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Deaf Dancer Performs In Trolley Dances

Evening Edition

All of the eight dancers are in white with pops of color peeking out. Some wear pink tights or neon green shoelaces.

Aired 9/27/13 on KPBS News.

Local woman Zahna Moss has been deaf since birth, but she still accomplished her dream of becoming a professional dancer.

This is the 15th year for Trolley Dances, where audiences take the trolley to six different stops to see site-specific dance performances.

Choreographer Jean Isaacs is leading them through rehearsal for Trolley Dances, an annual event where audiences take the trolley to six different stops to see site-specific dance performances.

They’re in a plaza across from the new Mercado del Barrio in Barrio Logan. A fountain gushes nearby. This is where they will dance, incorporating both the fountain and the parking lot across the street.

The dance has playful moments. There’s one sequence that looks like it’s straight out of a cartoon. At a precise moment in the music, a dancer bops another on the head, causing her to kind of shimmy to the ground.

The timing has to be perfect, the dancer has to hit her fellow dancer’s head in time with the music. Zahna Moss, one of the dancers, nails it. This might not seem that extraordinary, except that Moss is deaf. She can’t hear that important cue in the music.

Moss tells me through a sign language interpreter how she keeps time without hearing music.

"I use different techniques. I'll follow whoever is showing me the dance, their movements, how they’re transitioning from one move to the next. As I’m watching them, I’m getting the rhythm from the dance," she says.

Moss works as a chemist by day and dances professionally on evenings and weekends.

We often think of rhythm as something we hear, but it is also a pattern of movements we see: a slowly lifted arm, a fast spin or turn. Moss feels the rhythm by absorbing every detail of a dance’s pattern of moments. As you might imagine, this requires intense concentration.

"I have to pay attention to everything, every detail," Moss explains. "I have to watch how the dancers move in their space. I have to know where everyone is at all times on the floor."

When Moss can arrange it, she has an interpreter at rehearsal. She says that’s the ideal situation.

"As a deaf dancer, I always need someone to tell me when to start because when the music starts, I can't hear it," she says.

Zahna Moss has been dancing since she was five years old. She's been deaf since birth.

Moss comes from a hearing family. At 5 years old, she told her mom she wanted to enroll in a ballet class. "She told me it’s going to be tough. I wasn’t going to have it easy. I took it and I was fine," Moss explains, shrugging her shoulders.

Moss says her mother is her biggest fan. She enrolled her in sign language classes when she was young. For most of her education, Moss was in school with hearing individuals. When certain teachers doubted her abilities, her mother fought back. Moss smiles as she remembers this, then signs: "They told my mom all the things I couldn’t do. But my mom, of course, was like 'Who are you to tell me my daughter can’t do that? My daughter can do anything.'"

Moss went on to get a degree in dance. Today, she works as a chemist by day and dances professionally on evenings and weekends.

She says it’s been frustrating at times. She doesn’t always get cast, even when her technical abilities are equal to if not superior to the dancers she’s up against at auditions. Moss says those in the hearing world often have lower expectations for deaf people.

Moss comes from a hearing family, but her mother enrolled her in sign language classes when she was young.

"We’re always trying to break down the barriers that the hearing world imposes on us," Moss says. "We try to get them to realize we are the same. There’s just a few things we can’t do, like hear."

Back at rehearsal, the dancers run through the piece again. They move from the plaza to the fountain and back. At one point, a male dancer picks Moss up, and carries her across the courtyard. She lands, spins, then lunges. And through it all, her timing is perfect.

The 15th annual Trolley Dances takes place Sept. 28-29 and Oct. 5-6.

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