The campus of Gallaudet College is usually a pretty quiet place, except near the dance studio, where music often comes booming out the doors from the biggest speakers on campus. This is where Sue Gill teaches her aerobics dance class.
Inside the bright studio, 23 young men and women watch their instructor with intense concentration and follow as she moves lithely through her carefully choreographed routines.
The class looks just like any other intermediate aerobics class. The instructor is bubbly and energetic. The students, their faces red and shiny with sweat, clap and kick in rhythm with the music.
The only way an observer would know the students are deaf and their instructor is hard of hearing is by carefully watching Gill's hands, which are in constant motion.
They flit through the air like trained butterflies as they count out beats and impart instructions in sign language. Sometimes her hands sing with the music.
Gill's face and hands are expressive as she leads the class. "Breathe," she says, using both her hands and voice. She pantomimes tugging a string above her head to remind them to keep their backs straight.
Though Gill and a few of the students can hear the music when it is turned up very loud, most rely on visual language for instruction and depend on a constant eight-count to keep them with the beat of the music.
Gill uses music in her classes because she likes it, and because even if many of the students can't hear it, they can feel the vibrations in their breast bones. For that reason, she chooses songs with a heavy bass beat.
Aerobic dance is a relatively new option for the students of Gallaudet, the country's only college for the deaf. Gill, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from the college, has taught the aerobics class through the college's intramural program since fall, but her interest and skill in dance extends far beyond aerobics.
No longer a student, 25-year-old Gill now works part-time as assistant director of the dance company and part-time for the college's intermural program. She is a choreographer for Talking Hands, a professional company that incorporates sign language into dance, and she dances with Deaf Dimensions, a troupe that performs in the Washington area.
Although Gill has been told repeatedly that she could dance professionally if she chose to, she has decided instead to teach dance to the deaf.
Teaching dance to those who can't hear is in many ways the same as teaching it to those who can, Gill says. In both cases, learning a new routine involves watching and imitating the instructor and memorizing where the steps fall in an eight count.
"I use my hands to communicate, of course. I demonstrate the steps. Then I give them the count," she says. "Like this: hold, two, three, four -- turn, five, six -- kick, seven, eight."
One of the differences is that deaf dancers must work much harder on rhythm, because they don't have the external cues provided by music. Each time her students begin learning a routine to a new song, Gill has them "learn the music" by sitting on the speakers to feel the beat. That way they get a feeling for how fast they should count.
"We work on the rhythm first," Gill says. "They follow me and we do the dance over and over again. We don't work on technique until we get the rhythm down. We probably rehearse more than hearing dancers."
Gill is an all-around talented athlete, but she chose dancing because it allows her the chance to be creative. "It's a form of communication. I like the interaction with the audience."
Watching her strut on stage at Gallaudet's spring dance concert in glittery black leotard and bow tie, doffing top hat and kicking with toes pointed to the sky, the entranced audience could not tell she was hearing only snatches of the song "New York, New York."
Gallaudet's dance instructor Diane Hottendorf says you don't have to hear the music to be a dancer. "Rhythm is internal," she explains. Though dance and music are interwoven in most people's minds, Hottendorf says, "they are really two separate arts. Dance does not depend on music. It can stand on its own."
Hottendorf, who had no experience with the deaf before coming to Gallaudet nearly four years ago, says dance is actually one of the easier disciplines to teach deaf people because they are visual learners. "Their language is movement."
Hottendorf, who hired Gill as assistant director in 1983, says it's important to have deaf leadership in the dance program, since few deaf youngsters are exposed to people like themselves who dance. "Sue serves as sort of a bridge between the hearing and deaf world."
Gill's hearing is rated at 67 decibels without hearing aids, meaning a sound has to reach that level before she can hear it. Without a hearing aid, she can't hear normal conversation, but she can hear a phone ring if she is in the same room or can faintly hear someone shouting, or speaking close to her ear. With two hearing aids, her hearing is about 40 decibels, which means she can faintly hear someone speaking normally at three feet.
Her hearing loss was not diagnosed by doctors until she was 5, though her parents suspected something was wrong much earlier.
Dolly and Charles Gill both have normal hearing, but they knew the signs of deafness in a child. Their eldest son, Ken, seven years older than Sue, is profoundly deaf. But because Sue learned to read lips so well, she fooled doctors and confused her parents.
Her parents decided to test Sue themselves when she was 5, Charles Gill says. "We put our hands over our mouths and spoke to her. And she couldn't hear us."
Even though the family moved to Trenton, N.J., so Ken could attend the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf and still live at home, Sue attended public school. These were the days before public schools made special provisions for the handicapped, but her parents believed that, since she had some hearing, she would benefit from the challenge of public school. They also started her working with a speech therapist very young.
School was never easy for Sue because she missed large chunks of what the teachers said. But she was determined to succeed, always sitting in the front row and working many extra hours with her mother in the evenings, so she got through grade school and high school with decent grades.
Dancing, on the other hand, came easily from the start.
When Sue was 7, a friend gave her a blue tutu. "That was it," she says. "I decided I wanted to be a dancer."
Her parents put their hard-of-hearing daughter in a ballet class at the Stewart-Johnson Dance Academy in Trenton. The Gills loved to dance and several years earlier they had enrolled their two sons -- one hearing, one deaf -- in dance class. The deaf son had been the best dancer in the class.
Sue followed her brother's lead. "Dancing came easy for me," she says. "Memorizing the steps came easy."
She danced at home on the kitchen floor and her father put a ballet bar in the basement. Her parents never had to remind her to practice.
Sue kept up so well that sometimes her teacher forgot she couldn't hear.
Her mother remembers attending one dance class. The teacher was trying to tell Sue her knee was pointed wrong, but she had her back to the teacher and wasn't getting the message. Her mother finally had to remind the teacher, "She can't hear you."
All told, Sue took 12 years of ballet, 11 years of tap and eight years of jazz dancing at the academy. These days she dances in her folks' kitchen with her 12-year-old niece, the hearing daughter of two deaf parents, who attends the same academy.
"Dancing gave me a lot more confidence. I was really shy when I was little. Dancing pulled me out," Gill says.
By the time she reached high school, Gill was anything but shy. She was a swim team member, varsity basketball cheerleader, a yearbook editor, and of course, a dancer. Because she had some hearing and read lips and spoke so well, she continued to fool people as she had earlier fooled the doctors. Some of her closest friends in high school didn't know she was deaf.
But when she enrolled at Gallaudet, her attitude about her deafness changed.
"For the first time I saw deaf girls in ponytails with their hearing aids showing," she says. "I was so mad that I'd worn my hair over my ears all those years. I didn't have to hide it."
In her years at Gallaudet, she became fluent in sign language and learned to accept herself for who she was. "I'm not a hearing person. I'm a hard-of-hearing person. I'm me."
Her long-range goals are to earn her PhD and to have her own dance studio for deaf youngsters. Setting an example is important to Gill. She'd like to help deaf children learn to accept themselves, as she did. "I have a strong commitment to deaf people . . . I like the idea that I'm a good role model for deaf kids."
Teaching hard-of-hearing children to dance is a painstaking process. "You have to work a lot on the rhythm. It takes a lot of time," Gill says. "First you let them touch the speakers so they can feel the vibrations. Then you have to help them start the dance. Cues are very important."
Though others say she could dance professionally, she would prefer to teach. She wants to help deaf youngsters learn to accept themselves as she did. "My heart will always be with the deaf."