Interviews

Jo Dunbar discusses her journey as a deaf artist

By Grace Edwards of Dance Informa.

Jo Dunbar is a profoundly deaf choreographer and dancer who has worked both in Australia and in the UK. In 2012, Jo and fellow deaf dance artist, Anna Seymour, together founded The Delta Project, a dance company employing both hearing and deaf dancers.

Dance Informa recently caught up with Jo to discuss her journey so far as a deaf artist forging a career in the competitive world of dance.

How did you come to consider a career in dance?

“I’ve always been quite a physical person, interested in performance and theatre. I’d never thought of becoming a dancer though until I met a group of dancers up in Lismore (NSW), who introduced me to Company Chaos, a dance theatre group run by Kat Worth for people with and without disabilities, back in 1999.”

“I still remember clearly the first thought that lead to any of this, 12 years ago, and that was that I wanted to teach drumming to deaf children and adults. Drumming is a form of expression and community involvement that links us to the sense of internal rhythm we all possess, I believe. The same is true of dance and theatre, in different ways.”

“Being a drummer, I’d already developed my sense of rhythm, so finding that rhythm in my body was a natural progression. I never looked back after discovering that you didn’t need to hear to dance. Once I let go of the preconception instilled in me by society that deaf people aren’t really taken seriously as dancers, a world of possibilities opened up and I just dove into the metaphorical deep end.”

Jo Dunbar

Jo Dunbar in the studio. Photo by Pippa Dodds

How did you cope with your additional challenges in learning to dance and becoming a professional?

“Currently, I identify as a profoundly deaf dance theatre artist who choreographs, performs and teaches. I’ve been involved in the industry for 12 years now and there have been times when I have stopped and started again, from the overwhelming challenges that arose in the competitive world. But dance is not something to easily walk away from, because for those who love it, the freedom of expression found and experienced is never quite forgotten.”

“I’ve worked every year in those 12 years either as a dancer or as a choreographer, yet I still find it hard to say, ‘Now I’m a dancer. Now I’m a choreographer.’ There have been times when I’ve considered doing something else entirely, because being a trained dancer and maintaining that is quite simply put – hard work!”

“But despite all the barriers I have faced and continue to — as we all do in one way or another — what pulls me back every time is the memory of all the people who supported me at the beginning and the journey of discovery I’ve undergone since then. My mentors from my early days are still very much in my heart, as they always strongly believed in the honesty and perseverance of the human spirit.”

How did you gain access to the resources that have helped your career?

“When I returned to Australia in 2009 after studying and working in the UK, I wanted to explore the various arts programs and forms of dance training offered here for people with disabilities. So, I worked as a volunteer with Restless Dance Theatre based in Adelaide. During this time I developed a partnership with Arts Access Victoria. They had a small group of Deaf dancers wanting to create a contemporary/hip-hop performance and asked if I was interested in teaching them. Of course, I was.”

“Over the following year, I volunteered at Arts Access Victoria to discuss and find ways of setting up professional training for deaf dancers as there was currently no support for further training outside of community arts projects. Fiona Cook, then the Arts Projects Manager, was instrumental in offering this support. Together, we came up with the idea for the project ‘Collisions,’ which focused on bridging the gap between hearing and deaf dancers, whilst creating an opportunity for the dancers to learn from each other and work with two established choreographers, one hearing and one deaf.”

“At this point I was due to return to the UK, but at the very last minute Arts Access Victoria secured the funding to host the Australian Deaf Games and the ‘Collisions’ project. They asked me if I would be interested enough to stay, so I did. This is where The Delta Project was born. Anna Seymour and I had many conversations about the future for deaf dancers in Australia and decided on a name that fitted the ethos of bringing deaf and hearing dancers together in the same space. A ‘delta’ is what you get when two main bodies of water meet.”

What are your biggest frustrations in your career?

“The main challenge I’ve had is dealing with society’s belief that since deaf people can’t hear, they can’t dance. What people forget or do not yet know is that we all hear with our bodies before the sound enters our ears. This is not just through vibration but also through instinct and impulse.”

“There have been many times when I’ve wanted to stop pushing and striving for change and opt for the ‘simpler life,’ because when there aren’t many like you it becomes a lonely road, made worse by a lack of language and support. Many of my barriers have been about access to education. For instance, in the past I have paid good money to go a workshop run by an expert in their field of practice only to find myself missing out on essential information due to the fact that there was no interpreter there. Even if I rely on my pretty expert lip-reading skills, I still don’t understand everything. And then there is the vocabulary barrier; even when an interpreter is available, he or she often lacks the specialized dance terms needed to explain the particular task.”

“I was extremely fortunate to obtain a scholarship to the Laban centre in London when I first began this journey, where I continued on to obtain my Masters in Dance. I had a lot of support from my peers and my teachers within the confinement of the school’s walls, but once I headed out into the real world, I become one in a sea of artists all striving for the chance to express themselves and leave a footprint. Support out there is rare, especially for artists with disabilities, and in order to continue I had to develop an additional layer of skin and the heart to fight to prove to others that I am an artist regardless of my disability.”

What would you like to tell other aspirational dancers who are deaf or hearing-impaired?

“It is a hard journey, but a good one nonetheless. We’re the generation that paves the way for the future generations. Stand up for who you are and be proud of who you are. If your access needs are not being met, ask for them. Learn from the challenges that arise, and make sure you’re not going through it alone.”

“Continue to take the opportunities to develop your knowledge of your art as there are always new things to learn. This is crucial, as without the access to education I have had and the opportunity to learn within a supportive learning institution, I would not be where I am today. Keep striving, even if it means learning through books or self-practice until further support becomes available. Ask for the necessary support.”

“Push for better access to your art. For instance, if it is a performance you want to see, whether you are blind or Deaf, ask for an audio description of the performance to be made or for an interpreter to be provided. Having access to your art is having access to information, and information is power. The bottom line? Follow your dreams — anything is possible, if you put your mind to it along with a bit of fire.”

Photo (top): Choreographer and dancer Jo Dunbar. Photo courtesy of Jo Dunbar.

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