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How do the Deaf dance?
By: Holly Younghans
January 1st, 2022
I had the privilege of getting to dance semi-professionally and avocationally for over thirty-five years. I cannot imagine my life without music or movement. I had been told that the Deaf "feel" music by experiencing the vibrations, typically proffered through the drum and/or bass lines. I have also seen the Deaf enjoying music through lighting displays synchronized to the music. And then in 2016, a Deaf man, Nyle DiMarco, won the TV show, Dancing With the Stars and I wondered, HOW? I taught ballroom dance for several years; I know what it takes to move like that in harmony with a partner. The man always leads. How did this Deaf man know the music, feel the beat, and lead his partner?
While he undoubtedly had a great resource in his professional partner, Peta Murgatroyd, as DiMarco himself said, "Can a deaf person really dance to the music as perfectly as we did?" I just didn't know if we were really going to be able to do that. We really just took it week to week, worked hard and made it work!" (Kwiatkowski, 2016). It turns out this last statement is something that all Deaf dance artists have in common. It also turns out that there are a great many professional, semi-professional, avocational, and for-the-fun-of-it Deaf dancers. As one author observed, "Dance may be a visual art form, but it's tightly intertwined with sound. Even as the field strives to be more inclusive, learning to dance without two fully functioning ears remains a challenge. But today, dancers with full and partial hearing loss are becoming more visible, thanks to growing opportunities, high-profile role models, and even Instagram" (Ritzel, 2020).
Paul Taylor, a famous modern dance choreographer in the hearing world, was famous for not allowing mirrors in his studios because he thought the dancers relied on them too much and developed bad habits. Deaf dancers need the mirrors, not to stare at themselves, but to watch one another, to stay in sync while they are learning new choreography, develop their spatial understanding of the shape of the choreography, and make adjustments as they go. Hearing dancers may do the same, but the level of reliance is not nearly as high.
It also turns out that I was wrong about the "vibrations" thing, insofar as it comes to serious dancing (i.e., not bouncing around at a club). One professional Deaf dancer, Antoine Hunter, stated, "No. If I jump, I can't feel the vibration. If I'm running around really really fast, I can't feel the vibration. I have to slow down and stay in one place for a while to feel the vibration. So what does that mean? I'm listening. I'm using every intelligence of my being to do what I have to do to make it work" (Egusa, 2020). Using 'every intelligence of one's being' should be applicable to anyone endeavoring to master a specific skill, but, as a former dancer, I can vouch that those of us who can hear are probably not as attentive to this whole being involvement because we take our hearing for granted. Honestly, it's not something we must think about, so we don't. We simply intuitively absorb where we need to be at any given point in the music as we rehearse. Does that free us up for other things or make us lazy? It's hard to say. The leadership of the Gallaudet University dance program expands upon this idea further:
Many people have the misconception that deaf people "hear" by feeling vibrations through the floor. How is this possible, especially if a person is moving and jumping so that they do not keep in continuous contact with the floor? What if the floor is not wood, but solid concrete?The Gallaudet Dancers need many hours of practice in order to develop an inner sense of timing for a specific dance. Some dancers who have some residual hearing may pick up cues from the music to assist them in knowing where they are supposed to be in a dance, but this does not happen the first time they learn a new dance, but rather after countless hours of practice and counting all the movements in a dance step. . .
When a dance instructor is teaching a new dance routine to deaf performers, counting visually helps establish the basic rhythm pattern and facilitates the development of inner rhythm and timing for a particular dance. In addition, when teaching a new dance step, it helps if the instructor gives a sign count for each step, similar to giving a verbal count with hearing dancers. Occasionally, we use a drum to demonstrate the precise rhythm of a piece of music. Often a deaf dancer will use his or her eyes to watch and follow the movement of a fellow dancer who may be able to hear and follow the music.
It is important to note that the Gallaudet Dance Company remains "in time" with or without music. This is a parallel experience to that of an experienced musician, especially a drummer, who has a highly developed sense of timing. In summary, when teaching dance to deaf students, the most effective technique is to count visually, use a high-quality sound system, and communicate through signs (Gallaudet University, no date).
Gallaudet alum and choreographer, Teresa Dominick, says this: "Gallaudet Dance Company is no different than other dance groups, we just use a different language to communicate and utilize different cues." To this I would heartily agree. Even hearing dancers count and watch one another, particularly if someone is "better than" the others. One difference that stood out to me from the longer quote above is that hearing dancers may not necessarily be able to "remain in time with or without music." I suspect that unless a hearing dancer has practiced at length without music, dancing without it would likely be a mess. Another teacher and choreographer said, "Deaf people can excel at dance, because they're so attuned to watching and noticing the real rhythms of the world" (Looseleaf, 2008). That's a special gift to which hearing people are not typically attuned.
As someone who got to dance by listening to the music and hearing the sounds of my fellow dancers (e.g., tap shoes, or breathing, or singing), I now understand that I did not have to work nearly as hard to master the same craft Deaf dancers do. As someone who got to dance for so long, I am delighted to learn that this form of artistic expression is not only alive, but thriving and growing in both the hearing and Deaf performing arts domains.
Research for this brief paper revealed a veritable host of dance programs and professional dance companies and professional dance showcases for the Deaf, highlighting all forms of dance styles, from ballet to jazz to hip hop and beyond. Interested parties are encouraged to do an Internet search and discover what might be in your neighborhood. Meanwhile, the answer to the initial question of how did Mr. DiMarco know the music, feel the beat, and lead his partner? The answer is he worked very, very hard. All serious dancers do work hard, but when you can't hear the music, the job gets a whole lot tougher. To Deaf dancers everywhere: I applaud you all.
Gallaudet University has had a dance performance troupe for sixty-five years and counting.
Egusa, Christopher.(2011, March 11) Dancing out loud: Antoine Hunter uses dance to express the Deaf experience. KALW Public Media, interview and online transcription. Retrieved 11/21/21 at https://www.kalw.org/show/crosscurrents/2020-03-11/dancing-out-loud-antoine-hunter-uses-dance-to-express-the-deaf-experience.
Gallaudet University, Department of Art, Communication and Theatre. (no date) Techniques. General information about the dance program. Retrieved 11/21/21 at https://www.gallaudet.edu/department-of-art-communication-and-theatre/gallaudet-dance-company/techniques.
Kwiatkowski, Elizabeth. (2016, May 25) "Nyle DiMarco: I didn't know a deaf person could dance as perfectly as Peta Murgatroyd and I did on 'Dancing with the Stars.'" Reality TV World. Online article. Retrieved 11/21/21 at https://www.realitytvworld.com/news/nyle-dimarco-i-didnt-know-deaf-person-could-dance-music-as-perfectly-as-peta-murgatroyd-and-i-did-on-dancing-with-stars--19858.php.
Looseleaf, Victoria. (2008, Sept 29) Quoting Karen Dearborn in Deaf Dancers Speak. Dance Magazine. Online article. Retrieved 11/21/21 at https://www.dancemagazine.com/deaf-dancers-speak-2306881501.html.
Ritzel, Rebecca J.(2020, Jan 1) "Dancing while Deaf: what it's like to move to music you can't hear." Dance Magazine. Online article. Retrieved 11/21/21 at https://www.dancemagazine.com/deaf-dancers-2641619050.html.
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