New Technology Gives School for the Deaf Students a Chance to Dance

by Bridget Conrad | 5/30/2019 7:30 PM

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The universal language of dance connects many groups of people all over the world, and it's often used to connect deaf and hearing people of all ages. A few years ago, we watched Nyle DiMarco make Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) history when he became the first deaf contestant to win the show. Throughout the season, he defied the odds and showed the world that being deaf didn’t hold him back from doing anything, especially dancing. Now, Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (WPSD) is teaching its students this same lesson. This school, in partnership with a local dance company, has incorporated dancing into its curriculum and teaches students to feel vibrations from the music using advanced technology.

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WPSD is incorporating dance into its curriculum through a partnership with Attack Theatre, a dance company that works with 9000 students and teaches around the region every year in outreach programs. Michele de la Reza co-founded Attack Theatre and teaches a dance class for preschoolers ages 3-4 at WPSD. In the class, she leads the children through moves such as jumping, shaking, and crawling backwards. The goal is to not only engage their minds at school, but to get their bodies moving as well.

“The deaf community’s whole language is rooted in physicality, so let’s investigate where connections can be,” de la Reza said in an interview with KDKA 2 CBS Pittsburgh.

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As a teacher at WPSD, de La Reza went the extra mile to really give these children a full dancing experience. She wanted to not only show the children how to physically express their emotions, but also wanted them to experience a sense of vibration and sound. So, de la Reza brought in some engineering students from the University of Pittsburgh to create special backpacks to help the children to dance. The engineering students made these backpacks look like monkeys, and when the children were wearing them, they could feel vibrations from music. 

Photo Credit: KDKA 2 CBS Pittsburgh

Christine Homell, a preschool teacher at WPSD who is also deaf, is constantly impressed with how the children use their backpacks in class. “They don’t ever say, ‘I can’t. I can’t do it.’ I see them and how many times they are signing, ‘I feel that. I feel that, Christy. I feel that. Maybe I can’t hear it but I feel it,” Homell told KDKA 2 CBS Pittsburgh.  

While teaching the children to dance, de la Reza instructs them using sign language, and then they dance to the vibrations. She choreographs for specific vibrations, making strong and heavy movement for low, bass beats and soft and light movements for the fluttering vibrations.

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Attack Theatre actually works with students of all ages at WPSD, including middle and high school students. Some of the older students at WPSD have even performed with professional dancers.

The theatre's in-school residencies work to integrate the arts across content areas in schools throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. Residency participants develop and refine a lens through which to view and practice more modern subjects through the timeless art of dance. Students who participate in Attack Theatre's programs are more likely to better understand the educational concepts that the programs aim to teach; gain creativity, critical thinking, and collaborative abilities; and better retain and comprehend concepts that are taught through a fun, integrative, embodied learning approach.

One of my favorite moments in DWTS history is seeing Nyle DiMarco win the show, so when I heard of this partnership between WPSD and Attack Theatre, I had to help spread the word. It's so inspiring to see teachers go above and beyond their duty to bring the joy of dance into students' lives through advanced technology. Every day, more and more, we're proving that dance is inclusive and its really the number one thing that can bring EVERYONE in this world together. 

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