Ask a group of dancers to perform a piece without its music and they’re likely to struggle with the silence. But the Gallaudet Dance Company thrives in quiet. Located in Washington, DC, Gallaudet University, a world leader in deaf education, is host to this extraordinary ensemble of deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers. “Their first language movement,” says company director Dr. Diane Hottendorf.
GU’s dance company was founded in 1955 by Dr. Peter Wisher, the university’s head basketball coach, who was inspired after seeing students sign the Lord’s Prayer. “He was so impressed with the beauty of signs that he wondered why the deaf students weren’t using them as a foundation for dance movement,” says Hottendorf.
Wisher, who has a PhD in physical education and also trained with Doris Humphrey, combined American Sign Language (ASL) with dance to create a unique movement style. During his time, the troupe grew from a recreational activity to a performing club that appeared on shows like 60 Minutes and The Mike Douglas Show.
In 1981, Hottendorf became the director, renamed the group the Gallaudet Dance Company and expanded the repertoire. She has a PhD in dance from the University of Southern California and has taught at various colleges. It was while teaching at California State University–Northridge, which has a large deaf student population, that she first experienced signing.
Though Hottendorf didn’t learn ASL until she came to GU, her experience at CSU made her sensitive to the needs of deaf dancers—and aware of their capability. In the 1980s, there was support for deaf dance education, but Hottendorf had to relentlessly explain that GDC was not “dance-therapy” but, rather, a group of performing artists. After getting the directorship, she worked hard to make the dance facilities more professional by acquiring a new studio, sound system and costumes.
GDC’s 15 dancers rehearse ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and lyrical/modern techniques. Some take outside classes or participate in GU’s dance minor program. Their repertoire includes works by guest choreographers, such as Debra Floyd, director of Washington, DC’s FloydProject Dance Company, in addition to those by Hottendorf and Assistant Director Sue Gill-Doleac.
Teaching deaf dancers is much like teaching those with hearing, but for the deaf, each instruction, tip or correction must be shown through movement and gesture. And teachers rely heavily on other nonverbal sensory cues, like touch. When teaching choreography, “what works is counting visually, so they can see the rhythm,” says Hottendorf. Using a drumbeat or a sign for each step is the hearing-impaired equivalent of “5-6-7-8.” “We feel the music through the floor, keep count in our heads and use our peripheral vision,” says Erin Ginn, GDC member. “so it all comes together.”
With at least 10 hours of rehearsal per week, these dancers have plenty of time to develop their unity. “We don’t believe in having a ‘star’ of the company. We support each other,” says Jasmene Fuller, GDC dancer. Many members, inspired by the experience, have pursued dance careers. One graduate is lead teacher for Gallaudet’s National Deaf Dance Academy and another directs the dance program at one of Maryland’s largest public high schools.
GDC is now well supported, selling out shows and receiving media coverage from sources like CBS’s The Insider and the Washington Post Express. Each spring, GDC presents a concert with a theme inspired by world events. In this year’s, entitled Times, They Are A Changing, they hope to restage Wisher’s Lord’s Prayer. Just as Wisher realized from the beginning, “It doesn’t matter if a dancer is deaf or hearing,” Hottendorf says. “What is required is dedication, hard work and a passion to move.” DT