Neal Sandler, the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants, was born in 1931 in Philadelphia. Although he had long been interested in dance and theatre, he also pursued an engineering career. He earned a B.S. degree from Drexel Institute of Technology and a M.S. degree from U.C. Berkeley, and worked as a materials science engineer.
Neal's early theatrical experience included training in professional dance forms, both in ballet and modern dance. He brought this experience to his initial involvement with Westwind in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. With Westwind, he acquired a growing interest in both recreational folk dance and in the theatrical presentation of folk material.
Neal and Anthony Ivancich became Westwind directors in Los Angeles in 1964, and in 1966 the ensemble split into its Northern and Southern counterparts with Neal's move to the Bay Area (Westwind's southern group later folded).
When Neal and his former wife, Carol, moved to the Bay Area in 1966, they started a San Francisco branch of Westwind. Their unselfish contributions of time, energy, and even money, enabled Westwind to grow into a strong amateur performing group. Neal, with his far-reaching and ever present artistic vision, became a mentor for many young folk dancers; several have gone on to pursue professional careers in folk dance.
The ensemble danced at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium as part of the Zellerbach Dance Series in the spring of 1976 (Neal Sandler was its director in his final season).
The combination of artistic vision and superb teaching techniques enabled Neal to contribute to Bay Area folk dance at every level. He liked working with beginners -- helping them to enjoy folk dancing while carefully teaching them their first dances. He also worked well with advanced dancers, particularly in Westwind, where he taught not only about dancing, but also a great deal about acting and theatrical presentation. Part of his Westwind vision also concerned the importance of the having an integrated ensemble -- where skills in dancing, singing, playing music, and acting overlapped and were skillfully blended to produce a cohesive presentation.
He taught many venues, including the Menlo Park Recreation Center, the South Whidbey International Folkdancers, the Stanford International Dancers, Ashkenaz coffeehouse, Hearst Gym, J-house, Stanford Tressider Union, the Mandala coffeehouse, and Hillel.
Neal helped to launch the Slavonijo Dance Ensemble and was its first artistic director.
In 2001, Neal was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and went to assisted living in February of 2006.
Neal produced a CD with Yvonne Hunt and Christos Govetas that features musicians from Flambouro, Serres, called Zourna Masters of Flambouro.
Neal passed away on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
Dances Neal taught include Dranovoto, Sokačko Malo Kolo, Thracian Rŭčenica, and Trŭgnala Rumjana.
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