Antoine Hunter by RJ Muna. Courtesy of World Arts West

For the fourth year in a row, a festival featuring Deaf and hard of hearing dancers opens at Dance Mission theater Friday, August 12 and runs through August 14, featuring styles ranging from belly dancing to hip hop, ballet to Afro-modern, and even sign language from other parts of the world.

The festival brings with it not just expressive movement by Deaf dancers, but a battery of role models – that’s how Antoine Hunter, a dancer, choreographer, and organizer of the festival, highlights some of the performers.

“It’s important that we have more role model for young black girl. Like for my little girl Zula. I want her see strong Black women doing what they love in a positive way. I would tell about Michelle Obama, Lenda Murray, Serena William, Racha Lawler or like my mother Charlotte Mitchell. We must give our child [role models],” Hunter wrote in an email. “I want more Deaf Asian people to feel they have a place to celebrate their culture to and be consider hero in our community. I don’t get to see Deaf Asian often professionally dancing.”

This year, Hunter renamed the festival to reflect its increasingly broad reach: Because of continued interest from dance companies overseas in joining the festival, it’s now the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival.

“Each year I thought it would grow slowly but dang it growing faster and faster!” Hunter wrote.

Having dancers from India, London, Israel, Mexico, Costa Rica, Turkey and more means Hunter has been learning sign language from around the world, and the festival has brought together dancers ranging in age from their teens to their 50s.

It’s not just the dancers who are representing the Deaf community in theater. This year, a Deaf sound and lighting engineer joins the festival and set up the first two rows of seats with a system that sends extra vibrations through the seats so those for whom the music may not be audible can feel it better.

Throughout his work, which includes directing the Urban Jazz Dance Company, Hunter encourages Deaf individuals to lead. He is fully deaf in both ears and uses American Sign Language, but works with both hearing and Deaf dancers.

“It’s very important I do not leave hearing or Deaf dancer out. These dancers have to find a way to work together,” he wrote. “I find music and movement that communicate with Deaf and Hearing… I encourage Deaf dancer to risk [it] all and lead… Hearing dance sometimes focus too much on music and body dancing less or dancing on music tempo instead dance tempo.”

Hunter’s work is inspired, he wrote, by the people of Oakland and the Bay Area – their push to make their voices heard, to be seen.

“I tell people we need to be louder, to be known. Like, DEAF LOUDER!!!” he wrote.

One of the reasons that’s important? For hearing audiences, the festival is a chance to explore Deaf culture and perhaps challenge some stereotypes – TV and media, Hunter said, often inaccurately indicate that Deaf people cannot drive, read, or work.

“Hearing will learn about Deaf dance, Deaf arts, Deaf language from all over the world,” he wrote.

For a glimpse of the dancer’s work check out this KQEDArts video:

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