Dancing to your own beat
While Nyle DiMarco’s successful stint on Dancing with the Stars is a wonderment to a majority of the popular show’s listening public, Susan Gill-Doleac isn’t surprised by his success at all. Gill-Doleac, the first Deaf director of the Gallaudet Dance Company, knows a good dancer doesn’t need to be able to hear – they just need to be passionate and determined to work hard.
"Having passion for dance is critical,” she said. “I’d rather teach a dancer that has passion than a dancer who has good technique and does not want to work.”
The Gallaudet Dance Company is a troupe of approximately 19 students at Gallaudet University, a private university for the Deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington, D.C. Former athletic coach, Dr. Peter Wisher, founded the Gallaudet Dancers in 1955 to create a unique dance style which integrated abstract American Sign Language (ASL) with dance. Today the company performs dances with and without ASL.
“What we do is create art,” Gill-Doleac said. “ASL is a beautiful language and to fuse it with dance is very moving. And, at the same time, we are communicating the emotions of the song to the audience when we sign.”
The dance company, an extracurricular activity for the students, accepts all levels of dancers – those with formal dance training and those without any formal dance training at all. Half of the dancers are dance minors.
The most important goal Gill-Doleac has for her dancers is for them to “remain passionate about dancing and ASL and serve as positive role models for Deaf and hard of hearing children. Several of our graduates are teaching dance to Deaf and hard of hearing children, some are teaching hearing dancers, some have set up their own dance companies and some are choreographing for numerous dance companies throughout the United States.”
The dancers present approximately 20 performances each year, some held on campus and some at other venues. Their biggest production is a spring dance concert held in March or April each year. Planning begins in September and involves as many as five guest choreographers versed in dance techniques from modern jazz to lyrical ballet.
Gill-Doleac said the choreographers use ASL to communicate with the dancers and give visual counts for every movement – which means they are signing, counting and demonstrating dance movements all at the same time. “It’s like juggling three things at a time,” she explained, “but once they get the hang of it, it comes natural for them."
The choreographers play the music first, so the dancers can familiarize themselves with the beat and rhythm of the song. Then they teach the signs and movements, depending on what works best for the choreographer and the dancers.
“As a group, the dancers use their eyes to stay together on time,” Gill-Doleac said. “Sometimes they rely on different cues…music cues, light cues and touch. A squeeze on the shoulder or hand, a stomp on the floor, or a visual count from the wing will alert the dancer to start on time with the music. With many hours of practice, profoundly deaf dancers can internalize the rhythm of each dance.”
“They do not feel the vibrations through their feet,” she emphasized. “They feel the beat in the core of their body.”
Tanisha Russell and David King are two dancers from the troupe. Russell graduated from Gallaudet University in 2016 with a degree in Education, while King is a junior psychology major who hopes to attend graduate school to eventually obtain his Ph.D. in counseling psychology.
“I don’t plan on being famous,” Russell, who is also a new choreographer for the dance company, said. “I want to expose young Deaf and hard of hearing people to dance and share my personal experience with them. Dance is what kept me alive and without it, I don’t know what I would do.”
Russell, who began dancing at the age of 3 in New Jersey, said she loves dance because of the movement. She said her extensive dance experience is an asset when learning a new dance.
“I really do not have a method of learning a choreography,” she explained. “It is something that is inside of me. Once I see a dance, I can automatically do it. It’s like something takes over and allows me to recreate whatever has been taught.”
King’s first exposure to dance performance was in high school. He enjoyed that experience so much, when he discovered there was a dance company at Gallaudet, he decided to participate. Like Russell, he learns by watching the choreographer. Unlike Russell, his lack of formal dance training makes learning the techniques challenging.
“When I am learning choreography, I simply observe the choreographer,” he said. “I observe how the choreographer is doing whatever dance moves are being taught as well as how those dance moves are in alignment with the chosen music.”
Both say dance is an important part of their lives.
“Dance is my therapy,” Russell said. “When I walk into the dance studio, I can’t help but have a smile on my face. Everything bad in my day disappears and pure joy fills my body. I can express however I am feeling at that moment and dance through it.”
“Dance, to me, is a form of expression and that is what I like most about it,” King said. “We are always growing and learning and we are all connected to each other.”
The dancers are so connected, in fact, many maintain close ties to the company long after they graduate.
“Students who joined the dance company and later graduate from Gallaudet all know they can return anytime to perform as a guest,” Gill-Doleac, a trained dancer and Gallaudet alumna herself, said. “The best part of being involved in the Gallaudet Dance Company are the dancers. It’s a joy for me to continue the tradition.”