Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

April 9, 2014

Silent Dancer

VALDOSTA — Having watched Sharia Stripling dance and perform for the past few years in Valdosta State University Theatre & Dance productions and musicals, audiences would never know she's deaf.

That's the idea. Audiences are not supposed to know.

Stripling, her instructors and fellow dancers cannot ignore her hearing impairment during preparation, training and rehearsal, but she's not working to become a deaf dancer. She's been training to be a dancer.

In a few weeks, Stripling is on track to becoming VSU Theatre & Dance's first deaf student to graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in dance.

Eric Brandt Nielsen, a VSU dance professor, recalls Stripling applying for the program a few years ago.

"As her advisor, we discussed the challenges of the curriculum after she auditioned for the program," Nielsen says. "We knew she had the talent to get through the performance/technique classes but we needed to define what academic courses we would focus on in the curriculum that would be difficult challenges for her."

Dance faculty also wanted to know the protocol for handling Stripling's studies, as well as the VSU Access Office sign-language personnel accompanying her. Teaching a deaf student challenged the dance faculty, Nielsen says, but he knew from experience it could be done.

"I first saw how music is used for deaf dancers during Peter Wisher’s residency at Glassboro State College in the late 1970s," Nielsen says. "He brought his company of student deaf dancers from Gallaudet University, which is a federally chartered, private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing. It is located in Washington, D.C. Peter was the first to show me how speakers on the floor would help deaf dancers feel the vibrations. He also explained that he had those with partial hearing dance in front so that others, who had no hearing, could follow more easily."

Nielsen incorporated these techniques in Stripling's classes. He would speak with signers to communicate with Stripling, or stand in front of her so she could read his lips, or he would assign a student to work closely with her, guiding Stripling by touch to changes in movement.

Stripling has proved an eager student. To become a dancer, Stripling says she knew she must work hard and be prepared prior to classes and rehearsals.

There is the story of her participation in the VSU Theatre & Dance musical "State Fair" a few years ago. Stripling speaks few words, preferring to sign and read lips, but to dance in the show, she had to appear to sing the songs with the rest of the ensemble cast. Though she only mouthed the words, she learned the lines to all of her songs. She knew the words better, earlier than most of the other singing cast members.

There's the personal way she prepares for rehearsals of new choreography. Through a signer/interpreter, Stripling explains. Though she cannot hear the music, she can feel the music's vibrations. With new songs, she sits in her room, increases the full volume on her iPad, then hugs the digital tablet against her chest so she can feel the vibration of the music. So she can understand the seismic rhythms inspiring the dance moves.

Sharia Stripling has been learning to make adjustments since losing her hearing at the age of 4 years old.

"I could hear," Stripling says through the sign-language interpreter. "Mom tells stories of how I sang and baby-talked. One day I remember watching TV and my hearing just left."

Her mother, Teresa Goodman, took young Sharia to doctors but they provided no real answers to why the youngster had lost her hearing.

Goodman has always encouraged her daughter to live life to its fullest while realizing that it will take hard work to achieve her goals. She encouraged her daughter to dance.

"Deaf people can dance," Stripling says. "Maybe I can't hear the words but I can feel the vibrations."

As a child, Stripling found inspiration through Heather Whitestone, the deaf ballet dancer who became Miss America in 1995. Stripling realized all things are possible. Stripling took dance classes in a Macon high school.

Following her VSU graduation, Stripling plans to earn a master's degree in business and physical therapy. The oldest of five siblings, she would one day like to open and operate a business with her family that incorporates dance, physical therapy and cosmetology.

Still, Stripling often runs into the incredulous, those who wonder how or why she dances. Yet, if one stops to consider it, dance makes tremendous sense. She cannot hear the music, but she does not need to hear or speak words to communicate.

Dance is a language that needs no words.

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