American Sign Language is a dance through the air, just as tap, ballet, modern, hip hop, etc. are dances primarily on the floor. For many years it was simply the language of those who had trouble hearing. At one time, in the not too distant past signing had a stigma attached, and was rarely seen in public. Then the interpreter program was born in the seventies, and with it came artistic signing for plays, operas, music and poems. The National Theatre of the Deaf, founded in the mid sixties, did much to enchant people with the beauty and mystery of dancing in the air. Finally it became an artistic addition to performance art, by those who know the language intimately, and those who want to use it to enhance a staged piece. In the latter case, a few signs are learned from someone who knows the language, or are picked up in an ASL dictionary.
As evidenced by the recent festival Dance a World of Hope, sign language has hit the world of SDG big time. From the Festival Song Hope written and choreographed by Emmalyn Moreno to the flash dance All Night Long choreographed by Elaine Sisler, to the workshop given by Mary Joy Neuru, ASL was everywhere. There may have been other instances of which I was unaware. But the participants learned the signs enthusiastically, and looked great in performances. Surely ASL has arrived in the Guild! Previously it was seen primarily in my Sharing and Concert pieces, and the beautiful Sharings brought by Merle Wade and her group Shekinah Praise Dance Ministry. Dianne Eno’s gift of Native American Sign Language was another marvelous addition this year.
My native language is ASL since my parents were both deaf, and it was the first language I used in the home. I remember the stigma the deaf community felt when I was young. I have also worked extensively with the National Theater of the Deaf, earned a living for many years interpreting plays and concerts, and teaching ASL in colleges, private high schools and adult evening courses. Many people have hired me to coach them, particularly in getting ready for a performance in which ASL would be used. Therefore I also know the fascination and attraction many have found with this airborne dance.
For those of you who would like to give it a try or improve your skills, I humbly offer some helpful tips. In learning a sign there are four elements that need to be strictly followed. If not, you may be signing nothing, or something not intended. When learning a sign from a person be sure you note all of these elements, perhaps write them down. If you are learning from a book or a website, of which there are many good ones, make sure there are words explaining each of these elements. DO NOT use a book or source with pictures and arrows only. Handspeak.com and aslpro.com are very good websites; the latter includes a comprehensive religious dictionary. For those of you who still prefer books I would recommend Martin Sternberg’s American Sign Language Dictionary, and Elaine Costello’s Religious Signing.
- The first element is hand shape, which can be a straight hand, curved hand, “L” hand, “A” hand, bent hand, or many others. For instance in the signs for “dance” and “clean” the only difference is that dance uses the “V” hand, and clean uses a straight hand. A big difference in what one is doing.
- The second element is palm orientation, which means which direction the palms are facing. This can be up, down, toward the body, away from the body, or towards each other. Going back to the sign for “dance,” which is the fingertips of a “V” hand, palm toward your body, going back and forth from the fingers to the wrist. You are dancing on the floor if the other palm is up, and on a table if the other palm is facing down. It is important to know where one is dancing.
- The third element is movement, which can entail many things. Going back to the sign for “dance” again, you can play with those “V” legs on the floor by jumping them up and down, skipping them along one leg in front of another, walking slowly, running, etc, simply by changing the movement. (It is important to note that some hand shapes change with movement. For instance the sign for “forget” moves across the forehead with a straight hand and ends with an “A” hand in space. One needs to remember this possibility.)
- And the final element is placement, which can be many places on the body (forehead, cheek, upper chest, other hand or arm), the space in front of you, etc.. The signs for “share” and “music” both use straight hands with a sweeping back and forth movement similar to dance, palm toward the upper arm. “Share” is done slightly above the upturned palm of the other hand, but if you move this same sign toward the body, and move it above the lower arm between the elbow and wrist, you are signing “music” or “sing.”
An important consideration in using ASL artistically is to employ those dance elements for choreographing: Space, Energy and Time.
- Just as you have all the Space you need on the floor, and must make choices about its use, so you have all the space around you to use as needed for the sign. For instance if you were signing “all of you” to an audience, a large sweep of the arm covering everyone is important. You have choices about whether to use an “index finger hand” palm down, a straight hand palm up, or a “five” hand palm down. They all mean basically the same thing, with slightly different overtones. But the important thing is to use the space, and don’t sign it close to your body, but use the farthest reaches of space to which you can stretch. If you were signing something personal or painful, limit your space closer to your body. Still use large up and down space, but close it in. For instance “dark” is signed with both straight hands, palms toward the body, crossing in front of the face, or possibly starting above the head and moving down towards the waist. You know as dancers there is up space, down space, front space, back space, side to side space, and all of those combinations. If you move your floor for “dance” in a large circle around you, you are dancing everywhere.
- Energy is often confused with timing, but is not the same thing. Play with the concept in your arms and hands. Experiment with a sign not changing the time or the space, and see if you can find that difference for yourself. For instance go back to the sign for “music.” Throwing energy into your arm indicates that you are singing robustly, and signing it with soft energy gives a lilting quality to the song. Decide as an ASL choreographer how something is being done or how something is perceived or expressed by paying attention to the energy in your hands and arms.
- Dancers are all aware of Time and how important it is. It can act as an adverb in ASL, for instance showing how fast or slowly someone is dancing, or the rhythm or tempo changes.
There are just a few other things to be aware of in using ASL in dance and other performing arts.
- Do you remember the word “fulcrum” from high school math? In ASL it’s the joint at which the sign should start. In simple conversation the wrist is the starting point; for classroom or other smaller interpreting or signing venues, signs start at the elbow. For stages, start at the shoulder so the person in the back row can see. For you theater people, this is projection.
- Eliminate all finger spelling and find other signs to use. It just is too difficult for anyone to see from any distance, and becomes one of those “stops” that performers should try to avoid. Audience members stop watching to try to figure out what was just signed, and thus lose the next several signs. There are signs which can be substituted.
- Don’t include every English word. ASL is not English and frankly doesn’t care much about many throwaway English words (like “the” e.g.). It is a pictorial language with its syntax much closer to Latin than English. In most cases you will not be signing for an audience of deaf people, so make it simple for yourselves and the audience. Choose nouns and verbs, and figure out how you can expand them. For instance you can sign, “It was a very large and dense forest” with one simple sign. See above to sign, “We were dancing and running and skipping and jumping all over the world.” Choose a few signs carefully that paint a good picture of action, emotion, concept, etc. Consult someone who knows the language to help you expand on the signs to include adverbs and adjectives that fit easily without adding any additional signs.
- The hardest thing to teach hearing people about ASL is the use of the face. Engage it to enhance the signs, whatever they may be.
- One last suggestion. Because the order of the signs does not need to mirror the English, pay attention to the flow of the signs rather than to the order of the words. If you can choose signs that follow each other using the same hand shape or other element, this is often very effective in some instances. Try to avoid ending a sign in one place and having to start the next sign in a very different place unless you’re looking for a sense of disconnect, which can be effective. Know what effect you want, and strive for it in your choice of signs and the flow of one sign to another.
I hope these have all been helpful suggestions. Using ASL in dance can be truly a gift for performers and audiences, worship leaders and congregations, workshop facilitators and participants. Limber up those fingers and hands, and experiment with dancing through the air as well as across the floor.