Deaf Dancers Speak

September 28, 2008

The word “def,” taken from the word, “definitive,” is hip hop slang for great. Add an “a,” however, and that word—deaf—becomes something altogether different. Especially for a dancer.


A profound hearing loss affects not only balance and equilibrium, but also the ability to hear the outside world. With a big part of a dancer’s world being music, the situation would seem insurmountable, requiring ingenious solutions when hearing aids are not enough.


And while there are few cases of deaf musicians—the composer Beethoven notwithstanding—there are a number of professional dancers who, to varying degrees, are deaf. In exploring the deaf dancer’s milieu, Dance Magazine spoke to seven in the field. They provide hope for the hearing impaired seeking careers in dance, an already crowded arena.


For Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, artistic director of the Los Angeles–based Lux Aeterna, a troupe that fuses breaking with contemporary dance, his impairment has not prevented him from doing what he loves. Born deaf in his right ear, with an ear infection at 4 causing him to lose half the hearing in the other, Lyons wears a hearing aid. “I can see rhythm better than I can hear it,” says Lyons. “At hip hop competitions I see the pace at which the audience claps their hands and bobs their heads. I can detect what the rhythm is and dance to that, even if I can’t hear it at all.”


The notion that deaf people “hear” by feeling vibrations through the floor is not true, especially for a dancer who moves and jumps about, losing contact with the surface.


Lyons says he makes dances by first absorbing the music, listening day and night. “I know it so well that the timing becomes part of me. It’s in my body and my body knows what it’s supposed to do and when.”


As for sonic misshaps, Lyons recalls that on one occasion he was in London for a competition and his hearing aids died. “I was completely deaf. I had no concept where the rhythm or beat was, but I knew I had to go for it. I did the steps and tried to rely on the power of my performance.” Naturally, though, he couldn’t dance his best. “I took a lot of heat, because nobody knew except my crew.” In that kind of situation, Lyons points out, “There are real feelings of fear and insecurity.”


Brea Cali
has also been hearing impaired since birth, with a 60 percent loss in her right ear and 40 percent loss in her left. Currently a member of Germany’s State Theater of Kassel under the direction of choreographer Johannes Wieland, Cali says that a hearing aid allows her to hear music, though not high frequencies and tones. “If a piece of choreography has counts,” she says, “I am able to count the music. If not, I rely on other methods, such as a good stage monitor system. I often relearn the music at the first stage rehearsal. Live orchestras are challenging, as I only hear one tenth the range of the actual music. But I accomplish musicality through evolution and adaptation.”


Cali adds that several Wieland works involve water, a scenario not compatible with a hearing aid. When she performs these works, Cali says she has more awareness of her body, her movements and her surroundings, especially other dancers. “Basically I do the pieces without hearing much of anything.”


Also a lip-reader, Cali quips, “Dancing with a company of 15 dancers with 10 different languages and dialects, I am learning how to read lips with accents.”


Jason McDole
, who suffers from a congenital hearing disorder, wears hearing aids that boost his hearing to about 50 percent. The Pennsylvania native has not only accomplished what most hearing persons are unable to—graduating from the Juilliard School—but has gone on to dance with a trio of great choreographers. After performing with David Parsons and Lar Lubovitch, he was cherry-picked by Twyla Tharp for a tour before appearing on Broadway in her show based on Bob Dylan tunes, The Times They Are A-Changin’.


McDole, who now teaches at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University, talks about how he absorbs choreography: “My process is learning the choreography first—what the tempo is in my body. Once it’s in my muscle memory, I’m able to let that go and experience the music.”


Washington, DC’s Gallaudet University is the only institution of higher learning in which all programs are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Its Gallaudet Dance Company, which mounts up to 15 concerts annually, was formed in 1955. For the last 27 years, its director has been Diane Hottendorf, who grew up hearing.


Hottendorf says her approach to teaching deaf dancers is twofold: She employs American Sign Language (ASL) and makes all her presentations visual. “You use sign and gestures whenever possible,” she explains, “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.” She continues, “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.”


Karen Dearborn
, director of dance at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was a professional dancer until becoming deaf in her 20s as a result of a car accident. She uses a hearing aid when she teaches.


“I can’t hear the top notes of the piano, but most music for dance doesn’t focus on upper ranges, so I get a good sense of phrasing and tempo. With contemporary dance, such as Cunningham, musicality is not taught as something you listen to as much as it is something you do with your dancing. There is an inner rhythm and phrasing.


“The challenges,” she adds, “are that I have to be a better listener than many teachers with perfect hearing. I also have to pay attention to students when they speak, as well as notice their nonverbal cues in the classroom.”


“Deaf people can excel at dance,” Dearborn points out, “because they’re so attuned to watching and noticing the real rhythms of the world.”


Antoine Hunter
, a faculty member at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and co-director of Urban Ballet, both in Richmond, California, performs with Alayo Dance Company. Born deaf in his left ear and hard of hearing in his right, Hunter sometimes composes music in his head, taking the count, he says, “and turning it into music.” When performing to live music, Hunter says he looks at the musicians to see how they tap their feet or bob their heads. “Dance is like sign language, and sign language all over the world is different. My grammar is never perfect but somehow my poetry is perfect, because people are able to feel something.”


Millions of people were able to feel something for Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin when she took to the stage as a contestant on last season’s Dancing With the Stars. Deaf since 18 months of age, Matlin says she decided to be on the hit show because it was outside her comfort zone. She also liked to dance—casually.


Matlin explained that, in learning the dances, she used her interpreter to know what her partner, Fabian Sanchez, was saying. “It wasn’t rocket science,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Fabian showed me the steps, and I learned them as anyone would. By the end of the competition, we were so in tune that I didn’t need an interpreter—we were communicating well on our own.”


The actress also applied her own powers of observation to follow Sanchez. “You could say I used him as my music, in that I watched and followed his rhythm.”


None of the hearing-impaired professionals interviewed consider themselves disabled. Says Cali, “My first life lesson came from my parents—that my hearing impairment is not an impediment. There was never a doubt I would be able to dance professionally. It was only a question of how hard I was willing to work to reach my goal.”


Jason McDole sees an upside to his condition. “Being hearing impaired forces you to listen and to observe the world in a different, more compassionate way. I could channel any emotion I needed through my dancing, which is what dance is about. It has made me more in tune to how many special things there are in this world.”


Victoria Looseleaf is a L.A.-based writer and frequent contributor to the
Los Angeles Times and other publications.