CPCC instructor Clay Daniel danced away from death

Modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman based his famous technique on a system he called “fall and recovery.”

Modern dance choreographer Clay Daniel, who admires Weidman enormously, knows something about that process on and off stage. He fell at the point of a would-be killer’s knife at the age of 40, and his recovery has been one of the most heartening stories to come out of Charlotte’s dance community.

“One inch either way, and we might not be sitting here,” he says in his diminutive office at Central Piedmont Community College. Nor would we be talking about CPCC Dance Theatre’s “Fresh Air,” the program of pieces – three of them created and set by Daniel – that opens Friday.

Great dancers spend their performing lives telling – not asking – their bodies what to do, and refusing to listen when those bodies cry out in pain or fatigue.

Age takes away some of those options: Daniel can’t hinge on his right leg alone any more, after a hip flexor injury last year. The attacker’s blade, which left him with nightmares for a year, set him back psychologically and physically.

Yet he still demonstrates while he teaches. He still performs: He danced in Weidman’s “Christmas Oratorio,” set to Bach’s celestial music, last Christmas. At 46, he retains the intensity that lifelong dancers often have until they die: A vigorous conversation with him will take you down most major pathways of 20th-century American dance.

But a lifelong dancer he’s not.

He didn’t stumble upon that calling until he was 22, en route to becoming “the oldest living undergraduate in America.”

A change in direction

He remembers the month: March 1988, after he’d come to UNC Charlotte from his native Southport. “I was an actor and couldn’t get into the Shakespeare class I wanted, so I signed up for modern dance,” he recalls. “I saw excerpts from ‘Christmas Oratorio’ and thought, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe I would like to do this.’ ”

Classical pianists trace their heritages back to Liszt or Rachmaninoff: The genius of those masters presumably descends from teacher to teacher down to the present. Modern dancers do the same thing, though the timelines are shorter. CPCC instructor Mary Ann Mee, who danced in Weidman’s company before his death in 1975, became Daniel’s mentor in modern technique after he switched colleges.

At first, dance was mainly intended to him get him through an education. Then it started to get in the way.

He taught and performed at CPCC. But he kept going off to dance in West Virginia, in New York, then for Tennessee Dance Theatre until it folded in 2000.

He finally finished his B.F.A. in dance at UNC Greensboro in 2003 and earned an M.F.A. in choreography there three years later.

Then Daniel got hired to fill a one-year vacancy at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.

He was “absolutely loving” life, including his summer gig beforehand: dancing in “Beauty and the Beast” at Theatre West Virginia.

He came back to his rented loft in an old farmhouse after opening night, filled with joy. Then the knife flashed.

A reversal of momentum

“A neighbor’s son with a history of mental illness met me in the carport,” he recalls matter-of-factly. “I went to see what he wanted, and he stabbed me on my right side. The knife collapsed my lung, went through my liver and sliced off a piece of my kidney.”

That’s all he’ll say about the event. But he remembers the aftermath. Doctors sent him home to recover with his mother in Southport and told him not to walk the length of her house for the next six weeks.

“But I’d been in great shape, and I knew my body better than they did. So I said, ‘I’ll be teaching dance again in four weeks.’

“I’ve always been impatient. I went back to Buckhannon, where the doctor told me, ‘Don’t lift anything heavier than five pounds.’ Well, I decided to clean my living room, so I picked up the vacuum cleaner.”

What happened?

“A hematoma laid me out for two days.”

With the small changes came a big one. He had to learn how to instruct students orally, finding strong clear images they could translate into movement without always being able to demonstrate for them.

Just as he mastered this skill, the job evaporated on schedule. He went back to Southport to teach dance; when his mother fell ill, he became her caretaker.

Then the position at CPCC – “the job I’ve always wanted” – opened in 2010, and he took it.

Steps in the right direction

Though he teaches various aspects of modern dance performance and dance appreciation, he remains a disciple of Weidman, whom he considers one of the four founders of modern dance (along with Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Hanya Holm).

He likes the Weidman-Humphrey idea that “all dance happens in the arc between the two deaths”: the positions of standing straight up and lying straight down.

“Ballet and Martha Graham have a finite technique: If you have the right strength and alignment, you can engage your muscles forever,” Daniel explains. “But there’s a humanity to this (Weidman-Humphrey style of) fall and recovery. It’s actually an incredible philosophy of life.

“It has to do with yielding to gravity, rebounding, being in the moment, having the willingness to take risks within that sweep. If you push it too far, you crash. If you use momentum to bring yourself back around, you can keep going.”

You’ll see some of this mindset in “Fresh Air,” for which Daniel has designed three pieces. (Katharyn Horne, a CPCC colleague, contributed an origami ballet titled “Paper Toys” and is restaging Thomas Enckell’s “Timesteps.”)

Daniel describes “The Space Between,” which is set to a new percussive score by CPCC’s Craig Bove, as “a dark piece set in a time of war, where two young lovers whose relationship is over are forced to rely on each other for survival.”

His other two entries lighten the mood. “Patchwork,” part of a larger work in progress, is based on the idea of a crazy quilt: Small scraps of mood come together to form an emotional whole, in this instance to music by Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. The comic “Guy Talk” brings three men together at a bus stop, to a vocal score by The Vestibules; double cartwheels and other athletic outbursts ensue.

A leap into the future

Roy Clayton Daniel II, to give him his full name, finally seems to have found his niche at CPCC.

He’s assembling information for a book about Weidman that would concentrate on the pioneer’s technique and dance legacy, rather than small personal details.

He’ll continue to teach, choreograph and set pieces of his own for CPCC Dance Theatre and, perhaps, elsewhere.

Modern dance permits more longevity than the rigors of ballet.

So in defiance of time and a formerly cruel fate, he’ll continue to define himself as a dancer – someone who can not only teach but do.

“As you get older, you have to work harder,” he admits. “You should work (out) daily. I take class when I can, and I demonstrate as I teach. I’m still in good shape: If I pull a muscle, what might take a nondancer two weeks to recover from might take me a couple of days.

“When I dance a long piece, and I’m heaving and panting at the end of it, I look around. I see the 22-year-old next to me, and he’s doing the exact same thing. And I think, ‘You’re OK. You can still do it.’ ”