Deaf Men Dancing

Anyone who has read my latest book would know that the hearing impaired world is very close to my heart. This started when I was young and had the opportunity to learn sign language to teach a class at our church in which a deaf girl was one of the kids. I learned everything I could, from songs to stories, and eventually moved up in the age group with that same class for four years until that little lady was transferred to the older classes. It was an experience that gave me a good foundation for later in life.

Then eight years ago I got sick. My body could not fight off the illness, so instead it did the best it could in killing whatever virus was attacking my nerves by killing the nerves themselves. This is more commonly known as Bell’s Palsy. For three months I had absolutely no movement on the right side of my face and neck. Nothing. I could not even twitch my eyebrow. After that, and until the twelfth month, the body tries to regenerate the nerves that were affected. Most with Bells Palsy do not return fully to what they were before, and there is a higher risk of having it again in your life. In my case, the surface muscles were mostly able to come back – 80% they say. However the deeper muscles – tongue, muscles in my throat, as well as those that control my eye and my are in my ear – were not so lucky. That is where I still have trouble today. I cannot taste, feel, see, or hear properly on my right side.

Coming from a perfectly normal person to this, I can tell you it is quite strange. There is a lot you have to change. I learned to read lips, because in a crowd or with people who do not enunciate properly when they speak (ie – my hubby) are very difficult for me to understand.

It is because of my personal experiences that when I read of my dearest author, Jane Austen, having a brother with whom she used sign language to speak, it became an instant muse to write a story about a deaf character. Even for someone who lives a life of being hearing impaired it was difficult at times to find ways to communicate in the story what was needed.The result however was a story that touches the soul in a way my others did not.

My editor, Anita, sent me this article about a men’s troupe of dancers who are all deaf, and of course it caught my attention. Ho wonderful! Some of the things they describe are very familiar.

“I ran over to the piano and put my hand on it to feel the vibrations of the music,” remembers Mark Smith. Diagnosed as deaf at four years old, his first encounter with rhythm and dance was at his sister’s ballet class.

Smith couldn’t hear the music but was able to establish a rhythm from what he could feel. He says: “I began to copy the movements and the teacher encouraged me to join.”He went on to study dance at degree level and has worked as a choreographer for the past 20 years. Now Smith uses those early experiences to teach other deaf people how to dance.

I remember sitting on top of my dads huge speakers (he was a television and radio engineer, so believe me, they were HUGE!) when I was little and feeling the rhythm through them. Did you do that? Or did you ever enter an establishment and feel the rhythm through the floorboards? Well it seems that is the exact method this dance troupe uses.

In the absence of a piano, Smith encourages his students to place their hand on a speaker to experience the pulses from the audio. “The vibrations move through their arms and into their bodies,” he says. And when the students move away from direct contact with the sound, they maintain contact with the rhythm via the vibrations in the wooden floor. “That’s why we always dance barefoot,” he adds.

He says deaf people are constantly alert to visual cues throughout the day and so his dancers are naturally tuned to what the others are doing, rather than taking cues directly from the music. He believes that this ability makes deaf dancers better at communicating with each other on stage than hearing dancers.

I am not a dancer – really I have trouble with anything but the ground being directly below my feet, so no roller skates, ice skates, or any other devices under my feet. I am truly a klutz. However, I remember being a little girl and dancing around to music being played on the other side of the house on the piano.

Having more connections with the language, he observes that deaf dancers tend to perform his routines with lots of emotion whereas hearing dancers are strong at the more technical side.

The show also plunders Smith’s childhood memories. His first hearing aid was a big box which attaches to the chest with a harness. Dancers wear these during the performance, which he says is a very visible badge of deafness and “gives them a bit of a superhero look”.

The music in Hear! Hear! is encoded with sounds and patterns which aren’t usually known to people with typical hearing. The first act includes noises that people with tinitus commonly hear from Deaf boy One, a singer and guitar player who is hard of hearing. The score for the second act, by Michael England, is a piece of electronic classical music based on Smith’s own hearing test charts – he struggles to hear high frequency sounds like birdsong, dripping taps and rustling leaves. The second time the melody is played the higher frequencies are taken away, giving the audience a sense of how he hears music.

Does this fascinate more than just me? I would love to see these guys perform. I guess Youtube is my only wany to do so, so for now: