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Welcoming, Teaching Dance to Deaf or Hard of Hearing Students

Welcoming Visual Learners:

How to work with hearing-impaired students

By Jennifer Kaplan, 11/1/11

NVRC Note: Nine “Tips for Teaching Hearing Impaired Students” are listed at the end of the article:

“Great! Welcome!” It’s the first thing you should say if a deaf or hearing-impaired child wants to take dance classes.

That’s the advice of Marcia Freeman, a former dance teacher at Gallaudet University, the renowned liberal arts university for deaf and hearing-impaired students, in Washington, DC. “I think you need to be really welcoming even though you may have no background in teaching deaf children,” says Freeman, who instructed deaf youngsters at Gallaudet’s high school, Model Secondary School for the Deaf, and its Kendall Demonstration Elementary School for more than 25 years.

Freeman points out that 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents, which makes some communication easier, especially outside the classroom. The first thing she suggests teachers do is invite the parents and the child to observe a class to determine if it is something the child is committed to doing. Even more than with hearing children, it’s important to get to know students with a hearing impairment, she adds, since there will be communication issues to work out. Most dance teachers don’t know American Sign Language (ASL), and it’s unlikely that the student would have a sign interpreter in an extracurricular dance class. (Most of them have learned to sign by the time they’re in preschool; some learn well before that. But it depends on their upbringing and parental preference.)

That said, there are some easy methods to communicate with students in the studio. “Deaf children are visual learners,” Freeman says.

Yola Rozynek, a dance specialist at Gallaudet’s Model Secondary School for the Deaf, agrees. “I believe observation is one of the key components for deaf students,” says Rozynek, speaking via a voice relay telephone interpreter because she is deaf. “If you observe, you can take in the technical aspects and just the general dance itself.”

When preparing to instruct a deaf or hearing-impaired student for the first time, Freeman recommends research, research, research. “Today there’s tons of information on the web for general signing, plus lots of little books. Although I don’t think there are specific books for dance signs, a lot of teachers come up with their own dance signs. I certainly did. I never had anybody tell me what to do, but I did come up with simple hand signals.”

As challenging as it might be for some teachers to communicate with deaf students in dance classes, Mary Cowden Snyder of Medford Dance Arts Academy in Oregon has no problem with it. Snyder, who grew up with a deaf great-uncle in her household and learned finger-spelling (her uncle didn’t know ASL), has developed techniques over the years that help not only her hearing-impaired students, but all her students.

“I make cards with the name of a step in French on one side and English on the other. I hold it next to my mouth when I talk so my [deaf] students can see my lips,” she explains. Snyder then folds the card and places it on the floor. She performs the step next to the card, thus reinforcing the vocabulary for everyone, whether deaf or hearing.

“For all children, they’ve never seen the word ‘plié’ before; it’s French and they have to be introduced in a way that’s useful for them,” Snyder says. “We have a wide variety of students with various special needs, so we try to make sure every child has a pleasant experience in dance class.” The best part, for Snyder, is that all her students learn the ballet vocabulary well and can build on combinations of steps, just as she had done with the tent cards in her classes.

Inculcating a sense of musicality is often the greatest challenge for teachers who have deaf students in their classes. Snyder finds that having the students clap the rhythm is helpful.

“Depending on their degree of hearing loss, some deaf students will be able to pick up on certain parts of the music,” says Freeman. “There’s a big range in how much a person hears, depending on the type of music. Piano in a ballet class is probably not going to do a whole lot unless there are a lot of bass chords.” Hip-hop and jazz, with their driving bass beats, often are easiest for hearing-impaired dancers to hear and feel. Freeman likes counting out combinations with her fingers, noting that most combinations won’t have really complex rhythms and time signatures unless the students are very advanced.

Rozynek, who danced professionally with Kol Demama, a now-defunct Israeli company of deaf and hearing dancers, says that sometimes a teacher can pair a hearing student with a deaf student, being sure that the hearing student is cognizant of the rhythm and musicality. “If the hearing student can lead the deaf student, the deaf student can maintain the eye contact and the hearing student [should] not have any expression. They just have to hear the sound and the deaf student can focus on personal expression and try to integrate it into the dance itself.” In this way, the deaf student can learn the steps, counts, and spacing and then add her own expression without being influenced by what the hearing student did.

While renowned New York ballet teacher Igal Perry has no specific training in teaching deaf students, over the years he has encountered some of them occasionally in his classes at his studio, Peridance Capezio Center. And he has choreographed works for deaf dancers. “I figured out in working with deaf people that, like hearing people, there are those who are musical. Not everybody is musical in nature—and that’s not just deaf people, but anybody. If people tend to be musical, they also can build a sense of timing just by repetition. Once you give them a starting point, they can actually hang onto phrases in good timing, sometimes even better than dancers who hear the music but ignore it.”