Silence has never stopped Antoine Hunter. The deaf advocate, dancer, producer and choreographer talks about communication, his own kind of advocacy and the approach to choreography that he will bring to a Harvard Dance Program master class.
By Isa Flores-Jones '19
When Antoine Hunter was 5, his mother took him to the ballet. In the darkness of the theater in Oakland, California, Hunter watched as the dancers spun, like flocks of birds. For Hunter, who is a deaf, it was a silent show – sugar-plum fairies and sword-handed mice swimming through the muted Nutcracker score. It was a performance that would change his life.
It’s likely that ballet planted the seeds for his work as a producer, choreographer and advocate for the deaf. His is the founder of the Urban Jazz Dance Company and has performed with more dance troupes than this short introduction can hold. But here’s a compelling list: Savage Jazz Dance Company, Nuba Dance Theater, Alayo Dance Company, and Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Hunter is the former president of the Bay Area chapter of Black Deaf Advocates and director-at-large for the Northern California chapter of the California Association of the Deaf. He has taught ASL classes as well as dance in the Bay Area. He will teach a master class 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28 at the Harvard Dance Center. The class is free and open to the public but requires registration. I spoke with the dancer recently about his life and work.
When did you start dancing, and what brought you to the stage?
The day I entered earth was the day I started to dance. Really, it was my community that brought me to the stage. I didn’t start dancing for career; I
How old were you, and what was the most impactful part of your dance education?
I fell in love with Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker at age 5. I found it an amazing show to experience. They were not using verbal words to speak but only dance movement to show the storyline. I was able to laugh at the same joke as others around me at the same time. It may seem trivial, but it was huge for me as many times previously I would watch a movie with no captions, and then everyone around me would break out in laughter and I would wonder why. At that moment I wanted to be a dancer but my mother couldn't afford it. I remember saying to people that I want to be a ballet dancer because you could be whatever you imagine/want to be. I love being Mr Antoine Hunter but sometimes I want to be a bird, a spider, Romeo, da King and so much more in my mind of creativity. IeExpress myself by being a creative spirit.
In an interview for Oakland North, we learn that dance, for you, is a “bridge of communication.” Could you say a little more?
Dance is another way to communicate. Dance has the power to help people understand you better by seeing how you move your body and what messages you choose to express. It seems to me that deaf and hearing communities are often split apart only because they don't understand each other. Yet when either one of us dances, through common interest and movement we come to a better place of understanding one other. In fact many of my choreographic pieces are to educate hearing audiences about deaf culture, African American culture, social justice, disability, abuse and so much more. But in all cases dance is another way to communicate. I feel like if people understand there’s more than one way to communicate, understand that it's required to have an open mind and patience, then maybe just maybe there would be less war.
Your dance troupe is based in Oakland, where you grew up. What does it mean to you to work in the community you’re from?
Oakland, California is the home of the Black Panthers. Oakland values community, values family, values each person’s creation or duties on this Earth. Oakland is full of love, and you will notice that advocacy is an important action we take seriously. We understand that in order to grow we must spread out roots so our branches are allowed to grow all over Oakland. Just like an Oakland tree. We are easy to pluck out. Everyone comes here: James Brown, Prince, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg and tons more. This taught me to love myself, to be strong and that I have my Oakland people who believe in me.
What’s the process for choreographing and teaching your pieces?
I choreograph based on what’s happening in the world and the message I feel we need to express. Some people like flashy dances, I appreciate connecting with the audience and teaching from the stage while performing. Using professional level ballet, modern dance, African dance, hip hop, jazz dance and other forms of dance in urban forms we have performed dances related to deaf culture and American Sign Language, children’s equal rights to education, social justice, abortion, minority equality and equity, immigrant policies and so much more related to active advocacy.
In other interviews, you’ve spoken about sensing rather than hearing the opening beats of music. What do you think this purely sensorial relationship brings to your practise of movement?
I feel like a Jedi or like Professor X of X-men – and Oakland taught to “feel deeper.” My point is I had to learn how to use my gifts of being deaf. It’s my superpower. I create my own music of what I feel from music. I do not always sit and feel the vibrations. It’s hard to feel those vibrations when you are actively dancing, jumping and rolling unless you're close to a speaker or loud drums, but again to dance is to be alive and sometimes it means to be present in the moment. I try to get my dancers to be present, alert and always respond to what's going on around them. Never be fake, if you can't feel the music then we gotta find a way for you to feel something other than the music to dance.
How do you unite advocacy and dance?
I feel it's my responsibility as a leader in my African American and deaf community to create a path for others to walk on or bridge communities that otherwise wouldn’t have had a connection. I didn't have a role model who was African American and deaf so I try to be a good one. If I had an African American deaf role model then I might have tried to start a business at age 16 because I was filled with creative business ideas that are popular today.
If you could give your 19-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Love yourself no matter how many mistakes you’ve made. You're always beautiful even if you make an ugly mistake. Everyone thinks your idea is crazy, but it’s ok we put a man on the moon and that's crazy. Arts are alive. Use them to bring your dreams alive.