Yoga instructor Dennis Daniels theatricality is part of everything he does so it comes as no surprise that show business is in his blood. “I saw my older sister twirling when I was two and I said, ‘I can do that’,” he says now. And he did, learning baton twirling and dance from his mother. He was teaching twirling himself by the age of twelve. By sixteen he was leading a group and by the time he retired as a competitive twirler at age eighteen he had won 678 trophies including national and world championships.
But Daniels had bigger dreams of success than executing a triple leg bounce with split-leap finish (a twirling sequence which he did, even though his mother told him it was physically impossible). He was born to sing and dance and left twirling behind when he got a part in a dinner theater production of Man of La Mancha in Boston. And he went on to realize his own impossible dream, with a stellar career performing beside dance gods and goddesses such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Gregory Hines, John Travolta, Suzanne Somers and even with the Rockettes.
Daniels danced in nine Broadway shows including Show Boat and A Chorus Line, eventually becoming a dance captain and assistant to Tommy Tune. He was featured in TV, video and films including Grease, Grease 2, Staying Alive and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
And it turned out his baton twirling experience came in handy. He twirled fire batons on Broadway, in a Billy Joel video (“Allentown”) and in the film version of Grease. He even twirled naked for his audition tape to be on the television show Survivor. Although he didn’t get that part, he clearly doesn’t regret it for a second. It becomes clear that although Dennis is obviously a highly-competitive type-triple-A, he’s really in it for the experience. You can tell with one glance that he’s committed to experiencing deeply. For one thing, there are the tattoos that now cover his entire back, markers of a dramatic life transformation when he left show business in 1997.
Yoga brought all the pieces of my healing together. Yoga taught me that my body didn’t have to hurt.
Daniels has been living with HIV since 1986 and while working actively in the theater, his meds were working. Another impossible dream come true. He wasn’t dying. But over time, he grew increasingly frustrated with the hypocrisy of the Broadway theater community’s attitude towards AIDS. He was backstage one night when he asked himself what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. He answered, “Not this.”
So he left show business for a career in the healing arts and the next phase of his own spiritual journey. He studied to be a massage therapist, using the first-hand knowledge he gained as a dancer about how bodies really work. He reclaimed twirling and other things he left behind. Like his soul.
“Yoga brought all the pieces of my healing together,” says Daniels. “As a dancer, you’re taught to do things that your body isn’t supposed to do, like locking out your hips. You’re actually applying enough torque to bend the bones. Yoga taught me that my body didn’t have to hurt.” And through teaching Yoga and his own massage practice, Daniels helps others understand that their bodies don’t have to hurt either.
“A Yoga practice is exactly like and the complete opposite of dancing,” he says. “In dance, you work up to a standard of external perfection to impress someone else, and you breathe to keep moving. In Yoga, the breath inspires the movement. And you’re doing it for yourself. But the sense of rhythm, flow and choreography are identical between twirling, dance and yoga.”
The years of twirling and his expertise as a massage therapist both show up in Daniels’ Yoga teaching. His years of choreographing moving batons at furious speeds, attuned him to microscopic calibrations of alignment. It also taught him to adapt the abstract ideal of a pose to different body types. He gives in-class adjustments with a deep understanding of the body mechanics involved from the inside as a dancer and from the outside as a masseuse.
And Yoga has brought a lot to Daniels’ twirling life too. “I’m a much more gentle, enlightened and patient coach. I’ve realized Yoga brought all the pieces of my healing together. Yoga taught me that my body didn’t have to hurt. it’s not all about winning. After all, how many world championships do you need?”
He teaches Yoga now in Palm Springs, a place, he says, where people come to heal and find balance. And, it seems, where he did.
Daniels works with therapeutic applications of Yoga, like using specific Yoga poses for depression, but he views the whole practice as healing.
“The Breath is life and consciousness,” he says. “It is a tool to create better health through a deeper understanding of our bodies, resulting in quicker attention before a dis-ease in the body gets worse.”
None of this is explicit in class though. “My emphasis is in the fun,” he says. “Yoga is not life or death, it is Yoga. Laughter brings you into the now.” And his classes are fun.
He’s an attentive but playful teacher who teaches at both Urban Yoga, a full-time studio with tapestries and incense, and at World Gym, where he teaches in a mirrored room full of spinning bikes. “People come to Urban Yoga for the woo-woo. They come to the gym to avoid the woo-woo. But I say ‘Come for the physical practice, stay for the enlightenment.’”
Daniels brings his own special blend of enlightenment to the world of twirling too. For the past ten years he has been working as the show designer and choreographer for the Silver Knights, a baton twirling team in Chicago comprised of girls aged eight through nineteen who have been both national and world champions for the last five years.
This year he’s choreographing a twirling routine using shoulder stands and one-legged down dogs. I wondered why he’s been so hung up on the one-legged dogs in class lately. I see now he was using his yoga class to work out moves for his twirlers. Probably the same way he uses the twirlers to understand alignment and work out Yoga sequences. And as far as I can see, that gives everyone the best of both worlds.
Greg Miller has also studied with yoga teachers who are actresses, models and ex-marines. Miller has taught yoga teachers and others how to write, teach and perform from their authentic voice in workshops and with his partner Beth Lapides and in private coaching: uncabaret.com. He has never twirled, although if he keeps studying with Daniels who knows what could happen.
By Greg Miller