Local artist and dancer Antoine Hunter in West Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Antoine Hunter is a dancer, choreographer, dance instructor, and community activist who has performed around the world and received numerous honors and awards. He is also Deaf, a fact most people wouldn’t realize simply by witnessing his expressive body undulate gracefully to the music.

The Oakland native, who identifies as African and Indigenous (Blackfoot and Cherokee), was born deaf into a family where everyone else could hear. The hearing aid he was given when he was five did not allow him to hear sounds, but rather, “to feel the vibrations as they hit my eardrum, and learn to use that to understand what was going on in my surroundings.” Hunter, who learned American Sign Language in first grade, said he happens to speak so clearly that people often assume incorrectly that he’s just “hard of hearing.”

Like many who self-identify with Deaf culture, Hunter prefers being referred to as “Deaf” with a capital D. Since the 1980s, the capitalized word has been used as a mark of respect to refer to people who identify themselves with pride as part of that culture.

From ballet to tap and much in between, Antoine Hunter has studied most forms of dance. Credit: Pete Rosos

Hunter is the founder and artistic director of the Oakland-based Urban Jazz Dance Company, where he teaches dance to both Deaf and hearing students. He also teaches at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Both organizations are currently offering online classes.

Growing up in Oakland, Hunter took an early interest in physical fitness and athletics, competing in the Junior Olympics and even winning a Teen Bodybuilding Championship in 1998. He entered Skyline High School with plans to join the football and track teams. He was one of only about 10 Deaf students in his class, in a school with over 1,000 students. Hunter isn’t certain whether or not he was the first Deaf student to try out for a sport at Skyline, but when it became clear to him that communication was going to be a hurdle, he decided to drop his dream of playing high school sports. 

Hunter also found that his unique personality was often met by confusion. “I’ve always been poetic with words,” he says. “But if I told someone to ‘move like a mango,’ they would just say, ‘Hey, why are you talking like that?’” His feelings of being misunderstood got so bad in high school, said Hunter, that he contemplated suicide.

Discovering a new language

Then one day, a dance class at Skyline High School changed his life. The class assignment was to collaborate in groups and come up with a dance routine to the Whitney Houston song, “I Will Always Love You.” Students were supposed to work together, but no one wanted to work with Hunter. So the teacher, Ms. James, told him to make up his own dance. He couldn’t really hear the words, and initially rocked side to side to express the cold and loneliness he felt. During the song’s powerful instrumental break, however, Hunter was suddenly all over the room, his body channeling the lightning, wind, and ocean he says he sensed in the music, as well as his own pain. When he finished his solo, he saw that his classmates were blown away. “They told me, ‘I really felt you were cold, alone, and suffering,’” said Hunter. “That was when I realized that through dance I could communicate, and that saved my life.”

Antoine Hunter is the founder of the Oakland-based Urban Jazz Dance Company. Credit: Pete Rosos

Black dance icons like Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey, and Arthur Mitchell inspired Hunter to become a director as well as a dancer. After studying and working for years in Washington, D.C. and New York City, he got job offers to teach dance at Gallaudet University in D.C. and Rochester Institute of Technology, the two U.S. universities with the largest number of Deaf students. But he wanted to come back home because, he said, “My heart is in Oakland.”

Hunter is most passionate about the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival that he has produced every August since 2013, which brings Deaf dance troupes to the Bay Area from as far away as India and Taiwan. This year’s live festival is canceled due to the pandemic, but there is a silver lining: The online version of the festival will allow participation by Deaf dancers from countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Hong Kong, who otherwise may have had problems paying for airfare to Oakland. The virtual three-day festival will take place August 14-16. Hunter plans to announce event details on Urban Jazz Dance’s Facebook page next week.

Because of COVID-19, his dance company’s scheduled performances and workshops with Deaf kids at schools all over California were also canceled, but Hunter hardly skipped a beat, switching to online performances, dance classes, and panel discussions. In May, during a National Black Theatre live-streamed panel discussion on “creative resilience for artists with disabilities,” Hunter said, “I want to challenge the world as a dancer and a Black, Deaf dancer. I want to use art to connect people. Because I know what it’s like to not be included.” 

“He is so spirited, he makes us all feel alive and in our bodies, and he never lets his deafness define him,” Ashley Gayle, a professional dancer and artist with Urban Jazz Dance said of Hunter. 

Making dance for everyone

“In my dance company,” Hunter said in an interview, “our priority is accessibility.” In order to make his classes accessible to dancers with a range of abilities, there are wheelchair ramps, interpreters for deaf and blind people, and a device that vibrates the floor when music plays.

Because of the lack of opportunities, there are not many professional Deaf dancers. But Hunter has found some talented Deaf dancers for his company who can do African dance, ballet, and jazz. Hunter said his productions “explore issues that aren’t being taught in school, such as slavery, the history of Black cowboys, being Black in prison.” A recent example is the production “Deaf’s Imprisoned,” which was based on interviews with Deaf prisoners, and explored “what it means to be living in a prison within a prison.” Urban Jazz Dance Company performed it in Russia and the U.K., as well as California.

The pandemic has not slowed local dancer, Antoine Hunter. Credit: Pete Rosos

When asked how Black Lives Matter has affected him, Hunter said, “I am Black Lives Matter.” He recalls an incident when he was a skinny, young teenager. One day, he was looking at a newly built police station near the Fruitvale BART station when suddenly, eight white police officers grabbed him, threw him to the ground, and handcuffed him. (Perhaps being Deaf, he hadn’t heard a vocal directive from the officers, a scenario that happens all too often to Deaf people). Hunter was understandably terrified. Just then, a police car pulled up in front of the group. Hunter remembers it was driven by a Black police officer, whom he could lipread clearly when he said to the others, “Hey, Jake, you got a problem here?” And the white officer in charge, who was apparently Jake, replied, “No, no problem.” The officer released Hunter.

Now as a teacher and mentor, Hunter is always cognizant of what he can give to younger Black Deaf dancers. “I have one dancer,” he says, “she’s Deaf and she said, ‘I always thought that when I grew up, I was going to be hearing. Because the world I saw was all hearing people.’  When you don’t bring anything to a child’s face, they don’t see the options of who they can be. The world for a Black Deaf dancer? I had to create that world.” 

That is one reason why Hunter established the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, “for people who are brown to be themselves. And all of the children who are brown to see these dancers, and now they can have something to aspire to.”  

One challenge for Deaf dancers is, of course, hearing the music. It is a common belief that even without the ability to hear live or recorded music, its vibrations can be felt, especially on a wooden floor. Hunter said this doesn’t hold true when dancers are in motion or up in the air. That is one reason he is excited about his new role as advisor to a company that makes very special footwear, DropLabs shoes, which turn sound into vibrations that wearers can feel throughout their feet. He helped the company design its system precisely so that wearers can feel the difference between the vibrations representing drums, strings, or the human voice. 

Although COVID-19 led to the cancellation of more than 15 events for Hunter and his company, including a trip to Russia and a lecture at the United Nations, Hunter said he is determined not to give up his work. “Art saves people’s lives,” he said. “It has the power to build bridges, to share our history, to invoke our ancestors who help make us powerful, and to help us communicate and understand each other. Art has the power to bring people together and the power to heal.”

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Anna Mindess

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.