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Ostrich

Deaf Dancers

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In a production of GiselleI just saw, there was a deaf dancer on stage. He did the peasant pas de deux. When I asked how a deaf dancer can keep in time with the music, I was told that there are TV screens at the right and left of the stage (I did notice them and wondered what they were for). A dancer backstage does the dance and his performance is relayed onto the screens. The deaf dancer copies what he sees on the screens and thus is able to stay in time. I wondered whether there are many cases of deaf people dancing and whether any deaf dancer ever became famous.

Edited by Ostrich

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I had a student at Pennsylvania Ballet, back in the 1980s who was deaf. She became an apprentice at Pennsylvania Ballet and eventually a member of the corps de ballet at SFB. She felt the rythum of the music through the floor in order to stay with the beat. There was a slight delay, which she did learn to compensate for eventually. She was a wonderful dancer.

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Ostrich, in which company did that deaf dancer perform ? And did he really manage to stay in time ? Also, since peasant pas de deux involves two dancers, was there also a female dancer backstage, for the partnering parts ? That seems quite incredible...

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The dancer was from the South African Ballet Theatre. Yes, he did stay in time with the music. I don't know whether there was a female dancer backstage. I don't think so, but I'll try to find out. Maybe the deaf dancer just watched his partner carefully and adjusted himself to her timing in the pas de deux parts.

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Yacov Sharir founded a company of deaf dancers in Austin, Texas, in the late 1970s. They were mostly modern dancers, not ballet dancers (though I remember one danseur in particular), and some had backgrounds in gymnastics. Sharir was inspired by Merce Cunningham--the cueing was all visual. The dancers did feel the vibrations of the music through the floor--I remember in particular a dance by Dee McCandless called "Wadi," which had percussionists in the wings. If I am remembering correctly, the ballet choreographer Michael Utoff, who was then with the Hartford, made a piece for them. Some of the dancers were later absorbed into the Sharir Dance Company. The original company, though, to get back to that, was quite wonderful, and much loved by the community. In their audience was where I learned to applaud with my hands raised in the air over my head, so the dancers could see the acclaim.

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Ostrich was it a performance with a live orchestra or to canned music? This could make a difference. If Peasant Pas were kept to an even tempo then following the partner's tempo could make sense to canned music. In that case it would have always been rehearsed at the same tempo. Watching the monitors in the wings just sounds highly unlikely to me, like a movie out of sinc. :blushing:

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The Joffrey School tried a program for the hearing-impaired some years ago. They had the most impressive lineup of speakers I ever saw, and I swear that you could take that class on 14th St. and 2nd Ave, and the school is at 10th and 6th! I had a feeling that even the profoundly deaf could have felt the music through the air, never mind the floor.

(PS. Know who invented the term "canned music"? John Philip Sousa!

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We have a deaf dancer in our program this summer. She is a 17 or 18 year old, from out of town. Nice dancer, and seems to have no difficulty staying on the music. She feels it throught the floor. She has an interpreter for sign language for workshop and lecture classes, but does not need one for ballet classes. One of our chaperones and one of our students in her class and in the dorm have picked up quite a bit of sign language and it's really neat to see them talking to her!

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I'm getting some very interesting replies here! Nanatchka, that company of deaf dancers sounds amazing! I just wonder about that all-important quality for a dancer: musicality. Deaf people can't really be musical, can they?

vrsfanatic, I know this sounds crazy, but it's quite true. I saw the monitors myself as they were being wheeled out from behind screens at the left and right of the stage, not even the wings. What they were there for was explained to me by a dancer from the company who performed in that ballet herself. Yes, we did have "canned music". I was wondering whether, if there had been a live orchestra, the dancer could have kept an eye on the conductor's baton and timed himself by that (in his solo parts, at least)? On the other hand, if deaf people really can feel the music through the floor, why does he need any visual help at all? Confusing, confusing!

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Having watched a deaf dancer work within a company situation (yes, only one! :wacko: ) I can only say that she definitely did not need monitors during performance and we only used live music in rehearsal and on stage back in the 1970s and 1980s at Pennsylvania Ballet. I have seen monitors backstage in many theatres without having a deaf dancer onstage. I am not doubting the situation, but I am quite surprised about it! :shrug:

The young girl with whom I worked, was so on the music that I did not even know she was deaf until one day when I was correcting her and she turned her back on me while I was speaking with her. :angry: I was obviously a little perturbed at her "rude" behavior when another student finally told me she was deaf. :blushing: From then on I looked for some sort of "sign". As Ms Leigh said, in class, she was really fine but in rehearsals, Bolero was being choreographed for a company performance, she did need a little more time and patience from the AD/choreographer. She had no one signing for her. Her mother had not wanted anyone to know about her "situation" so no one was told, at first, we just learned as we went along. :shhh:

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Nanatchka, that company of deaf dancers sounds amazing! I just wonder about that all-important quality for a dancer: musicality. Deaf people can't really be musical, can they?

If by musical you mean an ability to phrase movement material, the deaf are actually highly skilled--you only have watch a conversation in ASL (American Sign Language) to see this. A complex metre does not need music to be conveyed to a performer, merely a demonstration. As Merce Cunningham said to me once, people "don't understand that rhythm is time cut up." However, if by musical you mean dancing to deeply heard music, a deaf performer cannot do that, of course. A person can also be intrinsically graceful (like a cat), which has nothing to do with music, and thus be perceived as musical, I should think.

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Thanks, that is very interesting. One of my ex-teachers had a deaf student who always got distinctions for her exams, so it seems that deaf people can be really good at ballet. Hard for me to split the idea of dancing and music...

Question: how do you correct a deaf dancer (if you don't know sign language, I mean)?

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There are all ranges of deaf. If you mean 100% hearing loss, profoundly deaf, then you're pretty much stuck with signing and demonstrating. That's why you have to be a very highly proficient dancer to be a successful teacher - sometimes, you have to show how it's done!

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Then there's Kol Demama Dance Company, founded in Israel in 1978, I believe, by Moshe Efrati, a former Batsheva dancer who also trained with Martha Graham.

The company's Hebrew name has biblical connotations, 'kol demama daka' -- the still small voice -- and also translates to 'sound and silence.' Efrati devised methods that integrated deaf and hearing dancers and used percussion and a lot (a whole lot) of bass in his scound scores so dancers would cue off each other and feel the beat. The company is modern, though, not classically oriented.

I'm not sure if it still exists, but I know one former dancer teaches high school students at Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. When I used to take class with her from a hearing teacher, I would visually cue her on the timing/rhythm and she was fine.

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Yacov Sharir also came out of Batsheva--the souce of both of the "deaf dance" companies. Interesting. Since his company came first, there might have been some back and forth. I have looked up Sharir since my first post, and his subsequent company is now the resident company of the dance department at UT Austin, and Sharir is now, and has been for some time, very interested in computers and dance.

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If the deaf dancer can read lips, it is not hard to communicate in a ballet class. The teacher just has to remember to be sure and face that dancer when speaking, and not make corrections with her back turned to the dancer. If the dancer depends on sign language, it has to be done totally with demonstration and hands on work, which can be very difficult and time consuming in a more advanced situation. It seems to me that it would be quite important for a deaf student who wants to dance to learn to read lips. As long as the teacher is one who speaks clearly and uses her mouth when speaking, this will work well. The problem for deaf people who read lips is the people who speak but barely open their mouths to do so. I find this most disconcerting, even as a hearing person, and often have trouble hearing and understanding them myself.

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But on the other side of the same coin, over-enunciating can make lip-reading (called speech-reading) more difficult.

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