Thursday afternoon fever

“The main challenge I’ve had is dealing with society’s belief that since deaf people can’t hear, they can’t dance. What people forget or do not yet know is that we all hear with our bodies before the sound enters our ears. This is not just through vibration but also through instinct and impulse.” – Jo Dunbar, deaf choreographer and dancer.

Leave nothing behind.

Leave nothing behind.

WHO SAID deaf kids can’t dance? Or respond to music, the rhythm in the air, their feet, or in their hearts?

Not me. Not after I saw my sassy six-year-old Amelia and her fellow classmates bring their best jazz hands and a whole lot of funk (is my age showing?) to an afternoon dance concert worth remembering. For like, ever.

We knew Amelia had been working with Jo Dunbar from Deaf Can Dance every week. Some nights she’d come home and try out some sweet new freestyle moves on the lounge room rug and I felt sure she must have been watching repeats of Breakdance (no judgement) as part of her training.

She’s no private dancer. No, she demands a captive parental audience, and as usual when her rockin’ recital is done we are instructed to clap as she bows solemnly like the most respectable English gentleman in the county.

We were eager to see how this confident home practice would translate to the bright lights of the school stage. Because every event like this, no matter how small, brings with it a new sense of who our daughter is.

Standing in front of a crowd I see more of Amelia’s true self than when she is in repose or playing by herself in the garden. The shifting expression on her face, the way she moves her hands, that tiny twitch of her bottom lip that signals shyness and something else. Something far more determined.

Like sardines, we packed into a small multipurpose room at the school; sweaty parents stacked on top of each other like a human game of Jenga, jostling for the perfect view.

Jo introduced her drumming accompanist, Koffi Toudji – a veritable man mountain with incredible command of his instrument and the 50-odd children in the room. One wave of his giant hand was enough to magnetically draw the dancers from one side of the stage to the other.

Then we watched, as mini troupes of well-rehearsed kids with painted faces twirled onto the stage, guided by Jo’s conducting hands and the deep, resonant boom of Koffi’s drum. It was a wonderfully rich sound that seemed like it was emanating from inside the walls.

We felt it reverberate through our own bodies, and saw its impact on the smaller bodies dancing on stage. The beat was powerful and intoxicating, pounding in my chest alongside my heart doing the rest.

If my smile had stretched any wider it might have fallen off my face.

And the dancers. They came in all shapes, sizes and abilities, but they held nothing back. Deafness was no barrier to their instinctive feeling for the music, nor their sense of rhythmic movement in response to it.

If one performer lost their way, another (or a patient teacher) would quickly gather them back into a carefully choreographed circle or tap them with a reminder of what to do. They danced with passion and with pride, in themselves and each other.

Warrior #1

Warrior #1

Finally it was Amelia’s turn. I couldn’t get a clear view of her, but I did see her little hips swinging with great verve and her intense concentration as she executed the steps she’d been practicing for weeks.

Sometimes she would get lost in her search for our faces in the crowd, but the distraction was only fleeting. She quickly got her groove back.

Then it was time for Amelia to bang on her own little bongo and I saw the raw delight on her face when it was time to pause and shout a barbaric yawp at the rafters. She looked like a warrior and she sounded like one too.

My husband and I clutched each other’s hands and laughed loudly with pleasure at how free Amelia was, how open and entirely herself. It felt like we were stealing a glimpse of something she didn’t mean for us to see.

At the close of her last performance, Amelia stood and did her uniquely refined doff and bow. She held no feathered hat in her hand but her gesture was so expressive I imagined I saw its soft, wide brim brush the floor.

She danced with sheer joy to the thunderous beat of Koffi’s drum, and more joyfully still, to the one you can’t see; the one that beats inside her, ever constant and true.

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4 thoughts on “Thursday afternoon fever

  1. I used to be a member of the Phoenix (Arizona) Swing Dance Club. There was a lady there named Shirley who danced (and competed) who was deaf. She was a very good dancer and she told me she could ‘feel’ the music.
    Thank you for posting this story about Amelia. I hope she continues with dance for a long time!

  2. I can only imagine how wonderful that must have been to watch Amelia being so free and confident! I fully believe that rhythm and music can be found in the air and ground, and isn’t something that can only be heard, but something that can be felt and seen.
    My cousin Sam found difficulty in finding an instrument to play at school, believing at first that because he couldn’t hear, he wouldn’t be able to play something well. His brother and sister had found their instruments to play (they’re triplets!!), and with sibling rivalry and being in the same class, he was feeling left out. He soon realised that he could feel music. By playing the drums.

    We were there in England with the family in 2010 for Christmas, when he ran into the playroom on Christmas morning to find that Santa had left him a shiny new, adult sized drum set. Let’s just say firm rules were set as to when he could play them, as we couldn’t tear him off them. He is a very talented little (not so little now…!) boy on the drums. My aunty and uncle even had to convert a room in their house to a soundproof music room just to house his drums!
    Thank you for such a wonderful post about your amazing girl!

    • Hi Alice! Yes, it was lovely and made us so happy to see her in her element. All of the kids were so excited, it really was a wonderful show. I would hate to hold Amelia back from anything involving music – if she has a passion for something, like the drums (!), then she should give it a crack. I loved your story about Sam and his drums! I especially like how his family made space for him to learn and practice. They sound like special people indeed 🙂 Thanks for sharing and commenting. Love to hear from you always xx

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