There was a really interesting article in Dance Magazine about artists using American Sign Language (ASL) as part of dance performances or to underscore movement in shows. One choreographer, Bailey Ann Vincent, says that she knows most of the audience is hearing, but if there is someone that communicates using ASL, they will have a richer experience:
For Vincent, using ASL in her choreography—which might mean incorporating a sign to emphasize an emotion a character is feeling, or to communicate what a lyric is saying—is both an artistic choice and an accessibility-related one. Though her audience is mostly hearing, “I still try to approach all our shows assuming there might be someone who is Deaf in the audience,” she says.
Another dancer said when he was asked to move beyond the role of an interpreter for a performance, it changed his perception about the role of ASL as a medium of communication.
…“She asked me to represent all sounds in sign language, and also use my body as a dancer,” says Kazen-Maddox. “It was the most mind-shifting thing for me, because I was seen as an artist and a dancer and a performer, and was also representing in sign language everything that was happening.”
The experience was the beginning of a shift in Kazen-Maddox’s career, away from simply facilitating communication between Deaf and hearing individuals as an interpreter and towards an emerging genre Kazen-Maddox calls “American Sign Language dance theater.” But it was also indicative of a wider shift in the performing arts, one that is more artistically fulfilling for Deaf and ASL-fluent artists and that also repositions accessibility: Rather than something tacked on to and separate from the performance, it is something deeply ingrained and integrated.
But as you might imagine, as the use of ASL as an artistic element increases, there are concerns about it being co-opted. It is important to remain conscious and thoughtful about the intent behind the use of ASL as an artistic element and avoid employing it in a superficial manner or in the service of ill-considered goals.
…And when hearing artists and audiences value how signs look over what they mean, the fusion of dance and ASL can become offensive rather than enriching. Antoine Hunter..gives the example of a hearing choreographer asking him to “reverse” a sign because it would look cool, which then made it meaningless or changed it into a distasteful word.
“When people who are not native signers see ASL incorporated with movement, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful,’ ” says Alexandria Wailes, a Deaf dancer and actor, through an interpreter. “Which is valid in its own right, but ASL is a language that is tied to culture, communities, and history. It’s not just something that you look at or do because it feels cool and it’s beautiful.”