School for the Deaf students learn to express themselves through dance

A local dance company is collaborating with the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Edgewood teaching the students to dance, and the children who are deaf or hard of hearing are even able to feel the music, with the help of special technology.  Professional dancers from Attack Theatre, a dance company celebrating 25 years in Pittsburgh next year, work with 9,000 students and teachers around the region every year in outreach programs. But this partnership is unique.

Attack Theatre co-founder, Michele de la Reza, teaches a class for preschoolers at WPSD.  Her passion for dance is evident in every muscle of her body and face.  The 3- and 4-year-olds jump, shake and crawl backwards, stretching their bodies and their minds.

De la Reza says dance is a natural extension of sign language, which becomes clear when you see the teachers sign, using their whole bodies and facial expressions.  De la Reza says, “The deaf community’s whole language is rooted in physicality, and our creative language really is rooted in physicality, so let’s investigate where the connections can be.”

KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen connected with the kids when they picked a picture of a body part and then moved her body in different directions.   Together, they created a dance, communicating through movement and touch when they couldn’t talk.

De la Reza went on to say, “Another thing that we really wanted to focus on with these kids is how to physically express, not only their ideas and their emotions, but also a sense of vibration and sound.”

That’s when they brought in the University of Pittsburgh, whose engineering students created special backpacks, that look like monkeys, that the children can wear on their backs to feel the vibrations of the music.

De la Reza instructs the children using sign language, which she continues to learn.  “On – dance.  Off – freeze,” she tells them.  Then, they dance to the music or the vibrations.

Christie Homell, a WPSD preschool teacher who’s deaf, says through a sign language interpreter that she loves to dance and so do the kids she teaches.

“When you feel the vibration, it does make your body move a little bit,” Homell says.  “You can tell once you put the monkey on, their facial expression shows and their body moves to beats, rhythms, whether it’s fast or slow.”

De la Reza choreographs for specific vibrations from the music.  She makes strong and heavy movement for the low, bass beats and soft and light movements for the fluttering vibrations.  Homell explains how the students feel with the backpacks on, “They don’t ever say, ‘I can’t.  I can’t do it.’  I see them and how many times they’re signing (to say), ‘I feel that. I feel that, Christy. I feel that. Maybe I can’t hear it, but I feel it.”

Attack Theatre works with all ages of students at WPSD, including middle and high school students, who have even performed with the professional dancers.

It’s the universal language of dance, connecting deaf and hearing people of all ages.