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For Antoine Hunter, a pioneering Deaf dancer, choreographer and activist, dance has been the antidote to loneliness and isolation, allowing him to express emotional truths to people who’d misunderstood him before. Being Deaf, he first struggled to get hearing directors and choreographers to take him seriously as a dancer. But once he was given a chance, his gifts could not be denied, and he was eventually hired to tour the world.

Hunter, also known as Purple Fire Crow, was born in Oakland. He identifies himself as “African, Indigenous [Blackfoot and Cherokee], Deaf, Disable, Two Spirit.” His Deaf identity means he’s a proud part of capital-D “Deaf culture,” which emphasizes sign language and nonverbal communication and celebrates Deaf arts, athletics, literature and traditions.

After studying and performing dance on the East Coast, Hunter returned to the Bay Area, and in 2007, founded the Urban Jazz Dance Company, whose mission is “to provide opportunities for Deaf/Hard of Hearing artists to contribute to the arts and society, increase awareness for Deaf culture and sign language via performing arts, and to connect with diverse communities.”

Through UJDC, Deaf artists have the opportunity to celebrate their talents and tell their stories through dance, as the company performs and hosts workshops nationally and internationally on professional stages, at Deaf institutions, at public schools and colleges, senior centers, recreation centers and museums. The company tackles issues such as human rights, access and empowerment for Deaf and disabled communities, ending discrimination and healing domestic and sexual abuse.

When Hunter toured the world as a young dancer, he met more and more Deaf dancers all over the globe who weren’t getting opportunities they deserved to express themselves onstage.

In 2013, Hunter established the Bay International Deaf Dance Festival to connect these far-flung artists and build a community so they would learn, as he did, that they are not alone as artists.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Hunter and the UDJC shifted gears to make the three-day Deaf Dance Festival an online-only event.

The festival will feature virtual workshops each day, 10 a.m.-noon, Friday through Sunday (Aug. 14-16), with instruction on styles such as Indian classical and folk dance, flamenco, cumbia, modern dance, jazz, and contemporary ballet.

The streaming performances, featuring artists from India (Shruti Neelesh Kelkar), Colombia (Carlos Javier Ortega Opisno), Venezuela (Danzaluz), Canada (Natasha Bacchus) and all over the United States, take place online starting at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the festival will host a virtual community gathering at 5 p.m.

The festival, working with Def Lens Media, will employ American Sign Language, International Sign Language, and Colombian and Spanish Sign Language, as well as English CART captioning.

Saturday’s events will include Spanish-voice interpretation, and Sunday will include Audio Descriptive Services by Jess Curtis/Gravity. The events are free, but Hunter’s dance company, like all arts organizations during the pandemic, could use donations to survive 2020.

I interviewed Hunter over email about his journey and why he started the Deaf Dance Festival.

How did dance change your life as a young person?

Hunter: Dance has always been part of me, from the day I was born; I have always been moving. This is especially true growing up in the Bay Area, specifically in Oakland, the land of the Ohlone and “The Home of Black Panther Party,” I always say. Breakdancing was very popular during that time.

One day, my mother took me to see Oakland Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Being Deaf, when I would watch TV or go to the movies, I couldn’t connect with what I was seeing because it was not accessible for me — usually lacking captions or ASL interpreters. I would miss all the jokes. When I watched the Oakland Ballet, it was wonderful. No one was talking on stage; instead, everyone was dancing as a way to communicate. It showed me that I can use art and dance to communicate with the world.

That was the day I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer. My mom couldn’t afford to take me to dance lessons, so I had to wait until high school to dance. It was a long wait. I was a person that no one understood; therefore, I became a person who felt I had no place in the world. It was a depressing feeling of being an outcast and left out of everything. 

My high school dance teacher Dawn James taught modern and jazz, and she believes the spirit of dance lives in everyone … including me. Whenever she danced, it was powerful — a Black woman was giving me permission to find power in myself. She didn’t treat me differently, even though I was the only Deaf student in her class.

One day, she gave us a class assignment to collaborate in groups and come up with a dance performance to Whitney Houston’s song “I Will Always Love You.” Students were supposed to work together, but no one wanted to work with me. So, Ms. James told me to make up my own dance and perform a solo. I couldn’t really hear the words, but I read the lyrics on the back of cassette tape then clicked play and initially rocked side to side expressing the cold and loneliness I felt. During the powerful instrumental break, however, I was suddenly all over the room, my body channeled the lightning, fire, wind and ocean I sensed in the music. When the music ended, I faded off my dance. My classmates were blown away. They told me, “I really felt you were cold and alone.” That was when I realized that through dance I could communicate, and that saved my life.

I could remember that feeling I had when I watched the Oakland Ballet. Dance has the power to communicate, and I felt I could channel that power to communicate with others around me and they would understand me. I no longer wanted to die. 

My senior year, my dance teacher urged me to audition for the California Institute of the Arts. That audition class was the bomb. It was the first time I stood in the front of the line, and the first time I was exposed to styles like (the) Horton Technique and ballet that I had never done before. I even fell during the audition. I had this serious look on my face, dancing so intently, and then I fell with a big smile on my face. The Dance Department from CalArts sent me a letter that I was accepted!  

“I could remember that feeling I had when I watched the Oakland Ballet. Dance has the power to communicate, and I felt I could channel that power to communicate with others around me and they would understand me,” said Hunter. (Photo by Richard Dowing, courtesy of Sins Invalid)

Can you tell me a little about your journey from a dance student to dancer, choreographer, dance instructor, and director?

Hunter: Before I was a dancer, I was an actor for many theater companies. I never talk about it because there were not many roles for a Deaf person or Black men during that time. Acting with the Oakland Ensemble Theatre, the Berkeley Black Reps and (the) Lorraine Hansberry Theatre was an awesome experience, but it was hard to understand hearing people when they missed their lines. I was not able to follow what they were saying if they went off the script, and it ended up making me look bad. With dance, it is visually easier to see people messing up, and I can then play it off so no one looks bad.

It was so hard. Before I had my dance company, I would ask to dance with people, and people said “no.” That is, until I had the opportunity with NUBA Dance Theatre; they were about Nobility, Unison, Benevolence, Ambition. They were off the hook! Dr. Evelyn C. Thomas saw how hard I was working and saw I was worth giving a solo, doing a duet, dancing in front of the whole company. The world saw me! She gave me a chance, and I am forever grateful.

Then, other companies wanted me. In my time with the Savage Jazz Dance Company, Savage trained me so hard I was reborn! Following that, I was involved with Alayo Dance Company, Robert Moses’ Kin and so on. I love every dance company I’ve danced with. One point of my life, I was dancing for seven different dance companies at the same time and teaching at 13 locations. I don’t believe I was the best dancer, but I was just making sure I don’t look bad.

What inspired you to found the Urban Jazz Dance Company?

Hunter: You know what’s funny? Dancing in New York City was brilliant, and studying with (the) Paul Taylor Dance Company school was lovely, but being robbed among a few other things — I just had to leave. I tried D.C., and D.C. was almost right for me. Having access as a Deaf artist there was beautiful. Growing up, I experienced isolation and taunting, being made to feel “different and weird.” That’s one reason why I cherish my experience at the National Black Deaf Advocates’ (NBDA) “Night of the Stars,” meeting Fred Beam, Warren “Wawa” Snipe, Ronnie Bradley and Miss Black Deaf America. They made me feel like a hero who’s found his home planet. I wasn’t trying to be a hero; I was just trying to survive.

I realized that I was making changes happen in D.C., and I said there’s no way I can leave my home, the Bay Area, without making changes there. I wasn’t trying to have a dance company. I just wanted to give people a chance to dance their truth. It started off with students who regularly came to my class. One of them saw me do a solo tour and said they wanted to dance with me. The next thing I knew, I had the Urban Jazz Dance Company. The first year of my company’s inception, we had over 51 shows. There were some moments when I was dancing in one location, and my dancers were dancing in a different performance in another location. That’s how well I trusted them. However when Malonga Casquelourd and Carlos Aceituno died, I felt it was my time to build and carry on the love they showed me. When I became King of the S.F. Carnaval in 2017, I danced in their memory.  

Can you explain the importance of vibrations for Deaf dancers?

Hunter: During a full moon and Deaf people can hear; no need to feel the vibration. Just kiddin’! If you go to the dance club, where do you think you are most likely to find Deaf people? Of course, they are near the biggest, largest and loudest speaker dancing to the bass. 

As a dancer, people will say to me, “Oh, you can feel the vibration, that’s it, you’ll be fine.” No. If I jump, I can’t feel the vibration. If I’m running around really fast, I can’t feel the vibration. I have to slow down and stay in one place for a while to feel the vibration. So what does that mean? I’m listening. I’m using every intelligence of my being to do what I have to do to make it work.

For me, this often means creatively finding visual cues to stay on beat. So sometimes, I’d try to see what was happening with the light. Maybe the light would feel the vibration, and I could see what the rhythm is. Or I look at the musicians, and they’re bopping their heads or tapping their feet. I say, “Oh OK, that’s what the rhythm is.”

My body started to develop Deaf instincts, it’s like mother instinct or animal instinct — or like a Spiderman sense. Some people say, “How do you know when the music starts? Or the music changes?” Well, it’s my Spiderman sense. We love feeling the vibration. We don’t just like to feel loud shaky beats, but also clarity in the music through the vibrations.

 I am part of the creation of DropLabs shoes. Yes, I own a shoe company, too. DropLabs has created the first-of-its-kind sneaker with patented technology built into its sole that converts audio signals into vibrations so you can feel the music you’re listening to on your wireless headphones. Not only does DropLabs’ product provide vibrations, but it’s also not loud and unclear. You can feel if there’s lyrics, what kind of musical instrument it is, if the music is soft or fast.  

Before I met CEO Susan Paley and the DropLabs team, I would blast my music through my speakers so that I could capture the vibrations with my body and commit them to memory to guide my movements. With DropLabs, I’m no longer tied to my speakers. The EP 01 has given me the power to go anywhere and feel the beat in my feet, up through my brain and deep into my soul and spirit. This product is truly reimagining the possibilities for how we interact with and hear sound — not just for the deaf community, but for the world.

What social issues have you tackled through dances you’ve directed and choreographed?

Hunter: My work, deeply rooted in social change, will uplift marginalized communities, expose hidden truths through arts while breaking down barriers of judgments from those with white and/or hearing privileges. Marginalized Deaf communities include those who are Deaf youth, Black Deaf, POC Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, LGBTQIA, and other intersecting identities.

My work has served as an “ice breaker” for educating social change through multidisciplinary performances such as “Deaf’s IMPRISONED” at CounterPulse in November 2018 combining performance art, movement, dance and video, to bring audiences into the world of Deaf prisoners living in a “prison within a prison.” “Deaf’s IMPRISONED” toured to Leicester, U.K., and Moscow, Russia, where it was shown for sold-out audiences of up to 800. I also typically choreograph about uplifting the Deaf communities, Black Lives Matter and language deprivation.

Antoine Hunter’s Urban Jazz Dance Company performed “Deaf’s IMPRISONED” at CounterPulse in 2018. Hunter created and choreographed the multimedia work that incorporated sign language, spoken text, dance (modern, pointe ballet, and jazz), film, music and silence. (Photo by Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Urban Jazz Dance Company)

I am blessed with brilliant amazing dancers — Urban Jazz Dancers are powerful humans who help heal the world. I am thankful for each of them for believing in what I do. Also as the Bay Area’s only Deaf-led professional dance company, my company changes each place it touches, embodying #IntersectionalityAccessArts and bringing diversity/inclusion awareness to the arts worldwide. Our performances transform venues into visually/tactically accessible spaces and create access at museums, libraries, and performance venues for Deaf/HoH (Hard of Hearing) individuals while educating hearing populations about our culture and language. Dance invites audiences to overcome communication barriers to connect with us. UJDC is an essential link between Deaf, hearing and communities with disabilities in the Bay Area.

I want to share something: We hired hearing dancers, too, because I believe in allies. However, I have experienced someone joining my dance company only for a tour out of state or out of the country but backed out for the festival saying, “I am not Deaf, so why should I join Deaf dance festival?” Sometimes, they would do things like this, and then tell people they saved my dance company. They would skip rehearsal often and believe, “I am not Deaf so I don’t need to show up on time.” I would say, “Just like any other dance company, you must show on time and be at rehearsal like a job.” I’ve experienced audism within the company. It hurts us, but we heal and move forth to believe in a better tomorrow. 

What inspired you to create the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival?

Hunter: When I started my solo tour, it allowed me to travel the world. I met dancers who are Deaf in their own countries. It is beautiful to see how international Deaf people communicate easier with each other than hearing do with Deaf. I often learn their country’s sign language and work hard to bring them to America to showcase their arts and culture. Deaf in arts has always been there as long as the Earth. Oftentimes, the Deaf artists were overlooked, looked down upon and not greatly respected as humans.

One day, I was performing at the Oakland Clash Festival, and a person said, “You’re the only Deaf dancer in the world.” I said, “No, I am not.” I knew then I needed to create a show where Deaf dancers from all over the world can prove that we are here. The professionalism of this festival was inspired by the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival produced by World Arts West, the Black Choreographers Festival, and Oakland’s Art & Soul by Dance-A-Vision. BAIDDfestival has saved lives. There were other dancers who felt they were not human or felt they were dying because they had no space to dance and be Deaf. This festival is a homecoming for many Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, and DeafDisabled artists and more.

It features everything, including classical, modern and folk dance — Deaf people rock that stuff! I’ve witnessed this festival bring many families together, businesses together, artists together and many smiles. Children — Deaf, Hard of Hearing and/or CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) — have adult role models who represent their background, culture and language to look up to, and I believe that’s important. 

How did you have to adapt to the pandemic?

Hunter: One morning, I was tired, and Zula Hunter, who is an amazing young preteen Black dancer, said “Don’t give up. I love dance festival.” I knew I must adapt, like I always do. Adaptation is a daily thing for me. This world feels like it was made for only hearing, able bodies. I think during this pandemic, everyone else should turn to disability communities and ask them how to make things happen because they or we are dealing with access barriers every day. Because of COVID-19, my dance company’s scheduled performances and workshops with Deaf kids at schools all over the world were canceled. Some say I had hardly skipped a beat in switching to online performances, dance classes, panel discussions and other events. 

As the founder of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and Urban Jazz Dance Company, my dance company lost over $30,000 worth of opportunity to give to our artists, dancers, businesses and community. We have not given up. I turned my 15 -year-old office space into a dance studio in three weeks doing the work of four people all by myself because I didn’t want anyone to bring the virus into my space. 

Which acts are you most excited to see this year?

Hunter: This is the show you do not want to miss, and you will want to share with everyone. Some of our wonderful artists involved include Samantha Figgins from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Lark Detweiler, who did “My Disability Does Not Define Me” on TEDxYouth; the Bay Area’s Ashley Gayle and Noah James, who wrote “The Gifts of Pain: Bookmarks of a Sickle Cell Warrior”; Zahna Simon, Urban Jazz Dance Company/Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival assistant director, who is also a chemist and a pointe-ballet dancer featured in “Inside Their Studio” book by Ikouii.  I shouldn’t forget my UJDC dancers, as they worked so hard to dance with me with all the changes; I can’t thank them enough. This year, we also have many local Deaf artists as well as Deaf artists from India, Colombia, Mexico, Washington, D.C., Arkansas and more. And you will witness Bay Area Black Deaf businesses doing what it takes to thrive in a pandemic.

* The Bay Area International Dance Festival takes place Friday through Sunday. For more information, visit the Urban Jazz Dance Company site here and Facebook page here. To reserve tickets, go here. To make an online donation, go here.