By Alexandra Arena
Conventional wisdom might have it that a deaf dancer is an oxymoron. How could someone dance (and dance well) without being able to hear the music they’re dancing to?
Because, like an actor who submerges themselves emotionally in a script, a successful dancer must connect emotionally to a piece and, in a way, transcend the technical aspects of the dance itself.
Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University is, first and foremost, the only liberal arts university in which all programs are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but it is also home to the Gallaudet Dance Company, a 15-person collective that mounts up to 15 concerts per year. Diane Hottendorf, who grew up with hearing, served as director of the dance company for 30 years before retiring in the fall of 2011. In 2008, Hottendorf told Dance Magazine that her approach to teaching deaf dancers is twofold: She employed American Sign Language (ASL) and made all her presentations visual.
Mar 31, 2010: Celebrating their 55th season, the Gallaudet Dance Company performs their Spring Dance Concert, “Fabulous and Fifty-Five.”
“You use sign and gestures whenever possible,” Hottendorf explained in the article, “and also make sure you have a good, clear sound system. You can’t use high voices or opera, because the students can’t hear it. They internalize the rhythms. What I try to do is to show that dance is communication. The kids really bond and learn a lot. They get a sense of accomplishment and self-worth,” she continued.
Two popular reality TV shows, MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew (ABDC) and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars have both had deaf dancers grace their stages.
Joey Antonio, 25, an Asian-American deaf dancer and choreographer from Detroit, was a former contestant on ABDC (with the group A.S.I.I.D., aka “And So It Is Done”) Season 2 in 2008. This led to an opportunity to tour nationally with ABDC champions Jabbawockeez (Season 1 champs) and Super Cr3w (Season 2 champs) as well as ABDC crews, Fanny Pak and “Breaksk8”. Antonio currently dances for a crew called StereoJunkies which he formed in 2010 with his brother Justin and the dancer Jig Hart.
January 19, 2012: StereoJunkies ABDC7 Audition “NIGHT SHIFT”
In a 2010 interview with Redeafination, Singapore’s premier dance club for the deaf, Antonio answered questions about how he “hears” the music:
“I don’t normally hear music like everyone else and because I have hearing aids, it gives me an opportunity to catch on the beats even though all I hear are noises but with everyone’s timing and movements, it helps me to get familiar with different kinds of sounds. I just basically feel what comes naturally. It’s a lot more complicated than what people think, but when you really let go of all the thoughts in your head, it’ll come to you naturally.
You just have to believe in yourself, practice, practice, practice, and work hard. Before I teach a class, I would have to get my huge headphones and have the volume all the way up so I can hear the beats and memorize the tempo of the song, and learn the lyrics by heart so I can follow the beats, the words and everything that goes along with it. Then I’ll make up some choreography while memorized with all the tempo and words from the song.”
When asked what he would like to share with fellow deaf dancers around the world, Antonio said:
“Never, ever, ever stop believing in yourself because it all starts with your head. It’s up to you to put into effort for the things that you want to do. Go for it, nothing is impossible. If I could do it, why couldn’t you? Many blessings to you all!”
Marlee Matlin, 46, is an accomplished actress whose work in film and television has resulted in an Oscar, a Golden Globe award with two additional nominations, and four Emmy nominations. She has also been hearing impaired since she was 18-months-old. Matlin made her appearance on the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars in 2008 with professional dance partner Fabian Sanchez and ironically was the sixth to be eliminated.
March 18, 2008: Dancing With the Stars Season 6 – Marlee Matlin/Fabian Sanchez Cha-Cha-Cha
“In a dance studio, I like the music to be turned up loud so I can follow along the bass line,” Matlin explained to The New York Post in an email. “But mostly, it’s about that rhythm I have inside me. I’ve got groove because my heart beats just like everyone else’s. The trick for me is to use what I’ve got to sync up with the music that comes through my dance partner’s moves.”
ABC News quoted Bob Pollard, a psychologist who works at the University of Rochester’s Deaf Wellness Center, who explains that it is extraordinarily rare for a deaf person to live in total silence.
“That is almost never the case,” he said. “The vast majority have some degree of residual hearing, especially in the low frequency arena. There are lots of people who enjoy music to varying degrees.”
On August 29, 2012, deaf dancer Wayne Sharples, 36, will be showcasing his dancing skills to the world at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in the new Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Sharples, a University of Central Lancashire student, beat thousands of other performers from around the globe during a three hour dance audition. There will be many distinguished guests watching Sharples perform, including Queen Elizabeth.
“I’m so excited to be performing at such a fantastic event. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one which I’m delighted to be a part of. It’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Wayne said.
Earlier in this article, I gave my personal definition of a successful dancer. The main ingredient comes down to one thing: passion. It can all be summed up by HipHopHeals Most DEAFinitely Dance Company, the first ever all Deaf & Hard of Hearing hip hop dance company in New York City in 2010:
“Deaf strive to show audiences that people of all abilities are passionate about dance and have the moves to prove it!”
May 15, 2011: HHHMDDC 1st EVER Performance @ BDC!!