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Deaf & dynamic - No hearing, no problem for dancers as they target college degrees

Published:Wednesday | September 19, 2018 | 12:00 AMCarlene Davis
Deaf dancers (from left) Christophe Phillips, Kimberly Barnes, and Damany Hughes.
Catching the vybes (from left) Christophe Phillips, Kimberly Barnes and Damany Hughes.

Damany Hughes, Cristophe Phillips and Kimberly Barnes have quite a few things in common. They are in their 20s, they went to the same high school, they are studying dance at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, and all three are deaf.

When The Sunday Gleaner caught up with the first-year students, who are multiple winners of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission Deaf Dance Competition, they were still riding high from the fact that they were defying the odds by attending university despite having a disability.

Currently doing a one-year Certificate in Fundamentals of Dance Technique, all three aim to move to the bachelor's programme next year.

At 21 years old, Hughes, though hard of hearing since birth, always knew he wanted to dance. He has dreams of becoming a choreographer, and to travel the world through dancing.

So after finishing high school at Lister Mair/Gilby High School for the Deaf, it was natural that he would want to attend Edna Manley. It was not possible until now, and getting there has not been without challenges.

"It's a lot of hard work. It's challenging for me. We don't have access to full interpreters here. We wish the teachers knew sign language because we are unable to pick up what they are saying in the classrooms, so we are trying to teach them while they are speaking.

"Communication is one of the major challenges we have. They are trying to get interpreters for us full-time going forward," Hughes told The Sunday Gleaner.

Hughes, who grew up with his mother in St Thomas, said even at home the communication challenge has been frustrating.

"I can talk a little and hear a little bit. Sometimes my family gets frustrated because I can't hear well, and I'm trying to hear what they are saying and sometimes they have to repeat over and over till I catch on.

"Sometimes, I get upset because we are unable to understand each other, so the frustration goes both ways. With this article, I'm hoping it will encourage parents to understand about deafness and deaf culture," said Hughes, who enjoys folk, dancehall and modern dance.

He hopes to finish college with a degree in performance and choreography.

"I want to encourage deaf persons to come to university, so that the hearing population can see that we are equal and so they can see that the deaf can do anything we put our minds to," said Hughes.

Phillips, 27, was born hearing until he did a tonsil operation at the age of four, after which his hearing deteriorated.

He grew up in St Catherine with his parents and sister who is also deaf. Phillips said he is passionate about dancing and describes university life as being fast-paced.

"The moves are more intricate and your body has to be this way and that way. It's a lot of hard work, so that's one of the challenges. Another challenge is timing as you have to be fast.

"It's very fast-paced. It's not like high school and we are not used to it, so we have to adjust to that, but I believe in the future I will improve in that area."

Phillips wants to leave university with a degree in dance education, and wants to teach deaf students to dance.

"A lot of deaf youths have the potential and skills in drama and dance, and this is an encouragement so that they can know that they can do it too," said Phillips.

Unlike the boys, Barnes was born deaf. At 21 years old, she has given up on wearing hearing aids, as they give her a headache. But that's not stopping her as her parents were taught to sign from she was a child, and so there is no communication issue at home.


Communication struggle


According to Barnes, she is inspired by dancing and loves folk, modern and ballet. She said she can feel the changes that university life brings, as on every aspect it's so much bigger than her high school.

"In high school, you felt a connection with the teachers, especially when dancing. They helped us to know when to count, because they knew we are not hearing the music.

"When we moved to Edna, I was thinking, how can I catch the timing from the teacher? For example, in ballet when the teacher says one, two, three, four, the teacher doesn't realise that I'm deaf so it's a communication barrier, and I have to pay attention to the other students to catch the dances.

"That was one of the struggles in the beginning. Now the teachers realise and they are now accommodating us and helping us to catch on," said Barnes.

Like Hughes, she hopes to finish with a degree in performance and choreography. She wants to become a choreographer and a performer.

"I want deaf people to participate in all aspects of matriculation to university, just like hearing students. Deaf persons should have the same access," said Barnes.