throughout your experience with this health scare and devastating diagnosis, you continued almost to critique yourself. And I know a big part of what you do is adjudicating or judging dance competitions, and that must be really hard. How do you gently give critique to up-and-coming dancers?

Daniel
It is all about being a wordsmith, especially with a young student, because the last thing that you ever want is to say one word that can, one word sometimes can smash a child’s dreams. Okay? And so you have to be really smart and diligent on the way that you apply your critique to us a young student, primarily because obviously you want to get your point across, but you don’t want it to seem ever as if a scolding, does that make sense? I don’t want to make them feel belittled, but I want to make sure that they understand. So obviously that goes back to you have to have some sort of base of trust that they trust what your critique is in your opinion, and it’s really about letting them know the way to go about changing it, but also the reason why we’re going to change it, because the step that you’re going to do after that is gonna be easier now because of what you just did.

Jamie
That’s such a neat take on it. I’ve never heard that take on it. So do you have any strategies for, for teachers who want to offer feedback or critique two dancers in their classroom, or maybe students who are using movement to demonstrate understanding of a concept?

Daniel
I think for myself I try my very hardest, especially if I get a new student. I make sure that I’m on really good talking terms with their parents because that right there gives them another level of trust with you in the room. Because not only are you their teacher, but now they can see that open dialogue with their parents. And I’ve talked to the parents, and I’ve asked them the level of how they want their child educated. Some parents just want their kid in the room and don’t really mind how much they learn. Some parents want their kid to walk out there and be eight times better in the first week, so you need to have that dialogue, too.

Jamie
Getting that parent involvement – crucial, it sounds like. 

Daniel
Crucial, especially with dance were you know, and we’re in a day and age where the training ability is different because it’s not as hands-on as it once was. Just because of the world in general. Because I was hit with sticks when I was wrong.

Jamie
Really? And that was not that long ago.

Daniel
No, this is the early 90s. Yeah, I had thumbtacks under my feet If I rolled my arches in. I can’t do that to a student now. You’ll, you’ll end up in big trouble. Without a doubt.

Jamie
You will be fired, for sure.

Daniel
For sure. So I think as the teacher, every student has their own individual way that you go about them. And I think that is also key as a teacher. You have to know the level of drive for each kid. I can’t –

Jamie
100%  

Daniel
Can’t treat Susie 1 the same as Susie 2 ’cause Susie 2 might not care, but Susie 1 wants to learn.

Jamie
And the parents, like you said, might be on completely different ends of the spectrum. Well, Daniel, this has been wonderful. Thank you for sharing all of your insight. I wish we had another 20-25 minutes on this episode alone.  

Jamie
You can keep up with Daniel through Instagram @dhunalp, that’s D H U N A L P. To take a class with Daniel, visit https://marshallellisdanceschool.com/.  Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host, Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.