Language of dance

Leonardo Sandoval brings dance to English language learners.

Sandoval explains the moves to the ESL students at the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Program. — Courtesy The Yard

Leonardo Sandoval has rhythm. And I mean a lot of it. This superb artist has brought his talents as a Brazilian tap dancer and choreographer in hands-and-feet-on workshops for the youth and adult English Language Learners (ELL) at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The event was sponsored by The Yard — a residency-based nonprofit that supports artists in the creation, development, and presentation of work. Sandoval is renowned for blending America’s tap tradition with Brazil’s rich musical and rhythmic heritage. He draws on his Afro-Brazilian heritage as well as tap dance, samba, and house, highlighting the deep connections that exist between these African Diasporic art forms.

Walking in just before the adult class Tuesday evening, I immediately spotted Sandoval among the folks hanging around waiting for the students to arrive. His lithe body moves with an enviable fluidity, even when just in informal conversation. We chatted about his time on the Vineyard, which he already knew because his company, Music from the Sole, had a dance residency at the Yard in 2019. During a conversation last fall about the company’s upcoming summer residency, Sandoval indicated his interest in creating a meaningful engagement with this community here on the Island during the off-season.

Yvonne Mendez, the Yard’s acting executive director and program director, reached out to the high school, and Claudio deChiara, the program director for Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program, and Leah Palmer, ELL director at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools — and a collaboration ensued.

As we were waiting, Palmer and Maura Morrison, a Level II teacher and one of the ELL educators, spoke to Sandoval, asking him to teach in English as much as possible given that it’s an ELL class. Soon the young adults walked in, shy and wary about what they might be getting themselves into. They needn’t have worried as Sandoval, after a brief introduction by Mendez, which he translated, immediately put everyone at ease sharing a bit about his trajectory from a dancer starting at age 6 to a street tap dancer in Piracicaba until he was 21, when he moved to Rio Janeiro. There he occasionally performed with a company, did lots of teaching, but primarily made a living as a street performer. Realizing that his prospects were limited in Brazil as a tap dancer, he moved to New York City, and after a year, his career as a professional in a company, a promising choreographer, and an established educator blossomed.

Then it was time to dance! Palmer and Morrison jumped right in, joining the eight young adults standing in a circle with Sandoval. For the next hour and 15 minutes, Sandoval introduced increasingly complex rhythm patterns using body percussion, stomping, clapping, and call-and-response. He used the latter to, as he explained, “get everyone out of your shell.” He would do a body percussion pattern a few times by himself and then point to everyone else to repeat or “respond” the pattern back to him. Both concentration and laughter ensued. While I was only observing from the sidelines, Sandoval’s infectious and welcoming teaching style had me clapping and slapping right along with everyone else.

Sandoval layered on increasingly complex patterns and changes in tempo as the activities progressed, encouraging everyone equally, and cajoling the reticent. The group’s energy was high and supportive. Eventually, he worked up to a quite sophisticated poly-rhythmic pattern where half the circle was doing one combination and the other half clapped and stomped out a different one. Fiona MacLean, the Yard’s marketing and development manager, summed it up perfectly: “Leo is really about accessibility in terms of the rhythm of movements, and in particular the joy that comes from doing those things in community. His approach is using simple rhythms that build on each other so people can access the participation at whatever level is comfortable for them.”

“I knew it would be hard to get adults to dance, especially when they are taking the lesson to learn how to speak English,” Sandoval said after the workshop. “So my approach was to make an English class more fun … to learn while getting them to move their bodies.”

“It was a new experience, and I loved it,” Palmer said. “I like all kinds of movement experiences connected with learning. Our students won’t forget how to say, ‘clap,’ ‘hands’, ‘chest,’ ‘foot.’ I think it’s amazing, and the students really enjoyed the experience.”

“It was invigorating,” Morrison added. “It was a blast to move with my students and watch them interact with Leo. He’s a fantastic teacher. As someone who doesn’t dance, he was very good about repetition from an ESL point of view. He was teaching me to have more repetition when I’m teaching them. I really appreciated that.”

Mendez explained that they want the students to learn more about themselves and self-expression, creativity, and empowerment by taking the workshop:. “I’m hoping this is something the Yard can continue to do and fuel throughout the next year.”

While here, Sandoval is busy working not just with the ELL students but also with the high school students and staff at large. He very much hopes that those he has worked with will attend the July 15 performance at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center because he, like Mendez, wants to keep the impact growing.