When I applied for the Davidson in Ghana program I believed I would be pursuing ethics in the clinical setting of Ghana. Because study abroad applications are a stress endured much too early in regards to the study abroad itinerary, my interests in clinical ethics began to dwindle. So when Dr. Cho asked what I wanted my individual project to be, I turned to something I knew I would never lose interest in: dance.
I told Dr. Cho about my interest in dance, but my desire to make this program contribute to my pre-med experience as well. She keenly informed me that Mr. Hooper, the artistic director for the School of African Rhythm and Dance (SARD), also worked at a school for deaf children. I grew excited at this new information and I settled on a dance apprenticeship with Mr. Hooper at Cape Deaf, School for the Deaf and Blind.
Upon the start of the program, I realized my situation would be a little bit more complex than those of the others. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we have class in the morning and SARD practice in the late afternoon. On Mondays and Wednesdays we have our individual projects. And Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, we were swept away on excursions.
Most of the students at Cape Deaf lived at school, and so for some maintenance reason, the school was closed on Wednesdays. Mr. Hooper told me to come to Cape Deaf on Monday mornings and Thursdays between class and SARD.
The first Monday I went, I was slightly disappointed that Mr. Hooper took me to a hall and worked with me individually for a few hours. I was prepared to watch a group of deaf students learn how to dance. But this wasn’t the case. Still, I couldn’t be upset because I was learning traditional dances of Ghana. I was still being immersed in the culture. At the end of our session, I asked Mr. Hooper quietly if I would get to see the kids dance at all. He said of course. Culture class is on Thursdays. And so I suppressed my disappointment and waited patiently.
Tony and I arrived right after class ended (Tony wanted to train a bit more in drumming and so asked to accompany me on Thursdays). I was prepared to take part in some kind of observational research on the way they would teach deaf children to dance. I had somewhat convinced myself that dance was a therapeutic mechanism which could be imposed upon people with disability to help them feel—I hate to say it but—normal.
Oh, I was so wrong.
Mr. Hooper and three other drummers sat in the front of the same hall I had been taken to on Monday. About eighty Ghanaian kids, ranging from the ages of ten to fourteen, stood at the back of the hall, mingling and joking with each other in sign language. Mr. Hooper called their attention and they began.
The bell chimed and the drums vibrated throughout the hall. Dozens of bodies, which had been clumped together only moments before, circled the room and filed into neat lines, bouncing with the rhythm that coursed through their bodies. The drum beat changed (Mr. Hooper says that African dance works like a TV where the drum acts as the remote, playing a different beat before the dancer changes movements). And just like the channel being switched, the children switched movements. They were incredibly synchronized.
I watched in astonishment. How? How could they hear it? I had filled my head with impressions that these kids were vulnerable, that they needed help along the process of learning how to dance, that dancing itself was miraculous for them.
For one second, I imagined what it would be like not to hear those drums. I allowed myself to indulge in my other senses. And I realized, with a jolt, that I had been ignoring the vibrations. Sure the beats were ringing in my ears, but the molecules in my skin were dancing with the rhythm. The hairs on my arms were bouncing with the children and my heart beat alongside the bass drum.
They don’t hear the music, they feel it. They take it in with their bodies because their ears don’t obey them. And I began to feel irritated with myself for making such conclusive assumptions about the people I would be interacting with.
They knew the Kuukuu dance that the entire program was learning at SARD, so Mr. Hooper asked Tony and me to dance as well.
Mr. Hooper placed me in the front row next to Richard, a short boy with a happy face whose body was lined with lean, effortless muscle. As the music began, I very quickly realized my shortcomings. Even though I had been practicing the dance with my fellow Davidson students, I had issues noticing the cues and interpreting the drum language. I relied on my ears to distinguish between the four drums and the bell. But Richard, right next to me, flew through the movements, starting on cue and flowing with the beat no matter how many instruments played at once.
As the weeks passed, I learned to feel the music reverberate around me. I learned to dance like Richard. I learned to use my senses like Victoria, Mensah, and John.
I wished so badly I had learned sign language before embarking on this program. I wanted to communicate with them, to talk with them and understand their lives, because—unlike my previous assumptions—their lives are normal. They make jokes and bully each other. They go to school and do laundry. They smile and have audible laughs that none of them can hear, but they still go out of their way to crack a smile. I wanted to be normal like them. I wanted to communicate without staring blankly at some hand symbols before asking Victoria to spell out what she means. And most of all, I wanted to feel the music like them, because their ability to dance is not miraculous, but ordinary.
I have become close to Victoria over the past few weeks. And, hopefully, she’ll come to watch our graduation performance next week. We’ll definitely exchange emails and keep in contact.
I just hope I never forget what it’s like to use all my senses equally. And I hope I never, ever, ever make assumptions about people’s ability and inability again.
Disability is not inability.