A Breath and a Hum, and a Move Like Mango: An Interview with Deaf Dancer & Choreographer Antoine Hunter

By Rob Taylor


Transcribing my interview with Deaf dancer, choreographer and teacher Antoine Hunter, I am acutely aware of how much every conversation relies upon a unique choreography of gestures, expressions and empathy. My recording only captured the sounds of our interview, and my typing only captures the words in those sounds, and words are so limited. Thank goodness we can use our bodies to create meaning.

Pictured: Antoine Hunter Photo by RJ Muna
Pictured: Antoine Hunter
Photo by RJ Muna

Rob Taylor: How do you describe yourself regarding your hearing?
Antoine Hunter: I prefer Deaf. For a long time I used Deaf and hard-of-hearing to describe myself, but as I became more aware of Deaf culture, I labeled myself Deaf. I was born completely Deaf in my left ear, and have a little bit of hearing in my right ear. I have 5% of my hearing, 10% with a hearing aid.

RT: When did you start dancing?
AH: I started breakdancing at age 4. My mom took me to Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker when I was 7 or 8, and I saw the way the dancers communicated. When they moved they were communicating, and everyone could understand what they said. It wasn’t until 1998 that I started dancing professionally.

RT: Many people think that for Deaf people, dance is about “hearing” vibrations, but is there more to dance in Deaf culture than that?
AH: The thing about vibration is that you have to hold still to feel it, and you can’t really dance and hold still at the same time. If I can’t hear the rhythm I have to make my own rhythm—my own internal orchestra. Sometimes that what’s so cool about being Deaf. There’s no distraction and you’re in your own world making your own music, creating your own art.

When I’m dancing in a duet, I have to find my own music in order to stay in time with my partner. There are times when we are back to back and can’t see each other. So I have to make my own timing.

RT: How do you keep track of where the music is?
AH: Sometimes I look at the lighting—if a speaker is close to the light, the light vibrates when the music starts. Sometimes I look at the audience. But a lot of audiences are off-beat. You have to be really careful about audiences.

I was dancing with Savage Jazz and we performed with Marcus Shelby…and (Antoine smiles) that man loves music. So there were times when he got into it and played past the stopping point. Sometimes he would speed up or slow down the tempo. So I looked at the piano player’s feet, or how Mr. Shelby moved his head. You have to find your strategy to make it work.

RT: Why do you need music?
AH: I just love music. Jazz music was what I understood first. Music with words, I couldn’t understand the lyrics. But my great-grandfather, “Big Shot” Mr. West, had these old jazz records that would pop and crackle, and I would listen and they made sense to me. I was only 10 listening to this music, and my grandfather said “you think you know jazz? Well what do you think jazz is?” I remember saying, “it’s like getting ready to school, waiting for the bus, going to recess, playing ball, going back to class, and getting ready for bed.”  It has all the different parts of the day in it.

And my grandfather looked at me and said that’s exactly right! I love jazz because you can’t feel wrong about what the song is about. It has a little bit of everything. I love the horns, the bass, and the piano. I know you’re thinking “How does he know the difference.” (Laughs)

Whatever you find, wherever it takes you—go with it. That’s what I try to do through my dance company. A lot of hearing dancers have a problem with that because they hear the music, and they get stuck on that and whatever that rhythm is. You can’t be so ballet about it, so literal about every beat of the count. Sometimes there’s no count when I choreograph. There’s a breath and a hum, and a move like mango.

RT: A what?
AH: Move like mango. A mango is—well, it’s a fruit of course. But there’s a motion that comes from the mango. So I tell them to move like mango. Find what that means for you. Some dancers, they spit it out.

I do use a traditional dance vocabulary, but dancers get so hung up on it and it becomes so mathematical. So I make a little poetry about it.

RT: You will perform this June at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Can you talk about why you auditioned for the Festival?
AH: I’ve become more focused on the Deaf community, and on understanding that Deaf culture is a culture. Also as the President of Bay Area Black Deaf Advocates I feel a responsibility to share the wisdom.

People always say dance is dance, and we all dance the same. Well, look at African dance. There are so many different cultures, and they don’t all dance the same. Deaf people dance, and they dance differently.

So the Ethnic Dance Festival is about different cultures coming together, and there is a Deaf culture, and there hasn’t been Deaf culture in the Festival. So I auditioned.

Dance is about communication. Expressing yourself is about communicating with someone else. When I dance, I communicate about who Deaf people are, what we need, and what are we capable of doing. I want the audience to understand my dance, but to also understand the frustration of not being understood. I want them to want to learn about American Sign Language, to want to research Deaf issues.

RT: So is the dance improvised?
AH: No, it’s choreographed, with some improvisation. It’s like flying. You have a course, but if the wind blows one way you move with the wind and then get back on course.

RT: In addition to dancing for other choreographers, you have your own company. Do you work with just Deaf dancers?
AH: I work with both hearing and Deaf dancers. The challenge for Deaf dancers is learning when to start and stop. The challenge for hearing dancers is to understand that if I’m off-beat, then I’m off-beat, and you have to follow me. They can’t be so tied to the music. Don’t dance to the music, dance with the music. Add color to it.

I want my children and all our children to know being Deaf is not a curse. It is a gift of hearing things differently in our souls.

I didn’t used to call myself a Deaf dancer. Then once after a show, a man came up to me and he was crying because his daughter was Deaf and he had seen my hearing aid. He said that he no longer had to worry about his daughter’s future. He saw I was Deaf, and that I was dancing. He was sure his child could have an amazing future. A few months after that I added a line to my bio that I was Deaf. I didn’t want to label myself, but I want people to know that they can have a normal life. I have to be on the front line now.

Antoine Hunter/Urban Jazz Dance Company performs June 29-30 at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. For more information visit worldartswest.org

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.