Fresh 2 Deaf is an article posted on April 11th, 2008, by Calvin Son of More Than A Stance.com; a B-Boying magazine resource whom we highly recommend. This is a wonderful close up about B-Boys and street dancers who have hearing disabilities yet cerebrally feel the banging beats they rock to. Calvin Son truly provides the international Hip Hop community awareness about our fellow B-Boys who dance to rhythms by touch versus by hearing for which we truly take for granted. I for one never thought about deaf B-Boys; only def B-Boys, but when you are finished with this piece you will see the latter is still true. They are fresh to def! Enjoy!
We interviewed Kujo and two other deaf / HoH dancers to see how they take “feeling the beat” to a whole new level.
The resurgence of the popularity of “style” in b-boying has brought with it a slew of commonly shouted epithets and sayings.
The general consensus seems to be that listening to the music is of the utmost importance.
“Rock that beat!” you might hear, or perhaps even, “This is dancing, not gymnastics.” And if the dancer in questions obliges, then he or she is likely to be awarded with the ever-coveted chorus of WOOs from the audience.
But what if, hypothetically, one couldn’t listen and rock it because he or she couldn’t hear the beat?
Or the peanut gallery’s commands to rock it?
Or even worse, those sweet, sweet WOOs?
Strange as it might seem, it’s an everyday reality for b-boys and b-girls who are deaf or hard of hearing, often abbreviated as HoH.
More Than A Stance interviewed three dancers across the country via e-mail in an attempt to better understand what’s it like not only to stay fresh to deaf, but fresh and (at least somewhat) deaf.
There are as many potential causes for deafness and HoH as they are ads for instructional b-boy movies floating around on the Internet.
Reasons for hearing loss can range from physical trauma to disease to physical abnormality to genetic impairment to long-term exposure to loud noises.
For Jacob Lyons – known to most as the legendary Krazy Kujo, one of the leading members of the equally-legendary Soul Control Crew – it came as a combination of both nature and nurture. Now 31 and a choreographer/judge/dancer/dance student (among other things) in Burbank, California, Lyons says he was born deaf in his right ear because of a dead cochlear nerve. Ear infections and traumatic head injuries since then have left him nearly deaf in the left ear as well.
“I can hear pretty well with the help of a good hearing aid, but barely anything at all without it,” Lyons writes. “Higher frequencies are the hardest for me to perceive.”
“[Seth is] totally deaf and mute, and we could only communicate via handwritten notes,” Kujo writes. “Despite not being able to really say much to each other, we shared this amazing silent connection and a sense of mutual empathy.”
Silvernail, who represents Spada Monkeys, lost his hearing to meningitis when he was 15 months old. Now 26, he says people still avoid attempts to communicate with him.
“Now that I am an adult, i have found peace and it is not as hard,” Silvernail writes.
And then there’s Rachel Tan, 22, a native Canadian who currently resides in Pasadena, California. Though she now focuses more on house dancing, she says she still supports her crew End The Cycle.
“To be honest with you, no one were able to discover the causes or effects of my deafness,” Tan writes. “I suppose it’s a gift from God. Things happen for a reason.”
Hip-hop heads traditionally like to make references to “feeling the beat.”
By that, they usually mean “feeling” the music emotionally or mentally. They’re usually not making a reference to “feeling” the actual vibrations caused by the beats traveling through the floor – one rumored technique that deaf people use to dance on beat.
But Lyons, Silvernail, and Tan all say they prefer the former.
“I’ve always had trouble hearing the beat and rhythm in music when dancing,” Lyons writes. “It’s a constant concern, especially at b-boy jams, because you can’t really anticipate what the DJ will play. Usually if I hear a song I’m very familiar with (i.e. most b-boy anthems), it’s not hard at all, but much of the time I simply can’t distinguish the beat from the other aspects of the song.”
And so the solution is surprisingly simple. In fact, it’s something that most hearing b-boys and b-girls do anyway: they dance to a song in their heads.
“When I’m performing or battling, I simply can’t afford to wait until a more audible beat plays – I have to dance when it’s my cue, or my turn,” Lyons explains. “So instead of getting frustrated by this, I’ll just dance to my own tune, and hope that the power and intensity of my performance is sufficient to earn the audience’s or judges’ forgiveness for not dancing on beat.”
Feeling for vibrations can get even more complex when the dancer goes down on the floor, Lyons says, and he speculates that for him, his movements further change the equilibrium in his ears, making it more difficult for him to hear or feel the beats.
“hearing bboys and bgirls think we can feel the vibrations,” Silvernail writes. “Sometimes they would ask ‘ how can ya dance if you cannot hear music. ’ actually, i have music inside me. i don’t dance to music, i let music dance with me. i can figure out the beat when i see people dance with the beat. the beat moves through me and it feels like i can hear the music.”
Lyons and Tan agree that visual cues such as tapping hands or bobbing heads can also be helpful in matching up beats with other dancers.
“Most of the time, I just dance away,” Tan writes. “But, when I want to know what the beats are or anything like that, my friends would either use hand signals such as have it in fists and hit the beat, tap my back/shoulder or their body language. It’s all about feeling the music. I even dance without the music because I can feel/hear it in my head.”
So let the truth can be heard. Even deaf and HoH b-boys and b-girls rock beats – it’s just a matter of whether they’re internalized, borrowed from a friend, or both.
On the last track of his 2003 album “Shadows on the Sun,” Minneapolis MC Brother Ali rhymes, “Right on, brother, we def as fuck/ “Not ‘deaf,’ like ‘What?’ but ‘def’ like ‘WHAT!’
“Before they discovered that I’m deaf, they thought I was hearing because I danced on every beat most of the time,” Tan writes. “Once they found out about my deafness, they were shocked and amazed. Sometimes they still didn’t believe I was deaf until they realized we couldn’t really communicate or someone signed to me.”
And perhaps Asia One said it best with the naming of her movement: “No Easy Props.”
While good-intentioned, supporters can tend to over-sympathize when they see someone with what they perceive to be a disadvantage, thus giving “easy props.”
Our interviewees say they’ll have none of that.
“I receive acclaim when I perform well, and I receive the opposite of acclaim when I don’t perform well,” Lyons writes.
“sometime they think i got talent,” Silvernail writes. “sometime, they think i am judged easier ’cause i can’t hear. i don’t care what people think of me. if they think that way that’s their thing. many people have never been around deaf and don’t know us as a person or think we are smart or talented.”
Tan writes, “I want to be treated equally just like others. I don’t want them to think that I get what I want such as props just because I’m deaf. I want them to give me props because I earn it by working hard and trying my best.”
When those unfamiliar with the b-boy scene first encounter battles or ciphers, they seem to be anticipating some sort of rap video version of West Side Story.
The fact that such events can serve as an opportunity to fellowship and break bread can be overlooked, overshadowed by the loud music, eye-dazzling moves, and overbearing MCs.
And before, between, and after battles, ciphers can begin to look like the last day of summer camp, with people scurrying around, taking off their gangsta demeanors, and trading MySpace’s, Facebook’s, black books, or whatever.
But some of our interviewees say that these moments of interaction can be more difficult than the actual dancing at jams.
“In my life in general, the most difficult challenges have been interacting with other people – especially those unfamiliar with, or unaware of, my disability,” Lyons writes. “Almost always, as soon as the person I’m speaking with realizes that I can’t hear everything (or anything) they’re saying, they immediately cease talking to me and walk away without so much as an apology or a farewell – I just become irrelevant and invisible. Short of advertising my deafness on my forehead, I have yet to figure out how to rectify this.”
“i don’t know what is going on at jams all the time cuz people are talkin and i don’t hear it,” Silvernail writes. “i have been going to jams for a long time, i see my friends and the bboys at the jams that i know. it’s not so difficult for me to get thru it, some friends learned sign or write notes with me.”
“It’s difficult for me to meet new dancers because I wanted to hear about their experiences with dancing, etc.,” she writes. “Moreover, I wanted to tell them about my experiences as well since I’m deaf. I wanted them to know that life is so amazing and beautiful.”
The unnamed “they” say that if humans lose one sense, the other four will senses will reciprocate.
In the case of Lyons, Silvernail, and Tan, it seems like their senses of determination kicked into overdrive as well.
Like anyone else, they began dancing simply because they saw it, they tried it with friends, they loved it, and they couldn’t stop.
Lyons has said in previous interviews that he began dancing with a group of friends in high school.
Silvernail writes that he began dancing since he was five years old, doing the moonwalk among other Michael Jackson dances. In junior high, he began to dance with friends after seeing someone do a windmill.
Tan loved dancing even as a young child but didn’t realize she wanted to be a dancer until she performed with her hip-hop dance team in high school. When she was 18, she found herself hanging out with many b-boys and b-girls, and it only made sense to begin dancing with them.
But even for these three, it can still be frustrating to attempt to communicate – whether it be through American Sign Language, writing, speaking orally, or dancing – as deaf/HoH b-boy or b-girl, only to have it fall on deaf ears.
Silvernail writes, “once when my name was called out for a battle at a jam and i didn’t know my name was called, people would laugh and say, like is that dude deaf or what? haha.”
Lyons adds, “I’m painfully shy, mostly due to my disability, and can only overcome that when I feel like I’m putting on a show. This applies not just to dancing, which is obvious, but to simple conversation – I often feel as if I can’t even speak with people unless the very act of conversing becomes a sort of performance.”
Nevertheless, they persist, each with their own reasons for living the break life, focusing on their abilities rather than what others might consider their disabilities.
“My motivation for dancing – in terms of both breaking and dance theater – is to cause a shift in consciousness in the minds of my audience members and peers,” Lyons writes. “I do this through challenging their preconceived notions of what dance is, should be, and could become. I bend and break rules, blur the boundaries that distinguish dance and movement forms from one another, and derive my moves and choreography from a set of passions and ideals rather than from a handbook of rules and regulations – whether it’s the b-boy handbook or the ballet handbook. I dance to elevate the status of breaking as a viable dance form on par with ballet, modern, and other forms of concert dance.
Lyons continues, “Perhaps if I carry on as a normal individual, the world will perceive me as normal – or, perhaps if I carry on as a supernormal individual, the world will cease to perceive me as subnormal.”
Silvernail writes, “dance is my passion. i cannot survive without dancing. it gives me deep good vibes. i got my own dance moves. yes, i am want people in the world to know that deaf can do anything except not hear. so people will realize it doesn’t matter if a person is deaf or hearing.”
And Tan writes, “At first, I danced to prove that I can do it. As time went by slowly, I just dance because it makes me feel free and enjoy. Basically, I just dance for me now. I’m not trying to train as hard as I can for the world. When I dance, it feels as if I’m in my own world.”
Tan continues, “to everyone even people who can’t dance… just dance your heart away and don’t think or worry about what people think because once you let it go and dance away as if you are in your own world, you actually feel so free and just being you. I used to be so shy and worry about what people think when it comes to dancing in the public, I felt stiff. I also worried about not being able to dance to the beat and people would think something negative about me … Now, I finally danced my heart away in the public and it felt good. It’s all about your heart. Feel it and dance to the music.”
Be sure to visit More Than A Stance.com for more B-Boying news, stories, and resources. Peace!