Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Model, actor and philanthropist Nyle DiMarco is currently a contestant on this season’s Dancing with the Stars, but it isn’t just his rugged good looks and effortless musicality that has captured America’s hearts. He is Deaf. And as the hearing world watches him dance, they are learning an important lesson about abilities.
“I am not just dancing to win,” DiMarco said. “I want to change the perspective of Deaf people that hearing people have. I am dancing to change millions of lives.”
By all accounts, he is succeeding. Not only do he and his dancing partner, Peta Murgatroyd, consistently land at the top of the leader board on the popular ABC show, he is tireless in explaining how he dances so well without being able to hear a note.
“My partner is the music to my eyes,” DiMarco said. “Given that I am Deaf, I’m very visual so my understanding of the flux of the music is done through my dance partner, Peta. The way she visually performs the dance moves, I am able to see the music and interpret it.”
DiMarco, who was born into a multigenerational Deaf family and was taught ASL and English from birth, said he attributes his ability to quickly learn Murgatroyd’s complex dance routines to his fluency in American Sign Language (ASL). “American Sign Language is a visual language so my eyes are super sensitive. ASL has prepared me to catch every movement in detail through Peta.”
Although a wonder to watch, DiMarco isn’t the only Deaf person who dances beautifully. Miss America 1994 Heather Whitestone McCallum was a Deaf dancer from Alabama, students at Gallaudet University, a private university for the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington D.C., have been dancing since Dr. Peter Wisher founded the Gallaudet Dancers in 1955. Susan Gill-Doleac, the current director of the Gallaudet Dance company, said preparing the dancers for their 20 performances each year takes time, technique and lots of practice.
“All choreographers use ASL to communicate with the dancers and they all count visually,” she explained. “First, we play the music so the dancers can familiarize themselves with the beat/rhythm of the song. Then we teach the signs and then we teach the movements. Sometimes the dancers rely on different cues… music cues, light cues and touch. A squeeze on the shoulder or hand – or 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.”
“Dancers do not feel the vibrations through their feet. I want to clear that up,” she emphasized. “They feel the beat in the core of their body.”
Gill-Doleac said plans for the Dance Company’s annual spring dance concert begin in September. The choreographers spend weeks working on technique with the dancers before they begin teaching dances for the performance.
DiMarco studied Mathematics at Gallaudet University but never danced or acted with the theater group. Since Murgatroyd doesn’t know ASL and she doesn’t have the luxury of spending six months teaching DiMarco technique, she helps him stay on beat with cues they develop for every transition. “Sometimes she squeezes my hand to tell me that I’ve paused long enough and need to make the transition,” he explained. “Sometimes she scratches my back if I’m a little behind.”
Even other contestants help out on occasion. In a recent group dance, Wanya Morris used another effective learning technique when he drummed a few beats of the music on the Deaf dancer’s chest. “It does help to get the insight of the music and capture all the little musical taps in between,” he said.
DiMarco not only hopes his dancing will help change the hearing world’s perceptions about the Deaf community, he’s also hopeful the awareness will motivate donors to contribute to the Nyle DiMarco Foundation, which advocates for “full and early access to American Sign Language (ASL) and English for Deaf and hard of hearing children in the United States.”
“Sign language is a human right. It guarantees Deaf children full access to language and learning,” DiMarco said in a press release. “Our goal is to change the narrative behind what it means to be Deaf. We want to reframe perceptions for parents, professionals, and society at large. Being Deaf or hard of hearing can and should be an empowering and a positive part of one’s identity.”
Back on the dance floor, DiMarco keeps dancing, winning the hearts – and votes – of people of all hearing abilities.
“I believe that ASL and Peta’s dancing language, which is body language, truly broke down the expectancy to speak in order to communicate,” he said. “I feel like we don’t need a language to really communicate, only body language.”
Follow Nyle DiMarco on Dancing With the Stars Monday evenings at 8:00 p.m. EDT on ABC.