Dance Spotlight – Kerry Thompson

Kerry Thompson is featured in this edition of the Dance Spotlight.   Kerry is a latin dance instructor and the founder and organizer of Silent Rhythms, a nonprofit organization (501c3 ) located in Boston that encourages people to donate to help support inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts and dance.  She is a also a member of the DeafBlind community and enjoys the lead role when dancing Salsa! She was nominated by Jason Haynes.

Check out some fun facts and information on Kerry including her goals for Silent Rhythms and her advice on dancing with someone who is Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, low-vision, or Blind.

Want to nominate someone for the Dance Spotlight? Contact us!

Silent Rhythms contact information:
Kerry Thompson, Executive Director
Silent Rhythms website
Silent Rhythms Inclusion 101 – Inclusive “Distancing” Guide
Silent Rhythms donation page
Silent Rhythms Facebook page

What (or who) originally inspired you to try Latin dancing?

My friend Jen invited me to go with her to a salsa club.  What was remarkable about that is that often friends of people with disabilities can make assumptions about what a person with a disability would like to do or what they cannot do.  Jen did not think about how I could not hear or see well, she just wanted her friend to go dancing with her.

I immediately fell in love with salsa – the style, the strong pulsations of the music, and the amazing energy.  Salsa was a gateway to try many other types of Latin dance – bachata, cha-cha, merengue, samba, and rueda.

You offer a dance lesson at a monthly social in Boston called Salsa for the DeafBlind & Friends. What are some of the communication methods that you use to teach Salsa to the participants?

Despite the challenges of learning how to salsa where I was the only one who was Deaf, I loved the dance and persisted.  After a few years, I even joined several performance teams.  My friends who were Deaf bemoaned how they wished they could learn and I said if I can learn, they can too.  Of course, I reflected on my own challenges trying to keep up in a hearing environment and decided I would start teaching dance for those who are Deaf.

Over the years, the demand has grown and because of my other work as a human rights advocate for people with disabilities in developing countries, I had a lot of experience working with a variety of disability types.  While the demand grew, I established Silent Rhythms, Inc. – a nonprofit that would teach people with disabilities how to dance.

That may have been our original mission but I realized that few people will attend a disability awareness workshop but many will attend a dance workshop so I repurposed Silent Rhythms to be a nonprofit that used the arts (all genres) to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts while using the arts to promote our inclusion in society.

Silent Rhythms offers several different programs:

  1. SaLSA-ASL: which is designed so that the first 45 minutes is focusing on teaching American Sign Language (ASL) for social settings followed by a salsa lesson for all (verbally and in sign language so that Deaf and Hearing can learn side-by-side). This is a powerful way to promote inclusion.  The idea was inspired by one of my hearing dance friends who said she loved dancing with my Deaf students but felt bad that she could not communicate with them. (These tends to be offered closer to the summer as we gear up for Salsa in the Park)
  2. Salsa for the DeafBlind & Friends – I noticed that people from the DeafBlind community were not coming to the Salsa for the Deaf classes so I created another program specifically tailored to members of the DeafBlind community. I also did not want to teach this in a segregated environment and opened this up to “friends of the DeafBlind” or for anyone that is interested in learning how to communicate with people who are DeafBlind.  The first part of the class is teaching about the unique ways the DeafBlind communicate followed by a dance lesson that is more tactile through touch) than our regular salsa lesson.  (These tends to be early in the year)
  3. Salsa in the Park – Silent Rhythms partners with the organizer of Salsa in the Park – MetaMovements Dance Company – which for the last 13 years has offered a fun, free outdoors salsa venue every Monday during the summer. I teach the Salsa lesson for those who are Deaf, DeafBlind, or have other types of disabilities.  Over the course of 12 weeks, I am also teaching the general dance community how to be inclusive and accessible such as teaching some sign language phrases.
  4. Inclusion 101 – this is a program that is about teaching organizations, universities, corporations, and nonprofits about how to be inclusive of people with disabilities in all sectors (medical, legal, business, academic, or services)
  5. Community partnerships – Silent Rhythms works with a number of institutions to teach our various dance classes and inclusive approaches. We have been invited to Children’s Museum of Boston, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, Discovery Museum, Boston University, Harvard University, Fidelity, and local schools for the Deaf.

What tips or advice would you give to a dancer without disabilities when dancing with someone who is Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, low-vision, Blind, or a person with a disability?

Often I find that dancers (without disabilities) are afraid to ask someone with a disability to dance.  Learning to dance for the first time is a nerve-wracking experience for anyone but especially so for people with disabilities who worry about being accepted wherever they go.  A dancer can do their part by approaching anyone with a disability and simply just introduce themselves and welcome them to the space and introduce them to others.  Simply ask, “Would you like to dance?” never “Can you dance?” or “How can you dance?”  For someone who is Deaf, a dancer who is hearing can tap our the rhythm of the music and also mouth 1-2-3-5-6-7.  A dance teacher can also use more visual methods of teaching dance rather than relying on explaining everything verbally.  For example, use a rubber band to explain tension and resistance. Use paint tape as a reference.

Social Dance Pet Peeve(s)? (Hygiene, No connection, People who teach while dancing, etc)

Mine are probably different from most, mine is the pet peeve that people are afraid to dance with me (those who do not know me).  Being Blind as well as Deaf, I wish that after one dance, rather than my partner leading me off the dance floor to a chair that they would find me another dance partner before they leave that way I can keep dancing.  Other pet peeves are dancers who do not respect/share dance space especially when it’s crowded.

What cues do you use to stay on beat and dance to the music? (Vibrations, touch, etc…?)

Sometimes it is easy to feel the rhythm of the music when the floor is hardwood and/or I am near the sound system and can feel the vibrations.  When dancing on concrete or carpet, the sensation is no longer felt through the floor. I might ask my partner to tap out the pace in the beginning to help me get started. Also, it can be tricky trying to determine a fast cha-cha from a salsa so if I know I am not following the lead, I usually ask, is this cha-cha?  After 15 years of dancing, I have pretty good instincts for staying on beat.  These methods help me whether I am following or leading.

What makes a social dance fun for you?

When people relax, have fun, and are inclusive. By inclusive, I am not talking about being inclusive of people with disabilities but also when dance companies’ students dance with everyone rather than only their fellow dance company members.

Describe your experience as a DeafBlind female lead. Generally speaking, has it been positive or negative?

Actually, it was terrifying at first.  When I first started learning salsa, I still had good eyesight and just had to focus on adapting as a Deaf dancer.  After many years of dancing and performing, I was spending more time focusing on teaching those with disabilities.  I often relied on a male leader to come to class with me to teach the leader’s part while I would teach the follower’s part but there were no male dancers who knew sign language and the students in my class struggled to learn how to lead even with an interpreter.  I could teach some basic steps as a leader but I knew I had to go back to the classroom and learn how to lead.  I had to relive that feeling of – will people accept me and include me? Will they support what I am doing?  How will I keep up because one again I am trying to learn in a hearing environment where the teachers do not know sign language or how to communicate.  It certainly was challenging trying to learn the more complex steps as a leader but actually most of the followers appreciated that I already knew how to dance and helped give them tips as a follower while I was trying to figure out how to lead.  Sometimes it is still a challenge to catch everything in person so I have to review the videos over and over frame by frame and pausing and zooming to try to catch everything.

The experience was a good one though because:

  1. A dancer should always go back to basics to make sure they are using the right technique
  2. Teachers and experienced dancers can forget the feelings of what it was like to be a beginner or a first-time student so this helped me relate to my new students and be more empathetic and patient.

But I must say, once I became a pretty good lead, I really do enjoy leading.  I actually find it easier to lead than to follow sometimes because I control the dance, I decide what will happen. As a follower, I am always guessing and trying to anticipate and it’s harder because I cannot see the hands of my lead.  I also love that wherever I go dancing, I do not have to worry about there being way more females than males and not getting many chances to dance.  I have more fun dancing as a follower but I also love leading too.

The video is from a feature done by the Boston Herald and profiles Kerry and her work in the salsa community.  Check it out! 

Tags from the story

Leave a Reply