Is it possible to tap dance with hearing impairment?

Two years ago Weronika, a student of education of the deaf, came to me and told me she’d like to learn how to tap dance even though she’s deaf and visually impaired. I had no idea how our collaboration will look like because I hadn’t had any experience with someone who has a severe hearing loss. But from the beginning, I saw her enthusiasm and willingness to learn. She kept practicing at home, making progress quickly, and learning new steps faster than most of the other students. During classes, I’ve learned to speak louder and clearer. Also, I managed to show things with my hands and clap rhythms more often. Weronika’s found in the classroom the best place for her vision and hearing and, despite some additional difficulties, e.g. problem with balancing, she taps well, performs with the group during concerts. Also, she shows interest in tap dancing as hardly anyone – I have probably lent her all the tap books I have  J Recently she told me that tap dancing changed her life – I feel that her presence has changed mine, too.

From the left: Weronika Gozdalik and Martyna Jankowska preparing for the 5th Year Anniversary Tip Tap Gala
photo by Piotr Zacheja

Anula Kołakowska: Tell me how did your tap dancing story begin? Why did you find this dance technique most interesting for you?

Weronika Gozdalik: That’s a long story. I don’t know if it’s interesting, but I’ll tell it.  As an eight-year-old girl, I fell in love with the movie „Happy Feet”. I didn’t know for a long time what this penguin did there, but I liked it, so I thought about it intensively. After some time I grew up and became an advanced Internet user. At that time tap dance was something I couldn’t stop watching. Also, I found your Tip Tap school and wanted to start tap dancing. But there was a huge problem – I lived too far from Warsaw. And finally, instead of going to prom, I went to the theater for “Stepping out” where you did the choreography.I was so amazed that I’ve made everything I could to start dancing at your school. Then tons of coincidences took place and I came there much earlier than I’d planned.

AK: I know you have a hearing impairment, tell me how big is your hearing loss?

WG: In a professional language, my hearing loss is called „profound” and that means that I’m unable to hear almost anything. Without my devices or other „boosters”, I can’t hear a human voice, phone, dog barking, and most of the instruments. I would only hear a scream, a plane, or a jackhammer from up close.

AK: As far as I know, you wear a hearing aid every day. Do you also wear it for tap dancing classes?

WG: Yes, but not one. I have 2. First of them is a hearing aid, which just makes sounds louder, and second is a cochlear implant. This device is much more advanced. In short: on my ear, I have a sound processor. Its microphone takes every sound from the environment and converts them to electric impulses. Through the cable, it goes to a coil, which sticks to my head due to a magnet, which is attached to my skull. And finally, the impulses are sent through the electrode array to my cochlea. There, 12 electrodes have to replace thousands of hearing cells. For this reason, I cannot hear the same way as hearing people, it is a completely different sound. But… It doesn’t change the fact that I like to call my devices as my ‘ears’ because my natural now are just a form of declaration.

AK: I wonder if you adjust the volume in your devices somehow? After all, during tap dancing lessons where there are a dozen or so people, it is very loud and the volume of sounds is much higher than in everyday situations.

WG: No, I don’t do it during the class. I think all-or-nothing. It’s comfortable – I keep my „ears” on. There is any kind of discomfort – I take them off. I have to admit that „discomfort” is, unfortunately, too small word. My devices (as befits electronics), colloquially speaking, often do not catch. It happens when the group is big, we dance quickly and not to the rhythm. Then, every sound impulse that reaches me, I feel as if someone was stabbing something sharp in my head and hitting it simultaneously. That’s a bad feeling, but easy to get rid of.

AK: How do you work during tap dancing classes? How do you hear the sounds, feel them, and how do you learn new steps?

WG: I rarely think about it. I just use everything I can and I am always looking for new ways to deal with it. In addition to deafness, I also have a vision impairment (I see about 25% of what people with good vision), so I don’t hide that the situation is not easy. I have my „ears” but I don’t get all the information. Let’s take an example sentence related to the tap dance. I receive this with my ears: if y__r a__ aren’t __ed, you __ __ __ to do the __.„. Add to this a situation where you, as an instructor, have light-colored shoes and pants, so your legs blend with the floor. I don’t really know what’s going on. I have to figure it out and analyze the situation closely. I look at others: oh, they do flaps. I do them too. It also happens that you overdo something with your whole body to emphasize what to do. Mostly I guess what technical thing you are talking about. The above example sentence is about a loose ankle. What’s next: before performing any combination of exercise, you often clap the tempo or rhythm, so you know when we do fast, when slow. Returning to the sentence – let’s assume that with each repetition you require an ever-faster tempo. The more I try and connect, I just start to feel and guess – I can’t do flaps quickly until the ankle loosens. This is how it looks – classes are for me a time of in-depth analysis and synthesis of what’s happening around me. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes you won’t show something (e.g. right or left), I won’t focus enough or something else and I just don’t know what we are doing. If I can, I ask, and if I don’t notice that we are supposed to do something at all, then – you can see it yourself – I stop and… stand, because what else can I do?

AK: I wonder if there is any difference between low and high sounds for you? Do you hear any better or worse?

WG: As my hearing loss was smaller (and I had no implant), I had a very rare type of hearing loss – I heard high frequencies better than low. For this reason, even if the implant is set up so that I receive high and low sounds with the same volume, my brain has a problem with analyzing low sounds.

AK: I remember that before one of the performances you asked me to count you when to come from backstage because you couldn’t hear music. How do you feel it exactly and how do you tap the choreographies with music, can you hear it?

WG: Basically no. There are some songs that I can catch somewhere, but I usually only hear the sounds of the taps. If there is any music I hear, it’s never when we tap. Either one or the other. I can’t connect these sounds in my head.

AK: So how do you feel the music, sounds, rhythms, what senses do you use?

WG: Each of them. Well … maybe beyond taste. But even smell has its major part here. Pedagogically speaking, I am compensating, in other words, I replace or supplement with other senses what my eyesight and hearing do not provide me. The easiest way to tell about it is to talk about class. I enter the room; I can smell it immediately. During renovations, it changes a bit, but some element always remains the same. I associate it specifically with classes, so I automatically focus on a different mode of operation – maximum focus on every detail that reaches me. As I mentioned earlier, I am lucky to hear the sound of the taps, and this gives a solid foundation. With my eyes, I try to supplement what I hear of what we should do with the feet and the rest of the body. It varies here, but the sense of touch helps me a lot. I often don’t see the difference between e.g. a tap and a stomp, but I can feel it with vibrations from the floor – the vibrations are completely different. I told you earlier that I can’t hear music, but again, I feel it. Few people know that the human body is a great conductor of sound waves. Sounds from around 50 dB (this is the volume of e.g. a normal conversation) constantly pass through our bones. Hearing people usually feel only loud noises, because with „normal” hearing they focus more on what they hear than feel. When it comes to learning new steps, I have one problem. I remember body movements and rhythms separately. The first of them is going slower, even though I am a kinesthetic learner, but I learn the rhythms at once. Here, I use something that every day is in a sense my „curse” – tinnitus. I can hear sounds all the time, which are a product of my brain. You can’t get rid of them, which is very annoying, but … not during classes. I have specific tinnitus because they are no squeaks and murmurs, as usual, but so-called musical tinnitus. It means that they are changeable and can take different forms, even sounds that I have never heard in real life. When I listen to a rhythm in class, a specific melody is created in my head. It is a combination of the sound of the taps with my „personal” sounds. These melodies can be so beautiful that it’s a pity that only I can hear them… Anyway – my senses are working at a full speed. I have many other „supplemental mechanisms”, but I won’t talk about them, because it’s already been a long text. Importantly, at the end of the class, my brain is exhausted, which is why I’m glad we don’t do anything new anymore.

AK: What makes you the most difficult to learn tap dance?

WG: I don’t get along with balance. Sight and hearing are two elements out of three that allow a person to maintain balance, hence so many problems. I still have difficulty dancing smoothly. When it comes to learning how to tap, the worst thing is the lack of access to complete information. It takes a long time for me to „feel” a new instructor, I don’t hear detailed instructions, any anecdotes or stories in class. I also don’t have the opportunity to fully participate in the social life of tap dancers, which is so important. It saddens me a lot, but I try to socialize as much as possible.

AK: I love tap dancing for the sound and freedom it gives us in the transmission of rhythm and movement. Is there something you like the most about tap dancing and why?

WG: Freedom. I danced various styles and most often some stiff boundaries were there. Also, what I really like is that you don’t have to tap to the music at all. It seems to me that there are few dancers who decide to dance acapella, but in my opinion, it is a really great form of tap dancing. It seems quite difficult because the groove must be taken and kept from the „inside” – there is no external stimulus that would „lead” the dancer. I secretly dream that I’ll be able to go in this direction one day. Deep down, I feel this is it. After all, nothing disturbs my inner melodies!