I used to hate raves. As a Deaf woman, I rarely felt comfortable in clubs and parties. After too many experiences of being excluded or subjected to unwanted attention, sexual harassment and assault, I had come to view those spaces as dangerous and unsafe. Many of my Deaf and disabled friends felt the same.
But I have always loved dancing. I started when I was six years old and would skip and twirl everywhere I went, from walking down the street with my parents and waiting in the town pool queue. I obsessively watched dance videos. I even asked my school principal if I could use the school hall at lunchtimes to dance, then dragged my Deaf classmates there.
I was born profoundly Deaf in a small country town in northern New South Wales, and I’m the only Deaf person in my family. The doctors didn’t have a clue why I was Deaf. I abruptly stopped dancing when I reached high school, as I believed that I didn’t have a chance to do it professionally. Apart from the annual visit of the Australian Theatre of the Deaf when they came to our town, I didn’t have any Deaf artists to look up to. But when I was 20, I saw Bangarra perform and it changed everything. That’s what I want to do, I thought, and my love for dance come rushing back. Their celebration of Indigenous cultures and languages was what made me realise that my Deaf culture, community and language could be something I could celebrate through dance.
The dance world and the Deaf world both dominate my life, yet they are often miles apart. As a Deaf professional dancer of 10 years, I move between both communities constantly. I’m often the only Deaf dancer and I still struggle to navigate a world that has historically been very ableist and audist. Even with sign language interpreters present, I have to adapt to and accommodate hearing people. I find it draining to advocate for my access needs. Banter is impossible to keep up with. I need more time to absorb the music rhythms into my body. I don’t wear hearing aids, which means I rely on body memory, my peripheral vision and watching the other dancers’ bodies to learn choreography.
In the Deaf world, I sometimes feel isolated as one of very few professional dancers in the community. When Deaf people ask what I do, it’s not unusual that my answer is met with puzzlement. It surprises me how many times I have seen Deaf people say: “Dancing isn’t for me, I’m Deaf.” But Deaf people are often told we can’t do things. It saddens me that dancing is often brushed off as inaccessible for Deaf and disabled people.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I had a series of epiphanies that shifted my feelings about raves, as well as my body, my sense of self-expression, freedom and sexuality, as well as my desire for connection.
The first was an exhilarating and euphoric night in San Francisco, at the afterparty of the International Deaf Dance festival. The dancefloor was heaving with Deaf people. Even the DJ was Deaf. We guided each other through dance routines, taking turns to get on stage and give out instructions in international sign language.
Then, while travelling in Cuba, we met some locals who invited us out dancing. It was two weeks after Hurricane Irma so we descended some wet stairs into a dripping cave; I felt like I walked straight into a scene from Dirty Dancing. As we danced and moved together, there was a sense of a collective, pure joy, a swirling mass of slippery floors, sweaty skin and salsa.
And a visit to Berlin’s Kit Kat Club showed me how people were using club spaces as a practice of sensual exploration. I witnessed a shibari performance and the ecstatic expression on the woman’s face triggered unexpected emotions in me. I remember a woman checking in if I was OK and having a good time. I was struck by that gesture. I felt cared for, and that there was a shared sense of responsibility among the people to look after one another.
Those three experiences stayed with me for a long time. But they also left me with questions. Could raves, which I had once hated, also be sites of liberation, consolation and healing? I was curious about how I could bring the dance world and the Deaf world together to feel a sense of connection, community and empowerment.
So I created SPIN, an interactive dance rave event with Deaf hosts and a DJ. SPIN is an invitation; a provocation; an experiment; a work of ritual, survival, defiance, surrender, curiosity and playfulness. SPIN was first performed at the 2018 Melbourne Fringe festival, was revived in 2023 in Germany and the UK, and for this year’s Sydney festival. I’m seeing a renewed longing and desire in people to get together and dance. And I understand why, because dancing saved my life.
Anna Seymour is a dancer and founder of SPIN