Deaf, blind dancer helps teach others

Wednesday 29 July

Throngs of men and women young and old crowded a South End, Boston, courtyard for “Salsa In The Park,” swinging their hips to the upbeat music in the hot city heat.

On one of the dance floors, Kerry Thompson was teaching a group of youngsters how to dance salsa and bachata.

Their eyes were fixed on her. They had to watch her closely. Her students are deaf, and they’re bravely hitting the dance floor despite not being able to hear a note of the music.

“I know it’s hard,” she signed to her students, “but if you keep going with your practice you will learn and you will understand.”

Kerry is deaf, too. And with severe tunnel vision, she’s also legally blind. Told at an early age that as a deaf person, she couldn’t dance, she has not only made dance a major part of her life, she has made it a cause.

“There’s so much joy in teaching people that society tends to think are impossible to teach,” said Kerry, who spoke with me last week by reading my lips, writing emails and communicating through a service provider. “The moment these students get that ‘aha’ feeling of, ‘I got what you’re trying to tell me. I understand,’ that makes it all worthwhile to me.”

Kerry, 36, is the founding director of Silent Rhythms, a program she created in 2008 that has taught more than 3,000 people with disabilities the art of dance.

Dressed in a pink top and leopard-print dance heels, Kerry was perfectly poised as she demonstrated basic footwork, holding up her fingers for the counts. She shimmied her shoulders, signaling to one young man to loosen up and smile.

It was a Monday night, she was teaching at “Salsa In The Park,” a free summer program held at the Blackstone Community Center that offers dance lessons, performances and social dancing. She’s taught at schools, hospitals, museums and clubs — and is raising money to turn her program into a nonprofit organization at

Kerry was born profoundly deaf. Doctors told her when she was 10 that she had retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, a progressive blindness disorder that causes night blindness, tunnel vision, sensitivity to light and eventual loss of central vision. The combination of deafness and RP is a rare genetic disorder called Usher syndrome.

After our visit at the Disability Rights Fund, where Kerry works as an information and program coordinator, the pretty brunette changes into her dance attire. She uses a white cane to make her way to the Silver Line bus stop, which takes her to the South End.

Kerry’s love of dance began at an early age. She grew up in Louisiana, taking ballet and tap classes as a child.

When she was little, she wore a black vest to hold her hearing aid so she could “pirouette without having to worry about my hearing aids flying around.”

Kids made fun of it, 
she recalled, but her mother made her vests decorated with Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears.

“All the kids wanted one,” she said. “That was a way that my parents taught me if you think there’s a barrier, make it into something positive.”

Her parents couldn’t afford extra dance classes, so they tried getting Kerry into free dance programs. But instructors said they needed to focus on children who could hear.

So at age 6, Kerry stopped dancing.

Schooling also had its hurdles.

She said “experts” told her mother to send her and her brother, who also has Usher’s, to a school for the deaf, hundreds of miles away.

But her mother fought to send Kerry to the same public school her older sister attended. The school, she said, agreed to enroll her on a trial basis. Kerry’s third grade teacher wanted to put her in the gifted program, but the acting principal nixed it because she was deaf, she said.

One of her proudest moments in Louisiana, Kerry said, came when she walked across the stage to get her high school diploma, having graduated with honors in the top 5 percent of her class. At Louisiana State University, she wanted to major in pre-med and become a pediatrician, but she said her advisor told her that her deafness would prevent her from getting into medical school. Another proud moment came in 2008, when she earned a master’s degree in human development and psychology from Harvard.

Dancing came back into her life about age 22, when a friend invited her to a swing class. “I always thought that I had to be a spectator, rather than a participant,” she said. “We had a terrific time.”

Around then, Kerry decided to move to New York or Boston because of the better opportunities for people with disabilities. She flipped a quarter and got tails. Boston won.

She discovered salsa here through a church friend and although she struggled during the first lesson, she fell in love with it.

Learning Latin dance was tough at times but she kept at it, eventually becoming one of the founding members of Boston Rueda Dance and performing with the MetaMovements Dance Team.

As her eyesight worsened two years ago and she couldn’t see at night, she danced less and less. She couldn’t walk home alone late after dancing and had trouble manoeuvring dimly lit dance floors.

Since then, she’s connected with the DeafBlind Community Access Network, a project run by DEAF Inc., which matches her with a provider who serves as her sight guide, gives her rides and helps her communicate with others. She’s also learned Braille.

Kerry, who lives in Malden and has been dating a lawyer for nearly four years, said she started Silent Rhythms because her friends in the deaf and disability communities told her they wished they too could learn to dance.

She teaches them so much more.

“The most important lesson I teach is not about how to bust a dance move, but how to bring people together from different communities,” she said. “I want people to see the abilities, not the disability.”

Article source: Boston Herald

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