Listening With the Heart: My Personal Zouk Story

I come from a family of dancers. My parents have danced Ballroom and Latin for nearly 20 years, so I guess you can say dancing is in my DNA. I love music, so naturally I would follow in their footsteps, right? But there’s something unique about me…

I am hard-of-hearing.

When I was three, I was diagnosed with severe to profound hearing loss. No one knew the definite cause, but there’s a good chance I may have been born deaf. Since I’m the only deaf person in my family, sign language wasn’t a viable option at that time so I learned to read lips. The hearing aids helped, and I was able to develop speech because of that. I did, however, end up learning American Sign Language in college.

In 2011, when I was halfway through graduate school, I began to lose the little hearing I had left. The sound quality became muffled, almost as if I was underwater.

It took me a long time before I finally accepted what was happening, and after another three years I decided I was ready to get a coclear implant (CI) for my left ear. A CI is an electronic device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear (cochlea). Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, CIs do the work of the damaged parts to provide sound signals to the brain. I understood that there was no guarantee that my hearing would improve or that I would even hear the way I did when my hearing aids were effective.

Last April, I finally got my CI! I had been working as a traveling occupational therapist and left that job to return home for surgery and recovery. Three weeks after surgery, my CI was activated. Within a few months, I noticed a big difference. It enabled me to understand what the speaker was saying with less effort. However, following a conversation in a noisy environment still remains a challenge. Not only did the CI improve my ability to hear, I’m still able to enjoy music!

Two weeks into my recovery time, I decided I wanted to take dance lessons! Back in 2013, I met Alex Chang who told me about Zouk. I remember checking out Xandy and Evelyn’s famous video on YouTube and loving how beautifully they moved their bodies.

Since I finally had the time and ability, I reached out to Alex who invited me to Solas. I jumped right in, not knowing that Tuesday night would change my life. I hadn’t taken any lessons, but a few of the leaders showed me some basics to get me started. The people I danced with that night made my first Zouk experience amazing! Even before the night ended, I was glowing with pure joy. Later that night, as I waited for the R train home, I danced the basics as best I could recall to the beats that kept playing in my head. Zouk had me at hello, and my love for it keeps growing.

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Most people who can hear well usually don’t require much effort to actually hear the music, so they can focus more on movement. While I can generally hear the melody of the song, I still face some challenges. To overcome this, I close my eyes to try and really feel the beat. It courses through the veins of my body, and I find myself moving along to the rhythm. I start slow and take my time to understand the timing and mood of the song, then when I get a good feel of the rhythm and the lead, I begin following in sync to “doon-chic-chic.”

I also focus on understanding what my partner is communicating to me by using hands and tension to establish and maintain connection, especially when we’re not making eye contact. At times, it is difficult to follow the way my partner wants me to, but I would ask them to show me, so I can try again or practice. Sometimes, I don’t connect well with a dancer, but I find that it improves over time as we get to know each other better.

I realized that sometimes I’ve tried too hard by overanalyzing the “right way” to follow that I forget I do have some freedom to go with the flow and have fun with the song. Also, I sometimes hold back when a partner wants to try techniques that I’m intimidated by or unfamiliar with, such as counter balance. Again, practice and discussion helped refine my technique which also boosts confidence. Ultimately, I strive to find a balance between give and take because it takes two to create a great Zouk dance.

During my 1.5 years of Zouk experience, I’ve had plenty of gaffes and embarrassing moments. I hate it when the head piece of my CI flies off my ear if I’m spinning too fast. It’s so awkward to stop in the middle of the song, scramble in the dark to retrieve it from the floor and find a place to put it down so I could resume dancing! That happened when I was at the ZoukMX Congress, but luckily it didn’t happen at the NYC Zouk Festival. Alas, I keep forgetting to pin my CI firmly in my hair.

I love Zouk because I feel free. Nothing is holding me back from being myself, and it allows me to savor being in the moment.  It allows me to express myself when words aren’t enough to convey my feelings.  Also, dancing gives me the power to heal myself by creating living and breathing art.

It took time for me to open up about this because I don’t want to be treated differently. I just want others to understand that hearing loss has never prevented me from doing the things I love or living my life.  In my heart, I believe dance transcends many limitations that we place upon ourselves. We are blessed with a gift that brings us together to express and share emotions that we all feel, especially love. This is the beauty of being human.

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About: Cindy Chen

Cindy has been dancing Zouk for nearly 2 years. She is also learning Bachata & Kizomba. Cindy currently works as an Occupational Therapist and collaborator on a sign language messenger app. She maintains an active lifestyle and continues on her journey of self love and healing through travel and dance!

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