Ballerina refuses to let hearing disability stop her dreams

December 15, 1992|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Like millions of little girls, Jody Pierson dreamed of being a ballerina.

Unlike millions of little girls, Ms. Pierson was nearly deaf from a hereditary hearing disability.

And, unlike most little girls who dream of being a dancer, Ms. Pierson, 20, actually achieved the goal.

She has already performed with the Fort Worth Ballet in Balanchine's "Serenade" and in Mejia's "Sarasate Dances" and Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." This week, she'll be a doll, a snowflake and a Chinese dancer in "Nutcracker."

"Instead of my hearing impairment being a disadvantage, it makes me want to try harder," Ms. Pierson said.

Ms. Pierson's hearing problems were first discovered at age 3 when an audiologist diagnosed 84 percent disability in one ear and 92 percent in the other. Although she had not yet started talking, she soon learned to read lips, and, with the help of hearing aids, coaching and determination, learned to speak in a normal voice and carry on normal conversation.

First she went to schools for the hearing impaired, then moved into mainstream schools at 7, enduring some taunts from other children. At 10, she began to reach for her goal of being a ballet dancer by taking classes at Julia Redick's Conservatory of Ballet in Washington, D.C.

"It's a little later than most people start," Ms. Pierson says. But once she started, she threw herself into dance. Her hearing aids had been stolen just before she began dance classes; for the first two weeks, before the hearing aids were replaced, she stood next to an older girl and learned by imitating her movements. By the following summer, her talent for dancing had blossomed to the point that she was accepted into the summer program for young dancers at the Joffrey Ballet in New York.

Ms. Redick, her first teacher, continued to be a powerful force in shaping Ms. Pierson's technique and personality, as was Melissa Hayden, with whom Ms. Pierson studied at the North Carolina School for the Arts. At 15, Ms. Pierson was accepted into the summer program at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, and was then invited to stay for the season, studying in the school and performing with the main company year-round.

"I had a teacher in Seattle who questioned my ambitions, and told me there weren't any hearing-impaired dancers," she says. "But I knew of several. I loved dancing so much, it made me more determined."

Her hearing aids give her the ability to hear a normal amount of sound; background noise causes difficulties. When dancing, Ms. Pierson can hear the music, but also relies on visual cues -- as all dancers do -- and feels the vibration of the music through the floor.

After several years in Seattle, where she finished her high school education while continuing to train and work as a dancer, Ms. Pierson auditioned for the American Ballet Theatre in New York. When advised that the company wanted her but didn't have the money to hire her immediately, she decided to stay in New York and enter the School of American Ballet, the training wing of the rival New York City Ballet.

"That was the best year of my training," she says.

It also led directly to the Fort Worth Ballet. While in class at the American School of Ballet, Ms. Pierson was spotted by the famed Balanchine ballerina Suzanne Farrell, the artistic adviser for the Balanchine repertoire at the Fort Worth Ballet and the wife of Fort Worth Ballet artistic director Paul Mejia. When Mr. Mejia needed to hire additional dancers for "Serenade" last spring, Ms. Farrell recommended Ms. Pierson. Mr. Mejia called Ms. Pierson on a Wednesday in March; the following Sunday she flew to Fort Worth, signed a contract, and began rehearsing on Monday. Just over a month later, she was on stage with the company.

"This company is the best place for me," she says. "And 'Serenade' was a good piece for me to start with here."

"She's a very hard worker, with lots of energy and lots of desire," Mr. Mejia says.

But other aspects of her personality are as important to Mr. Mejia as her drive and her talent.

"She's a very nice, generous girl, and that shows when she dances," he says. "You can tell what people are when they dance."

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