Teaching kids to feel the beat

Deaf trio uses dance to teach Northfield pupils sign language

October 22, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Before the assembly at Northfield Elementary School started, the kids in the audience learned how to clap in sign language.

Instead of hitting their hands together as hearing people do, they were taught to hold their hands in the air and wiggle their outstretched fingers.

Then they were ready to see the Wild Zappers, a trio of deaf dancers who gave two performances Wednesday at the school. The members of the group, which is based in Greenbelt, are Fred Beam, Ronnie Bradley and Warren Snipe.

After introducing themselves and teaching the audience how to sign their names, they got down to business.

"Let's show them how deaf people dance." Those words were signed by Beam and spoken into the microphone by Bradley.

As the boppy Janet Jackson tune "Escapade" played, the three - all wearing loose, bright-red pants and white shirts - twirled, clapped and grooved in perfect synchronicity. When they had finished, the pupils burst into applause. Then they remembered, and lifted their hands in the air, fingers wiggling.

The program had been brought to the school by the PTA, which sponsors about a half dozen cultural arts events a year, said Greta Swanson, the PTA's cultural arts chair.

The Wild Zappers was formed in 1989 to give male deaf dancers an opportunity to dance together and to increase awareness of deafness. The group travels the country giving performances and workshops.

At Northfield, the performers gave two 45-minute shows, one for younger kids and one for grades three through five. Some parents brought their kindergarten pupils to the show. "They enjoy the cultural arts events," said Jackie Crispell, who had brought her morning kindergartner Phillip and his friend Scott back to see the show.

Also in the audience was Rosie Amaro, a fifth-grader who has been hard of hearing since she was 4, she said.

Rosie is deaf in one ear and can hear in the other with the help of a hearing aid and amplifying device, which is used by her teachers.

She knows how to sign a little, she said. She's learning to spell her name, and she's planning to learn more. She enjoyed watching the dancers perform, she said. "They were really good," she said. "They can dance better than me."

The Wild Zappers combined music, jokes and dancing with lessons on sign language. Mostly, Beam addressed the audience as Bradley spoke into the microphone in a voice with such clear enunciation it was impossible to tell that he was deaf.

After the first song, Beam signed as Bradley spoke. "How do deaf people follow the rhythm if they can't hear the music?" he asked the audience.

As pupils answered, Bradley repeated their words into the microphone. You feel it, said one boy. You see people clapping, said a girl.

Both were right. Snipe also said he could hear the sounds with the help of his hearing aid, and he had studied the lyrics, so he could adjust his gestures to suit the music.

"Deaf people follow the music in many ways," Bradley said. "Just like you learn to read and write."

Beam then walked into the audience and chose about 40 kids to go on stage. Amid much giggling, the kids were arranged in rows, then the dancers taught them several moves, all without music.

Once the kids sat back down, Snipe took the stage for a slow, ballet-style dance to the Mariah Carey song "Hero."

Bradley then asked the kids to name their heroes, then Beam taught them the signs for words like father, mother, family and teacher. With each sign, Bradley explained its origin. For example, the sign for father is a hand to the head, with a thumb poking the forehead. "That's because in the old days, he was known as head of the house," Bradley said.

For the next song, R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," the three taught the children several signs so they could sign along to the music. School counselor Christi Bello, sitting next to the kids, tried the movements too, right hand shooting into the air to indicate flying.

"They have the kids mesmerized," she said.

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