Getting ‘under my skin’: exploring deaf and hearing communication practices in dance

by Gabrielle Hodge

This is a blog based on a book chapter: Hodge, G. (2020). The ideology of communication practices embedded in an Australian deaf/hearing dance collaboration. In A. Kusters, M. Green, E. Moriarty Harrelson, & K. Snoddon (Eds.), Sign language ideologies in practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. It is available Open Access.

This post is part of the special issue on sign language ideologies on Acadeafic. See the introduction to the special issue to learn more.

What happened when deaf signers of Auslan and hearing non-signing speakers of English and other languages collaborated on a contemporary dance performance? How did they communicate during the development and rehearsal stages, and what did the final performance look like? I watched a live performance, analysed a filmed performance, and interviewed the artists to find out.

What was the performance?

Under My Skin was the second production from The Delta Project, a ground-breaking Australian dance company with deaf and hearing artists. Their aim was to explore what happens when two worlds – deaf and hearing – were brought together through visuals and sound. During these performances, deaf and hearing dancers integrated Auslan-based choreographed movement, digital video design, light and shadow, and corporal sound composition. You could feel the richness of different sounds. It was performed to an audience of anyone and everyone: deaf people, hearing people, signers and non-signers. The result was a multimedia, multi-sensory contemporary dance performance exploring the idea of identity as a shared human experience: what we show and what we hide, and the struggle this brings.

Choreographed by Jo Dunbar (deaf) and Lina Limosani (hearing), the performance began with only glimpses of the four dancers moving together in the darkness (Anna Seymour and Elvin Lam, both deaf, with Amanda Lever and Luigi Vescio, both hearing; see 0:05 here). It was impossible to see each person individually. The impression of a single, alive entity came from moving photographic images of their faces playing over their bodies. Suddenly there was an explosive crack: the iceberg melted, the unity destroyed, each dancer a separate person. During the next forty minutes, the dancers were slowly unveiled. They were revealed, exposed, and ultimately realised as fully dimensional people, but only after a cathartic journey that forced all to probe beneath their skin – especially where it hurts.

Who are the artists and what did they want to achieve?

Jo, Anna and Elvin are all deaf from early childhood, belonging to hearing families, but each have different language histories. Their communication preferences are shaped by varied ages of signed language acquisition, and for Jo and Elvin, migration from other countries and languages. Anna and Elvin are mainly signers, whereas Jo uses her voice often, switching between speech and sign depending on who she is talking to. As dancers, they really wanted to create a new dance aesthetic. As Anna explained:

The name is significant to us: a delta is the fertile ground where saltwater and freshwater meet. We wanted to create a dance performance that merged both deaf and hearing worlds, and was accessible to everyone in the audience. We also wanted to create opportunities for ourselves as professional dancers who are deaf, to raise our game and work with leading artists in the mainstream arts sector.

The hearing artists all learned English as their first language and do not use other languages, except for Luigi and Amanda. As the hearing artists who worked most closely with the deaf dancers, Luigi and Amanda began to learn Auslan during the development and rehearsal stages of the project. Both can now communicate (to varied extents) with Anna, Elvin and Jo using the Auslan communication practices they developed. Overall Jo, Lina, Anna, Elvin, Luigi and Amanda had the most face-to-face contact with each other. Opportunities to engage with Rhian, Richard and Russell, as digital video, lighting and sound composition experts, increased only during the rehearsal and performing stages, towards the end of the project.

How did they collaborate?

A team of five qualified Auslan/English interpreters worked with the artists, and were described as integral to the creative process. As Anna said, “they see and feel the pain too.” Interpreters were usually booked in teams of two: one working with Jo from the choreographer perspective, and the other working with Anna and Elvin from the dancer perspective, as each role involved different actions in the theatre space. The deaf artists are skilled at adapting their communicative repertoires to non-signers, because they are minority language signers used to doing this kind of work. However, the hearing artists varied in how they responded to these demands, especially with respect to communicative adaptations.

What happened?

By inviting the hearing artists to work with them over many months, the deaf artists essentially tasked themselves with birthing a new language ecology. This was one in which the local signed language (Auslan) was explicitly valued alongside the ambient spoken language (Australian English). At the same time, the hearing artists were implicitly tasked with learning to see and do things as deaf people. The collaboration illuminated many challenges. Many adaptations were required, including ones that don’t usually become obvious until you work with deaf signers. Some of these challenges were:

  1. Dealing with the physical demands of time and space. For example, when Lina had to adapt her established method of developing choreography by moving and talking fast at the same time, and expecting instant responses from the dancers. Instead, she had to re-organise her actions sequentially, waiting for the deaf dancers to look at her and then watch the interpreters. She also learned that interpreting is not always perfect.
  2. Managing the needs of other people, even when they conflict with our own. For example, when Jo had to decide between watching the dancers on stage (while she sat in the stalls) or watch the interpreters (facing the dancers on stage). In most cases, she chose to rely on her prior conversations with Lina about the choreography, and focus on watching the dancers on stage.
  3. Learning about the emotional power of (not)understanding and being (not)understood. For example, when interpreters cancelled or rescheduled at short notice, this forced the non-signing artists to communicate directly with the deaf artists. All artists agreed that when the comfort of using a default language is removed, it is necessary to notice more and feel more. This results in a better connection and social bond. Also, when the deaf dancers experienced communication barriers – even unintentional ones – this can trigger lifelong memories of being misunderstood or not understood. These are painful.
  4. Learning to value the work involved in understanding others and making ourselves understood. For example, Luigi learned to use eyegaze as a cue for the deaf dancers, a dance and communication practice he had not experienced before. He loved it because it made the performance more connected. He now wants to do this with hearing dancers too.

What does this say about deaf and hearing communication practices in general?

The performance of Under My Skin was a profoundly moving experience. It unpacked and reflected a shared human struggle to the audience, with a distinctly deaf flavour that resonated with both signing and non-signing viewers. As a deaf signer, Under My Skin left me with an overwhelming sense of feeling understood. It said so much about deaf and hearing communication practices more generally, including:

  1. When deaf and hearing people with varied language histories and pre-existing relationships work together, they draw on knowledge of their own bodies, personal beliefs, and individual and shared communication practices. They also challenge each other to develop new ones, since it is not always possible to rely on old habits.
  2. Communication does not always work, even when there are professional interpreters present. For example, it is sometimes necessary for hearing allies to pass on information that was missed by interpreters, or to develop other ways to alleviate these pressures. However, these acts are often compromises, rather than the equitable adaptations to the communication demands of a situation. It can prompt awkward or painful memories of existential not-understanding.
  3. People communicating do not always understand each other, and not just because others do or do not share the same communicative repertoire such as signing or writing. For example, it is possible for individuals to both admire deaf signed language practices and resist the norms involved in using these practices effectively.
  4. The nature of deafness means that some aspects of communication happen differently to spoken or written language interactions between people who can hear.
  5. It is not enough to learn the vocabulary and grammar of a signed language. Using a signed language means adapting to the differences presented by deaf bodies: it means growing yourself into the collective “skin” of deaf people who sign.
  6. Close friendships between signers and non-signers can develop if they are sensitive about seeing, and responding to, the different strategies deaf signers use to communicate.
  7. Working in a place where many different communication practices combine helps everyone to improve their understanding of the role of communication in producing a creative work.
  8. One outcome is that everyone improves their professional skill, and the work never feels finished. Everyone wishes they could do it again: another series, more of it, and in different places. It generates more creative inspiration.

Any final thoughts?

During the group discussion, Richard commented that he was overwhelmed by the fact that several deaf people told him they felt like the performance was “made for them”. I asked if he had ever seen a performance that made him feel that way. He replied that he had seen a lot of art that resonated with him, but nothing he felt was specifically made for him. This was surprising to me. However, maybe this feeling is an effect of living with the extremes of (not) understanding: a space, a performance, a moment being “made for you” when you do not usually feel that way can be transformative. In this way, Under My Skin grew from the labour of understanding done by the deaf and hearing artists involved in the collaboration. It is a testament to the willingness of deaf and hearing people to do this work.

Dr. Gabrielle Hodge is a deaf researcher specialising in the linguistics of signed languages. She is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the BSL Corpus Project at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London. Her research interests include corpus linguistics and the semiotics of multimodal interaction. She’s on Twitter as @gab_hodge

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