You Don’t Have to Hear the Music to Get Down

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How Dancing With the Stars became an unlikely showcase for deaf dancing’s singular beauty and culture.

ByLilit Marcus

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Nyle DiMarco, left, is the second deaf dancer to appear on

Dancing With the Stars.

(Photo: ABC)

Some were skeptical when model Nyle DiMarco was announced as a contestant on this season’s installment of Dancing With the Stars. It’s not as if DiMarco, the winner of season 22 of America’s Next Top Model, didn’t have the celebrity status or competitive drive to be a viable contender on the show’s 22nd season, which premiered in late March. Rather, reality television forum contributors wondered whether DiMarco would be able to keep up with performers that have full use of their five senses — DiMarco, after all, is profoundly deaf.

But, as returning Dancing With the Stars viewers may be aware, the Deaf community has always had dancers. In 2008, Deaf (the capital “D” describes members of a socially and politically active community) Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin landed in sixth place on Dancing With the Stars. Before deaf dancing got a starring role on reality TV, deaf dancer Frances Woods and her hearing husband Billy Bray entertained crowds around the country with fox trots, sambas, tangos, and rumbas in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1955, Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf, founded its first dance company. In 1995, Heather Whitestone was crowned Miss America after performing an elegant ballet routine that left many in the audience in tears.

DiMarco has already parlayed his Top Model fame to improve public understanding about the Deaf community — he is one of the personalities of The ASL App, which uses short videos to demonstrate and teach signs, and the founder of the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which aims to improve educational resources for parents with deaf children. Dancing With the Stars, though, is a particularly important step forward for his activism. As a contestant, DiMarco is poised to live out one of Gallaudet’s — and the larger Deaf community’s — most crucial mottos, coined by I. King Jordan, the school’s first deaf president: “Deaf people can do anything except hear.” Not only is Dancing With the Stars proving to be an optimal showcase for these abilities, it’s also shining a light on Deaf dancing’s singular beauty and culture.

When I called the Washington, D.C.-based Gallaudet University to set up an interview with Susan Gill-Doleac, the director of the Gallaudet Dance Company, the press office warned me that it might take a while to coordinate an interview. Spring break was coming up; it could be hard to find an interpreter for our call. “Actually,” I told the press officer, “I’m a CODA. I can sign.”

CODA — it means I’m a Child of Deaf Adults. Both of my parents, in fact, are deaf, and Gallaudet alumni too. So is Gill-Doleac — she’s been at the university a total of 36 years as both a student and a teacher. The university is often nicknamed “Gally”; but, for most of us, its name is a thumb and forefinger whisked in front of the right eye and then pinched together.

Not only is Dancing With the Stars proving to be an optimal showcase for these abilities, it’s also shining a light on Deaf dancing’s singular beauty and culture.

It was only natural that when we connected via Facetime on a Saturday afternoon in March, we spent the first 20 minutes figuring out which people we knew in common. If some communities have six degrees of separation, we maybe have two. DiMarco is also a Gallaudet graduate; nearly everyone in the Deaf community knows him or has a story about him. By the end of the chat, Gill-Doleac and I made tentative plans to have coffee the next time I visited Washington. Although we’d never met and she didn’t know my family, being part of the Deaf community and having a connection to Gallaudet was more than enough to build a connection.

She’s used to clearing up misperceptions about deaf dancing. When I ask what people often get wrong about her craft, Gill-Doleac bursts out laughing. “That they feel vibrations through their feet,” she said, with the practiced motions of a hard-of-hearing person who has given this same speech a thousand times before. In reality, dancing while deaf is a much more holistic experience. “We feel the vibration through the breastbone, not through the feet, especially when jumping or doing turns,” she said. “The music has to be loud enough for the dancers to feel it in their breastbone. They feel it in their core — that’s where the energy is.”

That’s true of dancing, and also of signing: In both scenarios, Deaf people use their entire bodies to express themselves. People always think that sign language is in your hands, but so much of our language is about shoulders, and eyes, and whether we lean forward or backward. As a child I always saw our language as a dance, with its lovely shapes and fluid motions.

When teaching dancing, Gill-Doleac instructs her students to use their eyes and their hands to keep the beat. “The first thing you need to do is be visual with the count,” Gill-Doleac told me. “It is helpful to count one to eight. Also, you can use hand cues. When you teach ballroom, you have to use the heel of the palm to communicate, so they can do that.”

My dad took a dance class when he was an undergraduate at Gallaudet. Although I can’t remember the last time I saw him dance, it’s easy for me to guess what he is like: warm and open, like his signing. Sign language itself feels like a kind of dance, where slight shifts in movement can communicate a paragraph.

DiMarco’s Dancing With the Stars partner, the professional Australian dancer Peta Murgatroyd, has been doing her part to focus attention on DiMarco’s approach to routines. In public statements, she’s pointed out how DiMarco’s many senses inform his steps. “He’s just so visually aware,” she toldEntertainment Tonight about DiMarco, her first-ever deaf student. “Probably doubly as visually aware as anyone else because he doesn’t have hearing. He picks up the steps very quickly, and it’s very surprising.”

Signers are, by necessity, quite physical with each other. It’s normal for a deaf person to move other peoples’ heads to see their faces more clearly while they are talking, or to tap repeatedly on their shoulders to get their attention. While many cultures see such intimate actions as rude or jarring, for us signers, they are the equivalent of a “Hey! Over here!”

In this sense, Dancing With the Stars is the perfect showcase for the characteristics that make deaf dancing unique. The show, all about pomp, bright lights, flashy costumes, and facial dramatics, has a whole freaking lot of “Hey! Over here!”

But perhaps even more importantly for the Deaf community, it has viewership — a lot of viewership. As a Big Three network flagship show, Dancing With the Stars averages 11–12 million viewers per week — that’s more people than will attend a recital or concert in their town, or who will be able to see a Broadway show, and 11 to 12 times as many people who are even deaf or hard of hearing in the United States. With its broad, national appeal, Dancing With the Stars is perhaps the single biggest dance-centric event in current U.S. pop culture.

DiMarco and Murgatroyd’s first dance on the show was a cha cha. I’d been hoping for a waltz or something else in hold, since it can be easier for a deaf dancer to keep in rhythm when partners are touching and have eye contact. In ballroom dancing, two people move as one: Though this is difficult for deaf dancers, as for anyone, they communicate with their bodies. “You can do a lot more tactile cues, because you’re face to face and touching, your hand is on the partner’s back. It’s nice to have that, to communicate through the body,” Gill-Doleac said.

But Gill-Doleac has confidence in DiMarco, in part because of Matlin’s success on the show in 2008. These days, Matlin isn’t so much a star to the Deaf community as she is practically her own constellation — she has a Golden Globe, two books, 324,000 Twitter followers, and an Academy Award, the only Deaf actor to win one so far. Her recent appearance on Broadway in Spring Awakening, alongside several other young Deaf actors, broke new ground for the Deaf community. Perhaps most powerfully, it showed the hearing world what deaf performers were capable of. “People ask fewer questions now [about deaf dancing] because Marlee showed the whole world how to do it and showed it on TV,” Gill-Doleac said. “She opened the door for all of us.”

The door is open. And it’s time for DiMarco to dance right through it.

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