Deaf dance troupe thrills library crowd

Zappers are wild with energy

Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

Click here to enlarge this photo
Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Fred Michael Beam of The Wild Zappers deaf dance group engages the audience in a dance during a performance Dec. 7 at the New Carrollton Library.

Click here to enlarge this photo
The Wild Zappers (from left) Warren ‘‘Wawa”Snipe,Ronnie Bradley andBeamdance during the performance.

After a high-energy dance to Janet Jackson’s ‘‘Escapade,” dancers in The Wild Zappers bowed as the audience clapped.

But the dancers couldn’t hear the applause any more than the beats and lyrics to which they performed.

The Wild Zappers are a male deaf dance company based in Prince George’s County. Their performance Dec. 7 at the New Carrollton library was meant to educate the 60 people who filled the seats as much as it was to entertain them, members said.

First on the order of educating the audience was teaching them what director and dancer Fred Michael Beam called ‘‘the deaf clap” — raising both hands and shaking them slightly.

The audience was a quick study: Some members still started to clap after subsequent songs but quickly switched to ‘‘the deaf clap.”

As assistant director and dancer Warren ‘‘Wawa” Snipe ‘‘voice acted” — similar to interpreting — dancer Ronnie Bradley asked the audience, ‘‘How do deaf people move and dance if they can’t hear?”

‘‘By vibrations?” one child called out.

‘‘By sign language?” a second guessed.

‘‘By playing the music?” a third asked.

Actually, they count to eight using their hands, Bradley said, showing them how. Beam said they also depend on the audience to keep the rhythm by clapping their hands and stomping their feet and had several audience members come on stage to try the moves.

Irvine Stewart founded The Wild Zappers with Beam’s and Snipe’s help in 1989. Since then, they have appeared at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Gallaudet University, the Apollo Theater, and have toured Japan and Jamaica.

This was at least The Wild Zappers’ second performance in a county library. The troupe danced at a well-received performance at the Laurel branch earlier this year, system spokeswoman Bridget Warren said.

While many events the system holds are based on books, officials like providing variety, she said.

‘‘It’s fun to shake things up. We’re always looking to bring people in,” Warren said. ‘‘They’re great performers and you inevitably learn something, too.”

The dancers, who wore white shirts and bright red pants, are all local. Beam lives in Greenbelt; Snipe in Greenbelt until he moved to the District three years ago and Bradley in District Heights. Stage manager Dorian Fletcher lives near New Carrollton.

‘‘We do all hip hop, funk dance moves. The purpose is to promote deaf awareness through performances in the community,” Beam said.

The troupe has two types of performances — straight performances and educational theater, which is what they did at the library.

Members are split on which they prefer.

‘‘To be honest, I like performing. That’s where my heart is,” Bradley said.

But the educational theater serves its purpose too, in that it shows deaf and hearing-impaired people are just like anyone else, Snipe and Beam said.

‘‘Some people have never seen a deaf person,” Snipe said.

And for that reason, people who can hear sometimes have misconceptions about those who can’t, Beam said.

‘‘People think you have to hear to dance. What we did tonight — dancing — is not about hearing. It’s about moving your body. Deaf people are normal. The word ‘dance’ means to have fun,” he said.

In choreographing their moves, they count the beats, read lyrics and rely on members like Snipe and Bradley, who have residual hearing, which means they can hear some things but the sounds are not always clear.

‘‘It depends on the song and the pitch of the singers. When the sound changes, the word usually changes as well,” said Beam, who has been deaf since an illness at age 3.

Bradley also has been deaf since 3, but doesn’t know the cause. Snipe and Fletcher were born deaf.

But many in the audience were deaf or hearing-impaired. The county has been home to a large deaf population because of its proximity to Gallaudet, Warren said. Students from across the country move into the county to be closer to the university and frequently stay after graduating, she said.

Eleven-year-old Rhyshem Bagley, a Landover resident who is deaf, attended the performance as part of a field trip with Hope Christian Church of Lanham.

Rhyshem said he was bored, but only because he knew much of the sign language the dancers taught the audience. He also recognized, however, many in the crowd may not have been familiar with the signs.

‘‘It was perfect in terms of what they did,” he said.

His friend, 10-year-old Michelle Alade, of Clarksville, felt differently.

‘‘I learned different signs here. It actually corrected some things I thought I knew,” she said.

E-mail Jennifer Donatelli at