Monday, March 03, 2008

Sign Language Concerts

San Diego Union Tribune
Singing with signing

Cuyamaca teachers, students treat sign language concerts as art form
By Leonel Sanchez

March 3, 2008

JOHN R. McCUTCHEN / Union-Tribune
Jennifer Smith and other members of the Cuyamaca College American Sign Language Choir performed "When You Wish Upon a Star."
When this choir is on stage, the performers are silent.

Instead of singing, they listen to a song playing softly in the background and interpret the lyrics and emotions with their hands and facial expressions. Their movements are choreographed, like a dance.

Every motion means something – in sign language.

They are the Cuyamaca College American Sign Language Choir, which is made up of hearing teachers and students who consider the visual language an art form.

“The choir allows us to express the beauty of sign language to a hearing audience as well as the beauty of music to a deaf audience,” said Kathy Nielsen, the choir's director and a sign language instructor at Cuyamaca College. Among the other sign language choirs in the region are the church-based Hands of Praise in Imperial Beach and the Signing Choir of San Diego, which performs at funerals, weddings, debutante balls, workshops and other events.

“I wouldn't say they're commonplace, but you're seeing it more just as the interest in learning sign language is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Pam Espalin, a client advocate at Deaf Community Services of San Diego.

Nationwide, American Sign Language is the fourth most studied language on college campuses, according to a survey by the New York-based Modern Language Association. The survey showed enrollment had increased nearly 30 percent since 2002.

Nearly 80,000 students were taking classes in 2006, including more than 20,000 in California, mainly at community colleges.

Most students who take sign language classes do it for one of two reasons: they expect to work with the deaf, or they are fulfilling a foreign language requirement. In the process, they learn about deaf culture and sign language as an artistic expression.

Signing as an art form “is not a new phenomenon,” said UC San Diego professor and poet Michael Davidson, who has written about deaf performers.

He said it goes back to when sign language came to the United States from Europe in the 18th century. There has been a resurgence of interest since the 1960s, when a distinct deaf culture began to emerge, Davidson said.

The Cuyamaca College choir was formed 10 years ago to perform at a graduation ceremony. Therese Botz, who founded the choir, said she was influenced by local sign language performers as well as the performances she had seen when she worked at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.

“The idea was to get students who signed very well together,” said Botz, American Sign Language coordinator.

The choir was supposed to be a “one-time thing,” Botz said. But, then requests for performances kept coming in. They now perform regularly at campus events.

The number of sign language classes has increased from two to 16 since the early 1990s. The courses cover everything from finger spelling to deaf culture and signing for infants and toddlers. There is also an active American Sign Language club.

Many students enroll in the classes after watching the choir perform. “It's a huge recruitment tool,” Nielsen said.

Though none of the choir members are deaf and their audiences are mostly hearing, their routines are intended for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences to understand and appreciate.

“I love to watch the ASL choir perform. It is beautiful. They are awesome,” Angela Gorges, a deaf student at Cuyamaca College wrote in an e-mail.

At January's opening of the college's Communication Arts Center, five choir members performed a medley of songs from famous movies, including “Grease,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Titanic” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Members extended their arms and pointed to the stars while performing a soulful 1990s version of the Disney classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” before a full house at the 360-seat assembly hall.

Members spent months translating lyrics into sign language and selecting the right signs to convey English concepts and practicing. Signs must be “on the beat so that a deaf audience can match it to the rhythm of the music,” Botz said.

“It is a challenge for one person to do this correctly. It is incredible to have a group practice to the point of unity. Think about synchronized swimming,” she said.

Jack Robertson III, 19, the choir's newest member, said he was nervous performing for the first time last month at the grand opening. Fellow choir members, though, reassured him he did just fine.

“I'm really a visual learner,” he said. “This makes sense to me.”

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