Enter in Silence

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

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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