*Dancing* to the music within
When Carol Ann Hirsch finishes a dance number, she peers earnestly out past the stage lights at the shadowy forms in the auditorium seats. If the audience is applauding politely, she will hear only a thin, murmuring sound. If they are vigorously clapping, the murmur will become a cascading noise like heavy rain; and she will feel vibrations in the air. But if they all stand up and cheer, she knows she and her classmates have accomplished what they set out to do:
"Prove that deaf people can dance."
Carol Ann Hirsch is part of the third annual dance review of the Lexington School for the Deaf in the Jackson Heights section of New York.
Recently, in the high school's cool, wood-slatted, auditorium, a couple dozen of these deaf teen-agers were proving they could not only dance, but also make you see and feel the music they carry around inside of them all the time.
In one number, the stereo speakers boom out with the heavy backbeat of "Broadway Lights," a popular rock tune; and eight lithe dancers move out of the wings in synchronous rhythm, interplaying intricately with one another and the weaving patterns of the music.
Soon they are joined by more dancers, until a whole ensemble takes command of the stage.
There are places during this number where the coherence of the ensemble becomes ragged and a little confusion springs up in the ranks. But these are nothing compared with the magic that happens when 25 or 30 young bodies suddenly , gracefully, reach a simultaneously of gesture, moving to the same intuitive, rhythmic beat.
These are no Simple Simon, follow-along exercises, either. They are demanding, complex dance moves, requiring timing, cooperative effort, and physical subtlety. There are no tryouts or auditions for this review: Everyone who wants to dance can join.
According to the school's lanky, serious-faced principal, Oscar Cohen, the fact that these teen-agers are "profoundly deaf" makes the combined feat a near-miracle. Each fo them has suffered heavy loss of hearing from birth. They have no native speech skills and no musicals frame of reference. Many of these teen-agers can hear only patterns of sound when the music plays, and some can hear almost nothing at all.
But, aside from what he refers to as their "invisible handicap," Mr. Cohen insists that these perfectly normal teen- agers who cut up in school, have artistic talents, date, and are "a part of the whole adolescent subculture."
For a while, on the audition stage, these subcultural heroes can make you forget that they cannot hear. They suspend the boundaries of their disability, and reach into another dimension -- one generally reserved for so-called "normal" people.
Take, for instance, Opal Gardner, who is 18 years old. She hears much better than many of the dancers, but the fact that she is in this school means she has a serious hearing problem. She doesn't seem to have any problem dancing, however.
Moving with a sense of authority and sassy grace, she seems almost uncannily connected with the music. Her black, captivating eyes and slender, articulate body have a brilliant sparkle that she uses knowingly in selling a number.
alking offstage through a signer-interpreter, she comes across as a young woman determined to succeed but unsure of the world she must succeed in.
"I've danced all my life," she says. "When I hear the music, something makes me feel good. It makes my body just want to move along with the music. It's like an emotional spirit. It's like the really most important thing to feel.
"I want to try and dance professionally. It won't be easy. I'm trying to tell all the world the deaf can do it."
If all the world could come and see her and her fellow dancers -- most of whom have much less experience than she -- go through their paces, they'd probably walk away convinced.
In one particular dance, which Miss Gardner choreographed with another student, the stage explodes to the rhythms of Afro-American percussion played onstage by students and the energy-charged dancing of the entire ensemble.
Yet, it ends with a poignant and delicate moment, when one boy, alone on the stage, picks up an abandoned toy xylophone and chimes out the simple -- and to him inaudible -- melody: "I Love New York."
As they rehearse this number, Mr. Cohen sits in a black seat of the auditorium, slouched down with a stack of papers perched on his knees, explaining how it is possible for these students to dance to music they cannot hear.
"The rhythm is inherent in them," he explains. "There are definite signs of internal rhythm. They are feeling the music through the stage. They are also counting along with the cues from the prompter's box. But they do feel the beat in the floor."
The mechanical difficulty of keeping the count, keeping up with music, and trying to move with style doesn't daunt them. In fact, difficulty seems to be something that these dancers and their instructor, Harry Groverman, seek out.
Since the first three years ago, which was entitled "Deaf People Have Rhythm, " the dancers and instructors have been seeking to stretch the limits of their skills. Thus, the second annual show was called "Stepping Up," and included much more complicated and demanding routines than the first.
This year, the show is called "Apple Pie," and it is both a dance celebration of this large and difficult city and a metaphor for the challenges faced here by deaf kids.
For all its challenges, the city has also opened its heart and its considerable cultural resources to these teen-agers.
Top-name musical and dance figures like Louis Falco, Shelly Freydont, and Mercedes Ellington have worked with them. The entire troupe were guests at a rehearsal of the dance-fired Broadway musical, "Sophisticated Ladies." And the school's gala performance for press and celebrities was attended this year by such Big Apple glitterati as Richard Thomas, Celeste Holm, Otto Preminger, Colleen Dewhurst, Jessica James, Jan Peerce, and the rock group The Clash. -- is the icing on the cake for these teen-agers.
The cake seems to be the dancing itself.
"I like to feel the movement of my body," says 16-year-old John Grier, who joined Opal Gardner in choreographing a number.
"It makes me really excited to move with the music and feel its rhythms," says another dancer, Es-Tella Ingram. And her sister, Tania, adds, "Through the music I get to control myself."
But to almost all of them, the dancing has one overriding objective: to prove they can overcome their disability.
"I keep dreaming that I am a professional dancer," one teen-ager says. "I want to go to college to be an actor or dancer. It's going to be a tough struggle. But I really want the dance to be open to the deaf. Some people feel the deaf can't dance, and that makes them afraid they can't make it."
Mr. Cohen feels the chances of turning professional for most of them are "slim." But he says the program accomplishes other things, which one can easily read in the faces of the students themselves.
"You have to see the looks on the kids' faces," he muses. "They work together, and they mature. Kids who have been behavioral problems begin to feel good about themselves. The kids' self-image and self-esteem is changed by this experience."
Whatever the benefits, they are enough to make all these teen-agers work vigorously to perfect what amounts to an unending work-in-progress: Their focus is not on a polished performance, but on a constant upward reaching.
"We could have made them look better, if we kept doing the same routines," Mr. Cohen observes. "But we are not interested in precision for its own sake. We are constantly getting the kids to push themselves harder and to do more difficult numbers."
This has meant teaching them tap dancing, although they cannot hear the sounds of their own feet. "When [professional dancer] Ron Daniels first tried this last year," Mr. Cohen remarks, "we told him he was crazy."
As if to prove him wrong, two of the boys on the distant stage begin to practice tap dancing up and down stairs.
Gazing at them in silence for a moment, he exclaims quietly, "This is incredible," as though he still can't get over it. And the he adds with a disbelieving sense of wonder: "These kids are deaf!"
You couldn't prove it by watching them dance