Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Antoine Hunter, Deaf Dancer, Tells His Story

Antoine Hunter - photo credit RJ Muna

Most people assume that I picked dance at an early age to have a dance career but that's not really true. Let me tell you how it all started.

I was born in Oakland, California. I have a hearing family and I was born Deaf. Being an African American Deaf male child was hard. Being Deaf was considered “retarded”. That’s what people called me at a young age. Not my family, but the public did. My family taught me to love who I am and that is what I did. I never let that go. It wasn’t easy.

Before and After - photo credit Matt Haber

I was considered an outcast by both hearing people and Deaf people. Most of the time the Deaf didn't let me in because I wanted to do things hearing people were doing and most Deaf didn’t engage in those same activities because there was no access. Hearing people didn't let me be a part of their community because I couldn't hear them. So the reality was, I didn't have any friends in my life who were truly my friend. I was really lonely. I felt I had no place in the world. I was so sad and even thought about taking my own life. I didn’t, however, because there was something in me saying “If you want something you need to figure out how to get it”.  

In the Silence - photo credit Matt Haber

There were a few times when I went to a summer Deaf camp where I put myself out there to help people and they would become my friend. I learned how to make friends. It would be a nice lovely feeling of having a friend but it only lasted the 2 weeks during the camp. When camp was over, there was no way to stay in touch before cell phones were invented and most of the campers lived far away. At the time, I lived in Oakland and those new friends lived in Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay. That’s really far away from Oakland. So I was lonely, again.

Antoine in Action - photo credit Matt Haber

I was always seeking a way to have a friend. I joined the basketball team and my teammates at my Jr. High School didn't like me at first. I really knew nothing about basketball yet I wanted to play. I really wanted to do what hearing people do. Watching all the guys working together as a team to win was something I wanted to have in my life. I wanted a team of friends. I would start practice on my own at 6 am at my school basketball court. In time, I got very good at basketball and I became one of the important players on the team. My teammates became my friends, solely at school, but it felt good. However, once Jr. High School was over, I was alone once again.

Mr. Hunter & Zula - photo credit Matt Haber

It was time to move on to high school and I had a chance to visit Skyline High School. Yes, that is the same high school Tom Hanks and Grey Payton went to. Many famous people went to that school. It was a huge school and I was worried. I instinctively knew the bigger the school was, the harder it was going to be to make friends. During my visit to Skyline High School, we had a chance to stop by the dance studio. There I saw a black woman saying 5,6,7,8!

The room was sweaty, the students were turning and jumping, and one thing stood out clearly to me ... there were only two guys in dance class! I was thrilled. I thought to myself “well if there’s only one guy or a few guys, these girls would want me to be their friend and be in their dances, or maybe one of them would be my future wife ... wait slow down ... this would be perfect place to find a date.”  I couldn't wait to start my first day of school.

Antoine - photo credit Matt Haber

I won't tell you what year it was but I will tell you it wasn’t the year 2000 yet. Ok, ok, it was 1996! My first dance class I got my sweat gym clothes on and I sat on the floor pushing my legs apart stretching. Trying to do what all these girls were doing. I couldn't help but to daydream which one would be my wife, I mean my best friend. My dance teacher Dawn James walked in, took roll call, introduced herself and began the warm-up. The warm-up was from hell. Mind you, I was already in shape ... don't forget not only am I a basketball player but I’m also a track runner, a bodybuilder and a swimmer.

Dance class was kicking my butt. These girls were able to do way more sit-ups of all kinds. I couldn't keep up. My abs were on fire, just burning. My legs were shaking. They did more pushups than me, and it wasn't even 15 minutes yet. When we got up off the floor, everyone was able to touch the floor and I couldn't get past my knees. Then the dance started. “Jazz square” Dawn James yelled. My mind was spinning in a circle. “Kick ball change” she yelled. I thought, “oh, imagine I am kicking the ball, oh I can do that”. I was catching on. “Hold up, dang! Did you see how high she just kicked her leg? Almost took my head off,” I thought to myself, if I survive but everyone else was looking at me as if i was the weakest link. I guess I was.

Every day I practiced at home everything I learned from dance class at school. I was focused for many months. At one point I could touch the floor while standing with my leg straight. In the past, I couldn't get past my knees. In time, I was getting good, good enough that my classmates started to notice me. Even a few of them started saying hi. Still no real friends yet. One day my teacher said we had to work in group, or duet, or work solo to create a dance. I wanted to work in a group but no one wanted to be in my dance. So I created a solo. It wasn’t a one-day creation. It took weeks to figure out what I wanted to do. I decided to dance to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Antoine with the Musicians - photo credit Matt Haber
When the music started, I began rocking my head side to side as if a boat were rocking me. I grabbed my shoulders as if I were cold and alone in the dark. Then, I let the music take me over, I mean really take over me ... I was moving all over the room. I jumped, I rolled, I slid, I reached, fell, I stood up, I was belonging and I was sweaty. Wait, there is more. During the instrumental break of the song, I began to dance as if lightning, fire, wind, water, and finally the earth were attacking me.

I was all needy, feeling and scared but there was freedom and comfort, like angels were dancing with me. When I finished dancing, everyone had so many different expressions on their faces — even before they clapped. Many people told me that they could understand me and feel me from my dance.

Crowned King at SF 2017 Carnaval! - photo credit Marco Sanchez
From that day forward, I went on to learn other “languages of dance”— like African, ballet, and so much more. Soon I began to teach these languages to others. Dance is so powerful. It’s given me the power to touch lives.

This story was about my first year in school. At the end of the school year, I had really nice friends. Today I have friends all over the world and really good friends. I always say you only need one friend but sometime dance is so powerful it brings more good people into your life. Dance has the power to bring good people in your life.

Antoine Wins the Crown at Carnaval! - photo credit Matt Haber
This is Week 15 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Antoine’s story today. To connect with Antoine, please visit the links below. 
Editor’s note: You can see Antoine’s posts on his Facebook page and you can choose to “follow” him. You just can’t friend him because he is so popular he’s maxed out at Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit (ironic, and fitting given Antoine's early quest to have  even one friend). 
The above photos show Antoine at San Francisco’s 39th Annual Carnaval Competition this past weekend where he was crowned King – Congratulations Antoine! 

Editor's note:  A capital "D" for Deaf epresents and honors Deaf Culture. Details are at: 

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