Gallaudet University: Deaf Dancers Celebrate 60 Years of Dance

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the only four-year liberal arts university in the world designed for deaf and hard of hearing students.

Because the university did not have a Dance major thirty years ago, Sue Gill-Doleac opted instead to earn a B.S. in Physical Education and Secondary Education and her M.A in Deaf Education from Gallaudet. A former Gallaudet student dancer who served as the assistant director for nearly three decades, Gill-Doleac is now the director of the Gallaudet Dance Company where she provides powerful training and mentoring to other deaf or hard of hearing dancers.

Learning to Survive and Thrive

Growing up in West Trenton, New Jersey, Sue Gill-Doleac attended public schools that lacked any support services for deaf or hard of hearing students-there were no note-takers or interpreters, or other accommodations, though the school system did provide speech therapy.

She explains that she survived by sitting at the front of the classroom and reading lips, along with asking her parents for help during the evening’s homework, so they could cover any areas she missed in the classroom. In order to help her work on her residual hearing-and provide an outlet for overcoming her tendencies toward shyness-her parents, Charles and Dolores Gill, enrolled her in dancing. For the next eleven years, she enjoyed formal dance training in tap, ballet, and jazz at the Stewart Johnson Academy.

She notes, “Little did I know at that time, that experience would lead me to my dream job.” What she recalls most is that her dance teachers at Stewart Johnson Academy did not treat her differently from any other dance students. If she missed information, she recalls they just demonstrated for her again. Additionally, she notes, “Since Dance is a visual art, it was easy to follow and learn the dance movements.” In her senior year, her last at the academy, she claimed the leading role in the ballet production of “Gigi.”

Choosing Gallaudet

Knowing that their daughter wanted to teach dance, her parents encouraged her to try Gallaudet, which they believed was the best place for her. She recalls, “At first I was resistant, as I had little experience in the Deaf Culture and did not know many signs. I only knew basic signs because of my Deaf brother, Ken.”

One weekend during her junior year of high school, she visited Gallaudet, and she caught a performance of the Gallaudet dancers, which inspired many of the life paths that she would soon follow. She adds, “I loved how the signs were incorporated with the dance and, from that moment on, I knew I wanted to attend Gallaudet and be a part of the Gallaudet Dance Company.” She was also drawn to being part of a company that traveled the world, and with Gallaudet she performed in Egypt, Costa Rica, St. Lucia, Brazil, France, Barbados, Denmark, and several other countries.

Because there was not a dance major-or minor-at Gallaudet, she chose a closely related field and opted for a double major in Physical Education and Education. Of course, at one point, she thought about transferring in order to major in dance, her primary passion, but she is pleased now that she ultimately decided to stay.

For graduate school, she was planning to leave again, this time to major in Deaf Education at a college in California. When the then director of the Gallaudet Dance Company, Dr. Diane Hottendorf, offered her a scholarship to be the assistant director of the company, she opted to stay put. “Again, it was the best decision I ever made,” she states. She completed her MA in 1984 at Gallaudet, majoring in Deaf Education with an emphasis on Secondary Education.

From Student to Teacher

When she finished her MA, Hottendorf offered Gill-Doleac a full-time job as assistant director, a position she held for almost thirty years. When Hottendorf retired in 2011, Gill-Doleac was named the director. Under Hottendorf, Gallaudet grew to offer a dance minor, and Gill-Doleac was able to work alongside her mentor as that happened for other students who dreamed of focusing on dance.

Now, as she works with her students minoring in dance, she is most focused on helping them become well-rounded dancers able to tackle a variety of genres, dancers who have skills in choreography as well as practice in recognizing and capitalizing on a student’s personal learning style. Even more importantly, she wants them to “remain passionate about dancing and ASL and serve as positive role models for deaf and hard of hearing children.”

She proudly notes that several Gallaudet graduates are currently teaching dance to hard of hearing and deaf students-some are teaching hearing dancers, some are doing choreography for dance companies across the nation, and others have taken the helm at their own dance companies.

One such graduate is Tara Miles, who teaches dance to deaf and hard of hearing students at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, choreographs for multiple dance companies, and still teaches dance on the Gallaudet campus. Miles explains, “I had a hard time leaving Spotlight continued the company after graduation. I would stay on as a choreographer and end up dancing again.”

Miles explains that Gallaudet Dance Company taught her not to limit what she could do, and that Gill-Doleac constantly offered her opportunities to branch out. Now, as her elementary school dancers are earning recognition for their style of dance, she knows she is helping those young students on their first steps to later go out and teach their own peers about chorography and technique.

Maya Yamada, another Gallaudet graduate, established a dance company at a local high school in Greenbelt, MD, where she worked with both deaf and hearing students. Yamada shares that her memories of Gill-Doleac date back to 1988 and are forever etched in her memory because of the powerful impact her mentor had on the lives of so many dancers who happened to be deaf.

Yamada states that Gill-Doleac shaped and molded young men and women into highly skilled dancers, while she also played a significant role in helping them become both strong and empowered. She notes, “Before we joined the Gallaudet Dance Company, many of us were robbed of the opportunity to showcase our natural talents and abilities, but after we became members of the company, we were given the lives back that we so long deserved.”

These powerful impressions are not just left on the students she encounters. Dr. Martha Sheridan, a faculty member in the graduate department, has worked for many years with Gill-Doleac. She notes, “To say the university and the dancers are fortunate to have her at the helm is an understatement. She is one of the most positive and spirited people I know, and her exuberance is contagious for dancers and audiences alike. She builds her dancers’ confidence, encourages their creativity, and inspires esprit de corps.”

Noting that her longtime colleague and friend is the first director of the Gallaudet Dance Company director who was once a member of the company and is also deaf, Sheridan praises Gill-Doleac’s extensive training under founder Dr. Peter Wisher and later Dr. Diane Hottendorff as well as her powerful and unique vision.

“Her experience allows her to treasure and preserve the rich and unique cultural and choreographic heritage of the company across generations of dancers while allowing the company to continue to evolve,” Sheridan explains, “and her own interpretive choreography is a beautiful example of this.”

Assets of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Dancers

While some may focus on the limitations for deaf and hard of hearing dancers, Gill- Doleac recognizes both the power and potential. First of all, deaf dancers can perform without music-which actually happened one time during a performance:a technical glitch caused the music to stop, but her dancers happily continued without missing one step, finishing the dance on time when the music was restored.

Deaf and hard of hearing dancers also are powerfully attuned to visual cues, using their eyes to communicate with fellow dancers and keep time with the music. Perhaps their greatest asset, she explains, is that deaf dancers are able to share their language through dance.

She notes, “We have been told that we are more expressive while we dance, and it is probably due to the fact when we communicate through ASL, we use facial expressions to convey an idea.” Tara Miles adds that deaf dancers are visual learners, so they are able to grasp visual depictions and better communicate those movements to others. She believes visual learners are more practiced at both “making movement and explaining things in a way that shows the movement is important.” Of course, she notes that another asset could be the attention the dance company draws by having deaf dancers. “To us it is not a big deal,” she concludes, “but to the outside world looking in, they think this is some really amazing ‘miracle,’ but we don’t view ourselves like that.”

A Primer for Teaching Deaf and Hard of Hearing Dancers

Several years ago, Sue Gill-Doleac and Diane Hottendorf worked together to provide documentation that could be shared upon request that would help other dance instructors. They offer the optimal techniques and strategies geared to teaching deaf and hard of hearing dancers.

Designed to help anyone who might work with deaf or hard of hearing students-including hearing teachers with private studios or deaf dancers working with other deaf dancers-their method encourages teachers to recognize that the techniques already being used to teach dance to hearing students could be easily adjusted and adapted for these students. They recommend that dance teachers use visual cues as well.

In dance training, they further recommend that teachers face the students, maintain eye contact, and remain in one place while giving instructions and while providing the dancers with feedback. Teachers can use gestures and facial expressions to communicate and demonstrate, although they warn against exaggerating words-what they call “over mouthing”-because that pronounced exaggeration actually makes it harder for a deaf student to speechread.

Teachers should remember to speak in a natural voice throughout. Of course, hands and arms can be used to demonstrate movements as well. For instance, a shuffle can be demonstrated by a teacher opening her palm on one hand and sweeping front to back with the other hand, in essence indicating a foot hitting the floor. For a battement, teachers can use their arms to demonstrate positions for legs-one arm held straight while the other “kicks.” Just as with spoken dance cues, sign cues should be presented on the seventh and eighth count.

To cue dancers to change sides, teachers can strike the floor. In addition to those few ASL cues, play music with a heavy bass line. Ideally, they explain, music should be provided using large speakers directed toward dancers. For instance, their program at Gallaudet uses four speakers that face the dancers.

Because many deaf students receive lower-range auditory information more easily, the instructors should set the amplifier to emphasize bass. Because of this, the Gallaudet Dance Company regularly uses music with heavy bass for any dance numbers, and instructors might also use a drum at times to simulate the strong bass component so students might identify beats.

During performances, the beginning of each number should be discretely cued by someone in the wings or a designated dancer should start the number. A dancer should also be designated to give a visual cue-such as clapping or snapping-to begin a new phase of the number. Throughout a performance, dancers should be encouraged to communicate with each other, and remain in time, using their eyes.

Finally, they stress that teaching these students is undoubtedly a joy, something that is not out of reach for any dance teachers willing to make even slight adjustments to their normal pedagogies. Teachers can provide a visual sign count for each step, along with a verbal count they would traditionally provide. Primarily, they encourage teachers to recognize that deaf students should not be coddled or held to lower expectations, that deaf or hard of hearing dancers will have varying degrees of ability, just like any other dancers. They also remind teachers that students often perform to the level of their teacher’s expectations.

The Longevity of Gallaudet Dance Company

With regards to both the success and longevity of the company, Gill-Doleac first credits the former dance directors-Dr.Wisher and Dr. Hottendorf-and their outstanding devotion to their mission. She also believes the company’s uniqueness has likely helped them succeed, particularly the ways they incorporate ASL signing with dance. Of course, it has not always been easy. She notes that several years ago there were even discussions about closing the dance program, but the administration ultimately decided to merge the program-both the dance minor and Gallaudet Dance Company-with Theatre. Funding, as with any of the arts, has been difficult.

Though Gallaudet University is highly supportive in many ways to the mission of the Gallaudet Dancers, the administration is only able to provide a limited budget for the program, so much of her time is spent drumming up financial support. She also does not have a full-time assistant director. In fact, without the regular outside funding provided by the Delta Zeta Sorority and the National Delta Zeta foundation for the last sixty years, she does not think they would have survived. Not only does DZ fund costumes and sound equipment, they even provided a new Delta Zeta dance studio.

The Success of the Gallaudet Dancers

On the success of the program, Tara Miles believes that Gallaudet Dance Company has been blessed, especially compared to other programs that have not been as lucky in the face of some school administrators who slash arts programs and do not recognize the importance of such activities.

However, Miles believes the program’s longevity has primarily been a result of incredibly strong leadership, up to and especially crediting Gill-Doleac. She adds, “Her strong belief that deaf people can dance somehow transcends itself into the minds of all of us unconsciously.” She adds that since Gill-Doleac took over as director, there have been wonderful changes, with the company growing in its appeal to others and drawing in more dancers to participate.

Maya Yamada agrees, noting that Gill-Doleac opened doors for deaf dancers, providing a haven for them, what Yamada calls “a place to discover our true selves while dancing away all the pain and suffering we experienced in the hearing world.” Today, nearly thirty years later, Yamada recalls those powerful lessons she and peers learned from their incredible mentor in a “powerful bond that is forever sealed.” She notes that Gill-Doleac was their saving grace, “an angel in disguise.”

Martha Sheridan adds that when she recently praised Gill-Doleac, her response was simply, “Working with you and the dancers is a joy.” Sheridan notes that “joy” is a perfect descriptor for her colleague, a warm and humble woman who both inspires and nurtures young dancers. She adds, “She truly loves what she does, finds great joy in her work and radiates that joy in everything she does.”

Gill-Doleac and her dancers, both past and present, performed together at the 60th anniversary dance concert just this past April. As part of the ceremony, the Gallaudet Dance Company and Gallaudet Alumni Dancers performed “Hero.” It is not hard to imagine their inspiration.

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.