Dancers feel the music, beat

Troupe promotes deaf awareness with performances

July 25, 2002|By Colleen Freyvogel | Colleen Freyvogel,SUN STAFF

Fred Michael Beam, Irvine Stewart and Warren "Wawa" Snipe live in a world where music is a feeling, a vibe, a heartbeat - but not a sound.

Imagine counting each step, each stride, each movement, but never hearing a beat. That may sound like an unusual world in which to dance, but for these three men, it is a way of life. They are the three founding members of an all-male deaf dance troupe, the Wild Zappers.

At a practice last week in Washington, alongside the women of the National Deaf Dance Theatre, it was hard to notice things that were different from other dancers. There was a little less eye contact among them than one might expect. When working as a team, they can't rely on the words of the song or the voice of their instructor to keep in sync. Snipe's hands kept count, to help everyone stay in step.

And after each eight-count, the dancers watched attentively as Beam, 40, explained what was needed to make their performance stronger. Beam spoke with his hands, not with his mouth.

"I really liked dancing when I was growing up," says Stewart, 33, who has been dancing on and off for most of those years, "but there were no teachers or classes that were accessible for deaf people, or for those hard of hearing."

After enrolling at Washington's Gallaudet University, a professor there encouraged him to join the dance company. Instructors would place the students on speakers, to feel the beat of the music, then teach them how to count each beat, and each step.

"This [is] not just a deaf thing," Stewart explains. "Hearing people do this as well, but they are able to hear the music and stay on track. For deaf people, they must count all of the time to stay on track, from beginning to end."

At Gallaudet, Stewart says, he learned to work not just as a dancer, but as part of a team. "That was a new concept for me. Counting? What's that? That is when we learned how to feel the beat of the music."

To enhance their performances, the Wild Zappers often include lip syncing; most sentences, Stewart explains, are structured to start on the count of eight beats. Some group members can pick up the words by sound; even if they can't hear the words exactly, they can distinguish the tones or vibrations that accompany them. Others just follow the counts. In the end, they all rely on memorization, just as a hearing person memorizes lyrics.

Beam, Stewart and Snipe, 32, started performing as a threesome, but soon decided to expand the group. They have held auditions, normally in the fall of each year, and recruited dancers they think will fit in; the group now numbers nine, although that can change depending on the requirements of each performance.

But the idea of advancing opportunities for the deaf is always there - whether they are performing or teaching.

"The vision that I'm seeing is to help promote deaf awareness in the performing arts," says Beam, who has the title of director (the three founding members essentially have equal roles in the company), "and to help people see that deaf people can be as normal as the hearing people. [I want] deaf children to have a sense of pride and to know that they can become someone successful. I want them to be proud of their language."

The group has performed throughout the world over the past seven years, including Australia, Japan and the Virgin Islands. This month, the three founders will be traveling to Japan for the third time in their career, to help set up another deaf dance troupe. The Wild Zappers will be joined by members of the National Deaf Dance Theatre in performances during the last two weeks of their visit to Japan.

The men insist they aren't in the business for the money or the fame. Essentially, they started the group to have fun, and now they encourage others to find their own passion and love for dance. "We try to show that this is another way to communicate," says Beam.

Stewart says he especially wants to recruit males to dance in the group, a task that's always difficult in a culture that views dance as primarily a female thing. "It's OK to express yourself through dancing, and there are different ways to show emotion through dance," he says. "It isn't just for one race, for one sex, for one religion. It's for all, for everyone who wants to be involved. That was my goal when I founded the Wild Zappers.

That might explain why they are such a high-energy group. The men smile from ear to ear with each thump of the music, and each pulse brings another high-kicking, powerful spin. Watching the Wild Zappers in action is like watching your first Broadway show; enthusiasm and passion shine through each exhilarating dance.

Stewart, who teaches at Washington's Kendall School for the Deaf, believes the deaf community is lucky to have dancers so dedicated to teaching their art to children. And audiences "have been very positive," Beam says.

"Many adults were amazed, because they didn't realize that deaf people can do all of these things," he says during a break from practice. "This means they weren't exposed enough. Our goal is to try to open up people's minds about deaf people. When we perform, we say, `This is how we do it,' and then show them a part of our culture so people of all ages will learn and will be able to use [the information] in the future."

Dance

Who: The Wild Zappers

When: 9:30 a.m. & 11:30 a.m. today

Where: Strathmore Hall, 10701 Rockville Pike in North Bethesda

Tickets: $6, free for ages under 3

Tickets and information: 301-530-0540

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