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!]

15 responses to “Interview with Tim Vail, Deaf Lindy Hopper”

  1. Tim, just wanted to let you know that it was really awesome to see where your future took you and to see the things you’re involved in. I knew that you were pursue your career, but it was cool to see your pastimes too. Especially as I remember you dancing at church! Blessings to you from your “Dove Family.”

  2. Great interview! I appreciate Tim’s perspective on effective and ineffective teaching. Reinforces how much we fall back on our words to communicate when dancing is such a felt and embodied experience. Thank you for sharing!

  3. TIM: Lindy and Blues both encourage expressing pulse and rhythm to greater degree than most other partnered dances. Do you think this played a part in making them more accessible or interesting to you than e.g. Tango?

  4. Jon: For Tango — I just couldn’t get comfortable with the mood/atmosphere inherent in Tango the few times that I went to milongas. Considering that reason, I don’t think that pulse and rhythm emphasis had anything to do with it. As a matter of fact, I think I was doing fairly well for the little I did know.

    I think balboa pulse was always the easiest for me to get from day 1. Actually, I think I’m quite fortunate that I’ve been getting more into balboa since that dance has forced me to be more precise with things, pulse included.

    The thing lot of people might not know is that for nearly 10 years, I danced lindy without paying much attention to the pulse. It is only in the past year that I’ve been working on correcting my own pulse in lindy, and getting it right in the few times I do blues. It has been tough for me, to be honest. I wish I had learned this stuff when I was first starting. I’ve noticed that it is a more recent trend for teachers to emphasize the lindy pulse, which I think is a really good thing — not only for those who can hear, but also those who can’t.

    What I’m finding is that it kind of feels like learning how to lindy all over again. What I used to do to keep in time with the music no longer worked, and I had to discard bunch of moves from my dancing since I couldn’t figure out how to do it while keeping track of the pulse. One unfortunate side effect is that sometimes I find it even harder to dance with new or intermediate followers who don’t have clear pulse. I do think that with time, I’ll figure out a way to do that, but this is where I’m at currently.

  5. TIM: Assuming the beat that you’re feeling is the dominate, bass-driven beat…let’s say I’m feeling something lighter that might not be felt through the floor, riffs from the horns…if I’m your follow and I’m playing around with that, how does it affect your lead? Do you think that this sort of different interpretation of the beat is not necessarily different from how two hearing dancers could interpret the different parts of the song?

  6. Fenn: Yeah, it is probably not much different from how two hearing dancers interpret the different parts of the song. I don’t think I’ve had problems with followers who play around — chances are if they are playing around with something, I’ll respond in kind.

    I also don’t think that the assumption about feeling only the bass is accurate, though. I’ve had times when I could feel and appreciate a soft piano music, and tell the difference between a regular guitar playing and slide guitar. Virginie has remarked that at times I’ve responded to things in the music that she knew that I did not get from her. I usually find that what makes it more difficult for me is if the music is quiet than anything else. That is another reason why I tend to like live music better — because I get more of a sense that the music is filling the room with live music than anything else.

  7. Hey Tim, really interesting read. I like this aspect of where you said: …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…

    In some cases, I think lindy dancers who have reached a certiain level with their dancing should start thinking and incorporating exactly what you have described here. Especially when watching the more experienced dancers on the floor.

  8. TIM: We’ve danced together a number of times – always fun! I appreciate your words here on what makes a dance fun, or what makes a follow fun.

  9. This was quite an interesting interview, and I’m sitting here just thinking …wow! It gives a great perspective, and touched on things that would have never even occurred to me. Thanks for this, I really enjoyed it!

  10. TIM: Hello!

    We’re from Brazil and yesterday we published a translation of part of your interview on our page.
    We’re all so amazed by this history and your sensitivity to talk about this.
    Be sure stories like your give us very proud to be part of the global community of Lindy Hop.

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