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.

Now, hearing

It's murder on the dance floor.

It’s murder on the dance floor.

Before bedtime last night, my daughter Amelia was doing her usual interpretive dance routine and entertaining us with her best jazz hands followed by the deepest of bows and an enchanting flourish of her hand from brow to floor to signal its choreographic end.

Her avant-garde performance, matched only in its breathtaking awkwardness by Marty, the Dude’s ‘artistic’ landlord in The Big Lebowski, was accompanied by music she had chosen herself. Born Ruffians, if you’re asking.

It’s music she couldn’t really hear as she doesn’t wear her aids at night after her bath. However, like many things in her life, Amelia digs the need for tunes to complete the picture, the context for a show. People dance to music, and so does she, whether she can fully appreciate it or not.

It certainly doesn’t affect her enjoyment of dancing and she knows music, rejoices in it when aided, so her imagination and failsafe memory lend her the rhythms (well, motions) where her hearing cannot.

After about five encores, met with raucous laughter and hearty applause from the couch seats in-the-round, our exhausted tiny dancer opted for a story break to catch her breath.

Amelia picked up her big, interactive book, Peppa Pig on Pirate Island, with its picture buttons to be pressed for character sounds and music that children can play as the story unfolds. You know, Peppa giggles on cue, there’s a jaunty pirate theme and on it goes.

Then something happened that we did not expect, that we had not seen or heard before. After a few seconds of pressing the sound buttons, our girl spoke and signed, “Need hearing aids. Can’t hear it.” She was not annoyed, it was simply a matter of practicality.

We just sat in stunned, wowed silence for a second, because this was the very first time Amelia has ever asked for her aids and explained why. That she needs them to hear.

She knows what they are and doesn’t like to be parted from them but I’ve been waiting to see when she would become aware of just what her aids are for. What they mean beyond mere objects we put in her ears every morning.

Last night was the night for a revelation of that anticipated cognisance of necessity.

Her Dad rushed off to get them as I sat, spellbound by my daughter’s sudden self-realisation – this emerging understanding of being without hearing. Of the connection between her aids and sound. Of being deaf.

As an audience, we could not have been more gripped by the scene playing out before us. She’d trumped herself in the post-dance segment of the evening’s activities.

Amelia nodded approvingly as the aids were finally inserted and switched on. Then she sat down again and pushed another Peppa-related button. Her voice was clear and true as she announced, “Now, hearing!” Yes, my beautiful girl. Now hearing.

What a moment this was for us and for her. I wonder all the time about when Amelia will begin to understand that she is deaf and what this means to her life and her identity.

There are many more layers of this process to come for her and I have a feeling none will be as matter of fact as this one.

So last night represented an important first – the first time Amelia seemed to know that her ears do not operate the way ours do and that she would need something extra to let the world of sound in.

She’s so used to enjoying books, movies, music without the aural reach provided by her aids but this time, it wasn’t enough.

Amelia may have chosen to dance as usual to music mostly lost on her ears but she’d have her Peppa Pig pirate tale with the sound, thanks very much.

Acting out a mellow-drama

No-one does pathos better than Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)

No-one does pathos better than Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)

I was talking to the mother of one of my daughter Amelia’s kinder mates the other day. Her little girl, like mine, was born with a hearing loss and has additional needs.

She was telling me about how her daughter had started ballet this year and how transformative the classes had been, how happy they had made her.

The impetus for enrolling her in ballet came partly from her child’s interest but also from the family’s need to do something ‘normal’ outside of all the therapy and medical appointments that populate their days.

Just one day, a single hour, a few stolen moments, where her daughter is merely a girl who likes to wear a tutu, stand in first position and have a go at a plié.

As Hooper says to Quint when they famously compare battle scars in Jaws, I got that beat.

Meaning, I know what it feels like to long for normality in the midst of intense times punctuated by diagnoses and treatments that stretch out before us like a highway with no end.

Our weekly escape isn’t ballet though, it’s Drama Play which is held every Friday in a small church hall on the other side of the city.

The program is run by a youth theatre company and a finer group of creative adults working with children you could not hope to meet.

It’s not that I think Amelia is a budding thespian or the next Jackie Coogan (pre-Uncle Fester), even if she does seem to have a flair for mock-pathos.

The point of going is partly about tapping into a stress-free activity which might help to build her confidence and her understanding of social situations.

But the main reason is far less didactic – I’m just looking for a safe place outside of home and kinder where Amelia can simply be herself. No needles, no tests, no judgements, just fun if and when she chooses to participate.

Each session is loosely structured around a wonderful children’s story which is told in various modes: verbally, visually and through play. A hand-drawn map of the morning’s activities (courtesy of the gifted HL) shows us where we are and also where we’re headed.

Over a child-friendly 45 minutes, the little troupe aged between three and five are led by three awesome pied pipers whose intuitive approach to the creative needs of their charges has been inspiring to watch.

To commence, we sit on colourful cushions for the welcome song (accompanied by animated gestures) then we do some mad cavorting as we ‘sign’ our names with our bodies.

Time is set aside for some free-form dance where every child has a turn to express their individuality and lead the group with their own special moves. No-one directs or pushes. The adults are there to guide and encourage, or step back if that is the appropriate response.

Amelia still talks to me excitedly about a session from a number of weeks ago when the theme tune from the Harry Potter movies was the soundtrack to her turn at the helm of the dance parade.

Back then it didn’t seem as though she was super aware that the spotlight was on her for her two minutes of fame, but these happy recollections tell a different story.

There is a clue in this for me that involves not worrying too much about what Amelia appears to be feeling or experiencing in the moment because looks can be deceiving about just how deep her engagement with the world really is.

Story time is conducted by the dynamic AW who reads to us enchantingly from a carefully chosen book, like Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Then this narrative world is opened out to include the children and the scope of their imaginations.

The little actors are helped to set up key parts of the story with props, often tactile objects like furry carpets or textured grass-like mats. Then they become ‘Max’, playing the role of the little boy from Sendak’s tale – untamed things on the hunt for an adventure of their own making.

There are no passengers on this journey of self-discovery; parents can’t opt out for fear of embarrassment. We are drawn into the performance fray as much as the little ones and for me it’s actually incredibly freeing to run and jump and sing and harness my ‘child within’.

A final map-check tells us it’s time to go home, so we belt out the closing number and say our goobyes. The time really flies when you are laughing and soaking up the kid’s joyful antics.

I like the sessions because they are so visual and full of non-verbal communication. I’m also a huge fan of the way they follow a familiar pattern every time but allow for loads of flexibility and inventiveness. You won’t find a more go-with-the-flow space to be with small children.

For a bilingual (Auslan and speech) deaf girl with autism who is often inflexible, sometimes anxious and always into routine, Drama Play is a match made in heaven. And there is so much ROOM to play or not play, whatever her mood is on a given day.

Sometimes, she takes 20 minutes to warm up but no-one fusses over her. If she prefers to lie on a cushion or draw, then there is freedom for her to do that.  When she wants to keep holding onto a torch prop long after they are in use, honestly, no-one gives a damn.

But they never stop encouraging. The fabulous artistic director, SA, is always at ground level asking Amelia to engage and then backing right off if the response in speech or emphatic head shake translates to a resounding NO.

And when Amelia is ready, the team embrace her involvement with warmth and positive energy to burn. I don’t really have to do anything, except model what ‘joining in’ looks like, provide some Auslan interpretation and assist with the gentle coaxing.

I don't know, do you think she likes it?

I don’t know, do you think she likes it?

Last week provided something new: a whole session where Amelia was on board from the start of the map, not somewhere down the track after she’d walked her own road for a while.

It may have been because her Dad came with us that morning and Amelia was excited to show him this special place where we go most Fridays.

Or it could also have been because there was only one other little girl there that day who was keen to share in all the drama with her. The girl took her cushion for story time and positioned another one next to her for Amelia to occupy.

Usually, Amelia does not connect with the book reading part of the session or with the other children but on this occasion she sat next to her fellow thesp and really listened.

After a few moments she went back to sit with her Dad, her parental anchor in the circle. But her new friend looked around for her and tapped the cushion as though to say “Come back, this is your place, next to me”.

It was a sweet gesture of inclusion and after a brief hesitation Amelia did go back and take her place next to that girl who I wanted to hug for simply looking back and asking my daughter to join her. To belong.

Going the whole hog

Just a girl and her novelty hog

Just a girl and her novelty hog

For a four-year-old with a lust for life, it was love at first sight the moment Amelia clapped her eyes on the bright pink hog mascot who was working the room at her cousin’s birthday party.

She spotted his towering porcine frame from across the restaurant, and a feverish light went on in her eyes as though candle-lit from the inside.

To me, this novelty hog looked like a reject from the puppet cast of Sesame Street – a little too grotesque, too cut-price, to ever really make it ‘where the air is free’.

But who cares what I thought of his polyester charms? Not my daughter.

Amelia careened across the room to meet him and gazed up at his curved, white tusks and incongruous sunglasses (I mean, indoors, I ask you).

She didn’t wait for a sign or a green light, she just leapt into his furry arms and held on tight. It was the embrace of long-lost love, of the hog you’ve waited for your whole life but never dared dream you’d meet on a Sunday night at Highpoint Shopping Centre.

Possessed by her need to keep him close, Amelia placed his arm over her little shoulders and they took a turn around the restaurant like a King and Queen greeting their subjects with restrained magnanimity.

The hog-King (in reality a jester) was clearly on an hourly retainer to bust some sweet dance moves for the receptive child diners. Amelia joined hands with him and twirled, moonwalked and swivelled her tiny hips in perfect time, a graceful partner in this modern ham-hock jive.

When it was time for the hog’s smoko break, my girl was bereft and sat in the hallway near the kitchen awaiting his eventual return.

I had to find a way to prevent her from searching for him in the off-restaurant space behind the ‘do not enter’ sign.

So, I broke that covenanted rule about not telling a lie, either white or black, to your child and said, “Amelia, your friend’s gone to the toilet but he’ll be back soon so please come and sit down with us at the table”.

For a moment, I thought I had broken through her Pepé Le Pew-style pursuit of the party mascot until she signed to me that she would also like to go to the toilet.

I gave Amelia the benefit of the doubt and escorted her into the cubicles. But I had been hoodwinked by a master because she dashed ahead of me and started beating on the closed toilet doors, looking for her true pig-love, and calling, “Hello? Hello?”

Good one, Mum. Lord knows what the women in the locked cubicles made of it.

I dragged her outside and explained the truth that this time she just had to wait it out. The poor hog was tired from all of his grooving and greeting and needed a well-earned breather.

This story she was prepared to accept but her eyes never left the kitchen corridor, willing him with all her steely might to return.

When the novelty hog finally reappeared, Amelia ran to him for another long hug and bless that person behind the fluffy pink costume, he did not break free until she was done.

And then they danced once more and paused to capture the moment on film, to freeze in time some joy amidst the evening chaos.

The hog lifted his thumb in mute approval and Amelia did the same – they were at one in this as they were on the dance floor and for a moment in her little girl’s heart, filled to the brim with love for a hog with no name.