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

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox