In dance, the body is often expected to be a conceptual vessel. The dancer may be celebrated for unique strengths, but seldom asked to project personal narrative on stage. When the entire body is regularly your vehicle for communication, which is the case for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, physical articulation is intimately tied to personal expression. As an audience member pointed out last week at ODC Theater Unplugged, dancers only occasionally speak in performance, but Antoine Hunter and his Deaf collaborators were “chatterboxes.” They spoke masterfully through movement and highlighted the unifying power of visual language. Hunter approaches his work with the intention of creating mutual understanding across community and cultural lines. He strives to create entry points for audience members of all abilities. In preparation for his performance, he sat down with students of ODC Next Moves’ dance thinking track for this interview.
Amber A. Hopkins: I would like to start the conversation by returning to something you said to me in passing [at the ODC Dance Commons] one day: “Dance is a commitment. It’s a sacrifice. You have to put your whole self into it, and it consumes you.” I was wondering about that experience for you, and when you decided you were going to make that commitment.
Antoine Hunter: I sort of fell into dance. I don’t want to say that it was an accident, but I wasn’t thinking about a career or something like that. To be strictly honest, I just thought I was going to get a date! Because I thought, there are less guys… maybe people will be able to see me, because being Deaf, my image was so blurred, [people] couldn’t really tell who I was. And then I got there and it was hard. Everyone was doing push-ups and sit-ups and things; no one was really paying attention to me. I forgot why I came in. It wasn’t until Dawn James at Skyline high school asked me to do a solo, and I was doing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”… you know, I was moving and there’s an instrumental break and something electrified in my whole body and I couldn’t hold back. When it was over, everyone was like “wow, that was good!” Hearing people and Deaf people could understand what I was saying without actually verbally talking. Many of them were describing the way that I felt. They understood what I was trying to say with the choreography. Communication! It was another form of communication.
I wanted to dance, I wanted to know more languages of dance: ballet, African, salsa, tango. I realized you just couldn’t play around. What I mean by that is that you have to respect the art. It’s like martial arts as well, you can’t just play with martial arts, you have to know where it comes from. I got to the point where I wanted to communicate clearly, through movement
Mr. Savage, from the Savage Jazz Dance Company, said something I will never forget. I wanted to start dancing, but I didn’t have the money. He said, “Come with commitment. That will take care of your class.” So I went when I didn’t really feel like it and began to feel things on the days that I was tired, like super powers were being awakened. I felt that you couldn’t fake it. You have to really go deep and shake, and sweat…4444,222,1! The pain and suffering of not giving up somehow awakened my spirit and the only way to get there was through commitment. So I feel that dance as a way to communicate and to articulate my communication was through training myself in the art of dance.
AAH: You are often regarded as a pillar in several intersecting communities. For example, you run a company, you teach and you work with members of disadvantaged communities. How do you reflect on your role? How important is that to you to actually be building community?
AH: I had a very dramatic, traumatic childhood. I’m from a very low income area in Oakland, CA. I grew up with a very Christian family. I always say I grew up in a church. Also, with people who were very strongly associated with the Black Panthers, very strong advocates for our community in Oakland. My mom raised us all, all by herself: four people and an adopted brother. No support of any kind.
I guess somehow being Deaf was something that allowed me to see things differently; I hear things differently. We who are Deaf can relate to people who [are discriminated] because we experienced discrimination and we were taught not to love ourselves or appreciate ourselves. I put myself out there so that we can find a bridge. My mother put the name “pioneer” into what I have been doing with my life. The name Antoine means “conqueror,” my middle name means “one who overcomes,” my last name “Hunter,” that’s my dad (laughs).
I am the president of the Bay Area Deaf Advocates. I support them. But that support is also about trying to get everyone to come together. Black or white. Gay or straight. It is a big load on the shoulders, but I feel that it’s my duty. Art really, really helps. I’ve worked with Joanna Haigood on Dying, Black and Brown. Her piece was about African American men. [We] use the art to help people learn about [our communities].
Christy Bolingbroke: One of the other things we’ve been talking about [in the dance thinking track] is artist as curator. One of the definitions that I come up with is to be that “bridge,” creating context across communities. So much of what you have shared connects to that idea. Do you see yourself as a curator as well?
AH: I don’t try to curate anything. Maybe I am curating a vocabulary. I think my work is about problem solving. I’m just trying to improve communication. I’ve said before that dance saved my life. Now all I want to do is help other people. I found out that when people can’t express themselves, they go crazy; the community goes crazy. If we don’t get heard, it will find a way to be heard. It gets to the point where it’s so violent and so extreme, where you can rap about it. Hip Hop was lyrically a way to express that [for example]. It wasn’t the sound of battle calls, it was the sound of trying to establish unity. With my dance, it’s the same thing. It’s just that I can’t sing and rap very well (laughs).
I’m just tired of picking sides. I don’t feel that I have to be with the hearing person, or the Deaf person, so this is the reason why I created the Bay Area Deaf Dance Festival, so that everyone could come together. There were some dances and acts with interpreters, and then some without! Because we wanted hearing people to know what it’s like […] for Deaf people who go to the movies and [are] not able to understand what’s going on. Hearing people say, “you can pick up on the actions,” until they go to a movie that’s in a different language and then they feel the pain. Once that pain is understood, they come together. I’m not trying to give people pain, just awareness.
I’m hoping that I can find the structure of ASL in dance. This is one of the things I explored in the process for [Theater Unplugged]. It’s not very often that I have a full Deaf cast. Usually they are Hard of Hearing, or a mixture. This time we have three Deaf dancers, and very Deaf! It’s hard to [assess] everyone’s hearing level. Everyone feels the vibration differently. So we hear differently. I have a personal goal to understand the root of Deaf dance and American Sign in dance. Deaf acting, for example, is totally different from Deaf dance. Deaf theater and Deaf dance are separate, but there isn’t writing on Deaf dance. That’s where I am coming in. That’s my research.
AAH: How do you find funding for work and for your livelihood?
AH: I teach dance. I teach at thirteen different locations, six hours a day. That’s my greater passion. I have the knack to break down what people are doing. Many times, teachers will give the same directions for everyone to move with, but they aren’t true for everyone. Some people can’t push forward, some people need to pull back. Some people have banana legs, or hyperextension. For some strange reason, I can work with that. I can prevent injury because of my understanding of the intensity of muscular effort. Something else Savage taught me was to “look.” I really watch movement and muscle and bone structure and my imagination connects with the body. Part of being Deaf is that we are so visual and so expressive; it’s easier for hearing people to get the point. Interestingly, Deaf people watch, and they really get it a little bit faster. When you have hearing people living among Deaf people, their eyes become very strong. A lot of choreographers hire me. I may not be the best [technically], but I get a grip, I get their vision. It gets me more work.
CB: Who have you worked with?
AH: (Looks overwhelmed) A lot! That’s scary, to provide a list! Kim Epifano, Savage Jazz, Man Dance Ballet, Def Motion. There are a lot. Thank goodness I know how to do time management.
Here’s another thing that helps me to get paid: I don’t really play around. I go there, and I work with the choreographer. Some people like to be fun. I don’t have a lot of time, so when I go to the studio and I am working, I don’t play around.
CB: It’s commitment!
AH: That’s right! It’s commitment.
Amber Hopkins is an Oakland born and bred thinker. Her upbringing in an artists’ community has thoroughly informed her worldview, making art and life inseparable. Educated in creative writing at Mills College and employed by ODC Dance Commons, she follows her interests in women’s leadership and creative excellence. Amber is currently on the move to Brooklyn to fulfill dreams of being a somatic practitioner, sweating in the studio, making visual work and writing about it.