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February 24, 2003

Traveling Hands educates about deafness with dance

From: Monroe Times, WI - 24 Feb 2003

By Ellen Williams-Masson
Times correspondent

MONROE -- A sea of waving hands and total silence greeted the Traveling Hands Troupe (THT) after its performance Saturday night at the Performing Arts Center of Monroe High School.

The audience wasn't being rude: Waving hands is the way for an audience to signal they are clapping in American Sign Language, applause that was definitely earned by the Troupe's emotional and energetic performance.

The THT is composed of five dancers who are deaf, one who is hard of hearing and seven who are hearing. Their performance is to educate audiences about the deaf community while performing interpretive song and dance. The THT is a division of the International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) and is based in Northbrook, IL.

The troupe was founded in 1976 by the grandmother of current director Christine Strejc and choreographer Carolyn Strejc. They perform one or two dozen shows each year for businesses, schools and clubs. The Monroe Optimist Club sponsored the troupe's Monroe performance.

Troupe members range in age from 7 to 19 years old. Once selected for the group, dancers usually remain members until graduating from high school and going to college.

Strejc explained the troupe consists of hearing and deaf performers because "we believe that in order to educate, we have to have the best of both [communities]."

Troupe members are often invited to join after performing in plays or taking dance classes at the ICODA. Several shared why they joined the troupe, and why they enjoy performing.

"I joined in a show at ICODA and got involved with dancing, and I've been with the troupe ever since," said Michelle Skowzgird, an 18-year-old performer who has been a member of THT for 9 years.

"I enjoy it because it's a way for me to share something with my sister because she's deaf. It's something we can do together," explained Sandy Williams, the 16-year-old hearing sister of Samantha, who is 13 and deaf.

Gracie Wildman, a 19-year-old deaf dancer, shared, "I used to be involved with ballet and jazz classes and I didn't feel very comfortable with them because it was hard to hear the music. I could do it, but it was harder. The great thing about THT is that the choreographer and the director can sign for themselves. I don't have to look for an interpreter to explain to me what's happening."

Indeed, there are two challenges facing dancers who are deaf or hard of hearing.

First, they must be able to "hear" the music, or feel the vibrations, and second, they must be able to communicate with the director and choreographer. At THT, vocal music with a strong beat is usually chosen, and the dancers can look to the choreographer for visual cues to the beat and to the director for visual cueing of the words of the songs so they all stay in time to the music. (Strobe lighting is not used to cue the dancers because of the concern for epileptic people in the audience.) The troupe interprets each song through expressive signing and dance that draws from techniques of ballet, jazz and contemporary dance.

Their success in communicating emotion to the audience was evident in the behavior of two young children in the front row, who were enraptured by the movements and expression of the performers.

Bobbie Schroeder, the mother of 11-year-old Christopher, who is deaf, shared what it is like to have a deaf child.

"He's my fourth child; the other three can hear. It is a challenge, a joy and a blessing, but it has been hard. Christopher is a special gift to us. He opened up a whole new world that we would not have been exposed to. We are proud of that and of him. He is an awesome kid." Schroeder said her son's deafness was likely caused by medications he was dependent upon for survival as a premature baby. Now he is a mainstream middle school student who "has made the honor roll both quarters and is in the advanced math class." Christopher and another deaf dancer, Samantha Williams, 13, were also the inspiration for the book "Can you Hear a Rainbow," by Jamee Heelan.

Indeed, the prevailing message shared by the troupe is that deaf people are just like everyone else, except their ears don't work. This sentiment was most passionately expressed by George Kartheiser, an 18-year-old deaf young man who wants to be a fashion designer.

"The only difference between the deaf and the hearing is that a deaf person can't hear. We're normal. We can drive a car, run, watch TV through close captioning; there's always a way to do anything."

The people of the deaf community do not consider themselves handicapped but rather Deaf, with a capital "D", and proud. The words of one song they performed, "Beautiful" by Christina Aquliara, are particularly adept at describing these beautiful young women and men. "I am beautiful, No matter what you say ... Words can't bring me down ... Don't you bring me down today."

The Traveling Hands Troupe is available for private parties, corporate functions, schools and other organizations. It will perform March 12-16 at the Centerlight Theatre in Northbrook, IL. More information is available by calling (847) 559-0110 x228 (Voice) or (847) 559-9493 TTY.

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