Interview with Tim Vail, Deaf Lindy Hopper
Tim Vail is a Lindy Hopper in Rochester New York. At a workshop weekend we taught there, Kate danced with Tim, and only after dancing, when he signed the words “thank you,” did she realize he was deaf. Around this time I myself was thinking of my teaching in terms of its visual impact versus the things I said. My first thought was to interview Tim, who could not only talk a lot about his unique experience as a student, but also possibly open up our minds about how dance can be experienced.
How did you become deaf?
I wasn’t born deaf. I lost my hearing at 3 years old due to Spinal Meningitis. I’ve been classified as profoundly deaf — I don’t hear even loud noises that hurt other people’s ears. I don’t remember hearing.
How did you first get interested in swing dancing?
I grew up going to a non-denominational Pentecostal church. In my church, we were encouraged to dance, use flags, or whatever during the worship service. My dad and I enjoyed dancing during the worship service, so I learned to like dancing in the first place.
In college, one Friday night, there was a joint event with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and RIT Swing Club. There I discovered that some of the IVCF girls that I had a bit of interest in were already part of the swing club. I joined, found out that Beth, who was already my friend, was the teacher. Back story about Beth — she was the first interpreter I ever had at RIT — first day of class, first class I went to, Beth was my interpreter.
Guess what, this was also Beth’s first ever class as a full-time interpreter — she was fresh out of the interpreting program. Anyways, I stuck to it after that day, even when my IV friends stopped coming or moved away. I suppose part of the reason why I stuck to it is because Beth was a great encourager — she said that one day I’ll be a great dancer.
Can you walk us through the experience of what a dance is like for you? Having arrived at a dance, you go up to a follower and…
As for how I ask the follower, I usually sign ‘dance’ with my eyebrow raised, sometimes a quick ‘come’ glance towards the floor. I’ve never had problem with anybody misunderstanding my requests.
As for what a dance is like — I wrote a poem to answer that question years
ago. See here:
One thing you would notice is I do not particularly think of my dancing as much different from anybody else’s. I learned, I practiced, and I worked at it just like everybody else. There might be things that we need to work on a bit more. I developed sensitivity to the music as years went by — at this point I can usually feel the music going through my back. Rhythm is an inherent part of ASL in the first place, and deaf people have experimented with visual music. See this video for an example (based on Will Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” but she made her own music and message):
In a sense, dancing should be music made visible, and in that sense it is probably more accessible to deaf people than most people realize. What is really different is we pick it up, and sense it in a different way. In that sense, figuring out how to convey the rhythm to deaf people without relying on hearing (remember a lot of the vibrations can be felt) is probably the only barrier there really is. Lots of time, people try clapping, but for me it depends on HOW you clap. Simple clapping without conveying the full range of rhythm has never worked for me. It might work for other deaf people. But it doesn’t work for me — what I find works best is if while clapping, you also sort of move your body with the rhythm.
Funny thing about this is: when I was growing up, I loved to watch the female gymnasts at the Olympics. While I was watching it, during the floor exercise, I often found my knees moving back and forth to some rhythm based on what I was seeing! I don’t think the TV volume was loud enough for me to pick it up — I’m pretty sure I picked it up entirely by watching the gymnasts. This was before I learned Lindy.
Do you recognize certain songs? If so, what tips you off? Do they have a specific vibrations? Do followers and dancers around you react the same way? The speed?
No, I don’t recognize songs. That doesn’t, however, mean that while I’m dancing that I won’t sense a familiar pattern that is coming up in a song that I’ve danced to in the past. I wouldn’t call it recognition, but rather familiarity with the song itself. It is tough for me to even recognize genre, but with time I think I have some basic genre recognition. At least to the extent that is useful for determining how to dance to those particular songs — like what type of dancing fits those songs.
You also need to keep in mind that I have made zero effort to learn what different songs are played in the first place. Most hearing people who dance also enjoy listening to some of that same music in their own time for enjoyment. If I wanted to explore it more — play the songs at home to enjoy the vibration — I could develop recognition for certain songs.
There are deaf people who like to play music really loud just so they can feel the beat. I’m not that type of person. I just like dancing to the music, I’ve never really cared about playing music just to feel the vibration. Now, I do, at times, enjoy just sitting on the floor near the band to feel the vibration. I’d say that is more of an acquired taste from the time when I was trying to improve my ability to sense the music and learn to allow the music to inspire me to move certain ways. I don’t even have sound equipment at my home.
I imagine watching swing dancers without music creates a new perspective. Who/what types are your favorite dancers to watch, and why?
As for dancers who I enjoy watching — if I can feel the music while watching them, that is awesome. Also, if they are able to convey the mood of the music well (good body language, facial expression, etc), I probably would appreciate that more than hearing people might. That said, chances are if hearing people liked a dance, I’d probably like it too. It is just that my reason might be different — instead of seeing how the moves correlate with the subtlety in the music, I see the subtlety of the music and how it plays with their personality in their moves.
Also, a second part to that question: Who/what type are your favorite followers to dance with? Do certain followers do certain things that make it easier or harder to dance with?
As for favorite followers — I tend to like followers who are expressive, interactive, have good rhythm, and a gentle connection. You see, good rhythm doesn’t mean that you have to bounce all over the place — I can feel it just fine if it is nice and gentle. I don’t think you can say that my preferences are totally due to being deaf, though. I’m naturally drawn to girls who have an independent and expressive nature. That said, followers who have good rhythm and aren’t shy about expressing their interpretation of the music do help me have more confidence in what I’m doing.
When the music isn’t quite loud enough to be felt, sometimes the follower actually is the main link I have to the music.
Going back a bit to the question about what the dance is like to me — I think people need to realize that I don’t have super powers. There is lot I can pick up when I’m out dancing that you might not be aware of. However, if the music is quiet, I’m on concrete floor (try stomping on concrete and see if you can feel it a foot away), and the follower doesn’t have any rhythm — I kind of doubt I’ll be following the music. All I would have to go by is what I see other people do, and I find that only gives me a rough approximation — especially when the song is fast.
What was your learning process like when you first began taking classes? What difficulties did you face, and do you feel you had any benefits in learning?
When I first started taking classes, I had an interpreter every week since it was at RIT Swing Club, and they provide interpreters for club activities. I really don’t think my learning was much different from anybody else’s. Sure, sometimes I was off the beat from time to time, but the thing is that the things that they try to do to fix it often didn’t work. It is like you either have the rhythm or you don’t. I really think that developing the rhythm I have today, and my sensitivity to the music took time. Even today I’m still learning and improving on that front. What I’ve been working on for the past year is to maintain the rhythm I’m sensing throughout all my moves. I’ve pretty much been reworking lot of my dancing for the past year.
Keep in mind, some of this is no different for hearing people. There are plenty who can hear just fine who for one reason or another just are not getting the rhythm. Sometimes out of laziness, they are actually choosing to ignore the music a bit because they find it more fun to just do what they would like to do. I probably do the same from time to time because after all, the point of dancing is to have fun anyways. I do find it more fun to follow a good song, though!
Are there things teachers do that greatly affect your learning experience, good and bad?
I guess demonstrating more, and showing the breakdown of the moves makes it easier if I don’t have an interpreter. The rhythm aspect is easier to see if they also move to the rhythm clearly. If there is a particular syncopation or something odd like that — simplifying the target move and to show only the rhythm, or to show what other simpler move we are deriving the new thing from can help a lot. I think that is sort of a classic Steven and Virginie technique.
I’ve had teachers who would be willing to count things out with me sometimes if I’m not picking it up — that helps too. I’m a logical person, so many times if I’m not feeling the rhythm — if you can tell it to me by counting it out, I can get it more easily. Sometimes, I still do run into situations that everybody else runs into — where we know what we need to do, but can’t make our body do it.
As for the bad: what is bad (especially if I don’t have an interpreter) is to be unclear on what part we are working on. This is a big problem in routine classes — sometimes I don’t know what part we are starting at. There is a teaching couple out there that at times has a tendency to change things in the middle of the class — like move x, then 2 swingouts, then move y. Then next time, it is not 2 swingouts, but 1, and I’m doing the second swingout, and see everybody doing the next move. At first it was utterly frustrating for me because I didn’t even realize they were changing it and thought I was forgetting every time. Usually I don’t count — I go by what I’m feeling, which is usually accurate. It wasn’t until one time I actually counted and caught that the count of swingouts changed that it hit me why that class was so confusing. I guess the bottom line here is: it could be a good idea to try to set up some visual cues as to where and what we are working on so I don’t have to guess. And don’t you dare change the number of swingouts between different moves based on which way the wind is blowing!
Do you do other forms of dancing?
Outside Lindy, Blues, Balboa circle, not really. I’ve dabbled a bit with Tango years back, and have thought of getting back to it from time to time, but it has never happened.
What is your favorite thing about Lindy Hop and swing dancing?
It is usually energetic and uplifting while at the same time encouraging creativity. Honestly, sometimes the best part might not be the dance, but rather the people. We have an awesome community.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your unique experience in Lindy Hop and dancing that I didn’t cover or ask about in this interview?
I’ve got to say one of my favorite recent trends is that I’ve been running into more and more Lindy people who are learning or have learned ASL. I’m aware of a larger trend towards that, but I really appreciate it! Don’t be shy about using whatever little that you do know if you see me out there on the dance floor. It is actually one of my dreams that one day everybody will know both a visual and a verbal language, and use both with each other just like any other language. In another words, there is no reason why ASL should only be used when communicating with deaf people. There are times and places where knowing ASL is advantageous.
You don’t have to yell through windows, you can talk underwater just as easily as on land (scuba), you can talk at ease across the room in a busy social settings. For dancers, you can talk at ease without raising your voices in a room with loud music. There have been times in history where everybody knew a visual language. Native Americans had both a visual language they used across tribes while each tribe had their own spoken language. They saw their deaf members on equal footing as everybody else.
It is like everybody is normal until you get to know them. When you get to know somebody, you might find things you might not like about them, or that something is weird about them. At that point, you have the sometimes tough choices: do you love and accept them anyways? When it comes to people who seem different at first, I think this dynamic works in reverse. They seem different until you get to know them, then you realize they are just like everybody else.
[Dear Readers, I figured some of you might have some questions for Tim, so I asked if he wouldn’t mind if we opened this up to some general discussion. Basically, if you ask him some questions, beginning with “TIM:” he’d be happy to answer them under your comment as soon as he can get around to them. Thanks, Tim!]