In the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, a Chinese troupe of twenty-one artists performed a remarkable dance called the Dance of the Thousand Hands. This dance portrayed a traditional Chinese goddess of mercy who is often shown with many arms and hands. The dance thrilled the audience. Since that Paralympics performance, the group has performed all around the world and has risen to great fame for their artistry, grace and coordination. The group’s work is breathtaking by any standards, but what makes it even more notable is that the dancers are deaf.

Hearing people might wonder how a group of twenty-one deaf people could perform a dance requiring group coordination and tight timing, as well as staying with the music. This group employs four hearing instructors who teach and help coordinate the dancers. The instructors also act as “conductors.” In rehearsal and performance, they stand at the far sides or corners of the stage. They move their arms in the dance moves to cue the dancers. It is interesting to see that the dancers do not appear to look directly at the conductors. They keep their eyes in the direction the choreography requires, watching the conductors with only their peripheral vision.

For about half of this performance, all the dancers are in a close, straight line down the middle of the stage. At times the movement of the group’s arms begins at the back of the line, moving forward quickly. Without hearing the music or seeing the arms of the dancers behind them, how can the dancers keep this move coordinated? The group has come up with an ingenious way to cue each other: As each dancer begins the move, they blow on the neck of the dancer in front of them.

Offstage and in rehearsal, the dancers communicate in sign language and many wear hearing aids. The services of interpreters are utilized to help the dancers to communicate with interviewers and other hearing people.

The dance troupe is the China Disabled People’s Performing Arts Troupe, which was established in 1987 as an amateur group. It is now a branch of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. All the Troupe’s members are hearing-impaired, visually-impaired or learning-disabled, and they lead ordinary lives outside of their performances with the Troupe. Many of them are students, corporate employees and other types of workers.

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