Editorial Note: For the past eight years, Stance on Dance has asked a variety of dance artists at different points in their careers what “making it” means to them. Please join us in looking at what “making it” means as a dancer, artist and human.
BY ZAHNA SIMON
When I was growing up, I wanted to be recognized for who I am, but I thought I had to live up to society’s expectations and ideals of “making it” as a “normal” person. I am not a normal person. I grew up oral, mainstreamed alone, and I was the only Deaf person around my hearing family, teachers and peers. I loved being involved in many activities even though I didn’t understand everything. I just minded my own business and accepted what it was. I often felt excluded from activities; when I asked questions, it was often responded with, “Never mind,” “I’ll tell you later,” or “It’s not important” – a typical Deaf experience for those in hearing atmospheres.
One time after school, I accompanied my friend to her ballet class. As I watched her class, I became attracted to the visual movement because there was not a lot of talking, especially less in comparison to any academic classes where I missed most of the information. While watching the class, I felt I could learn at the same time as everyone else instead of always being one step behind or left behind. As a Deaf woman/girl, society paints its own picture of what someone like me should be and act like. It felt oppressive when I really wanted them to accept me for who I am. Dance became my outlet to release the oppression and feel free to express who I am. When I performed onstage, people viewed me as a dancer, not as a person who is different. At that point in my life, that should have been enough to feel like I “made it.” Dancing saved my life and gave me the beautiful gift of expression and a place of belonging when I felt alone and isolated.
As I entered college, I thought that to be successful I needed to either join a ballet company, be a backup dancer for famous singers on TV/tour, and/or join a contemporary company like Alvin Ailey Dance Company or LINES (which I really did want to do). As I progressed through college, it became apparent that some people did not know how to interact with me as a Deaf person even though I went out of my way to make things as easy as possible for them. I was the only Deaf dancer I knew. I was content with it, even though it felt isolating, lonely and like others couldn’t connect with me because they didn’t understand my experiences. This was especially true for how I connect with music and rhythms, how I always adapt to the “hearing” way of dance and music. I spoke with my best friend in college, exhausted from having to always educate others around me, and told her, “I figured out my purpose in life; it’s to educate and change the world.”
After auditioning a few times and not being accepted in a dance group while everyone around me was telling me I should have gotten in, I scheduled a meeting with my professor, who was a highly prestigious legend in the dance world, to ask what I needed to improve on. My professor then started to say, “Well you do really well even though I know you have a hearing problem…” and then proceeded to say some other things but I didn’t catch any constructive feedback, or something specific I needed to work on, which led me to believe that I wasn’t accepted because they didn’t want to work with a Deaf person or, in their view, “a hearing problem.” I became bitter.
After I graduated, I decided not to pursue a professional dance career and instead focused on my career as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry in San Diego. I did end up joining a few dance companies as my heart couldn’t stay away from dance, but that was scheduled around my full-time job. I loved my job, I loved my life, I was grateful for what I had, but I felt something was missing. I still had a dream to perform while traveling the world and dancing in a company with other Deaf dancers like me, both of which seemed impossible because I was the only Deaf dancer I knew at that time. I saw other dancer friends on Facebook who were dancing in professional companies and traveling the world, and I felt like I wanted to dance and do more with my life. But I was comfortable where I was, and I really did love my job as a chemist.
Then seven years ago, I had a health scare where I needed surgery to remove pre-cancerous cells. I woke up and realized I only have one life. I have the power to change it, to do things and be places that make me happy. I did exactly that. I quit my job as a chemist and decided to pursue my dance career full time. My first dance class after surgery was Antione Hunter’s class. It felt healing to meet and take a class from a Deaf dance teacher. To know there are others out there who have lived my experiences made me feel less alone. He invited me to perform in the second year of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival. This was right when I moved back to San Francisco from San Diego. Through my involvement, I was inspired by meeting other Deaf dancers and Deaf artists with similar passions as mine. Often it feels like the arts world and the Deaf community are separate. In this festival, I felt my two worlds coming together and it felt like home. I knew from that moment that I wanted to invest my energy to be more involved and support this festival so that other Deaf dancers and artists have a place to call home where they have family. They are my family. Now I am a professional dancer, the assistant director of Urban Jazz Dance Company and the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, and the office manager for a professional fiduciary office in San Francisco.
Every day, I’m grateful for my journey to happiness, passion, compassion and the power of the arts. Every day, I am grateful that I stepped outside my comfort zone to change my life for the better. Pre-COVID, I was traveling all over the world performing with Urban Jazz Dance Company, a mixed company with Deaf and hearing dancers. I ended up achieving exactly what I dreamed. In the process, we touch every place we go, educating and advocating for access for Deaf children and communities, teaching that differences are beautiful, and inspiring young Deaf children that they can achieve anything they put their minds to.
In the end, “making it” is doing what I love, following my passions, and not listening to society’s standards. There’s room for everyone; we can always make our own paths, never settle, and actively be happy. Live life to the fullest, as each of us only has one life.
Photo by RJ Muna
A San Francisco native and Deaf from birth, Zahna Simon is honored Changemaker of 2018 at San Francisco Live Oak School, where she is an alumnus. She is a professional dancer, chemist, avid health nutritionist, researcher, Deaf advocate and Deaf interpreter. She is a former student at San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA), where she trained with Elvia Marta in modern, jazz, African, ballet, hip hop and choreography, as well as participating in Alonzo King’s LINES pre-professional summer programs. Upon graduating from SOTA in 2003, Zahna attended UCI, double majoring in Chemistry and Dance. At UCI, she trained and performed various dance styles, working with fellow peers, graduate students and distinguished faculty such as Lisa Naugle, David Allan and Donald McKayle. She has worked as a former chemist by day at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and dancer by night at various dance companies in San Diego, including being featured in KPBS TV and radio special “Deaf Dancer Performs in Trolley Dances.” Zahna relocated back to the Bay Area and worked her way diligently and passionately up to being the assistant director for Urban Jazz Dance Company and the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival under Antoine Hunter, founder and director. She is also a full-time office manager at a professional fiduciary office. She has been featured in Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and Ikouii Creative’s book “Inside Their Studio.” She has performed with Kim Epifano, San Francisco Trolley Dances, Alameda Island City Waterways, and Man Dance Company in the Bay Area.
To learn more about Urban Jazz Dance Company and the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, visit www.realurbanjazzdance.com.