Shall we dance? For Ted Renaud of Florence — who is deaf — the answer is a resounding yes

Last modified: Wednesday, April 02, 2014
T ed Renaud swings.

He balances. He turns with his partner. He dances up and down the contra line, along with other enthusiasts from around the region, and sometimes around the country, who fill Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange on Fridays and Saturdays.

In fact, Renaud dances four or five times most weeks, traveling to dances in Amherst as well. And oh, even at the dawn dances that last right until 7 a.m.!

Living it up, and getting down with all the zeal of the other regulars drawn by the music and the down-home fun.

Yet Renaud is completely deaf.

He can’t hear the intricate, mesmerizing music of Wild Asparagus or the fiddling or the contra-dance calls of David Kaynor. He can’t easily pick up on the cues of Stu Kenney or David Cantini or Anne Percival changing the tune, can’t hear whether it’s an exuberant jig or a high-flying reel he’s moving to with scores of other dancers.

But Renaud, 63, of Florence, loves his silent contra dances, just the same.

He says he can tell when the tempo or the energy level has picked up. And he’s often able to tell other dancers when they’re messing up because they weren’t listening to what the caller said.

“Huh? How’d you know that if you’re deaf? I get asked all the time,” Renaud says through an interpreter, who at times has accompanied him to dances.

Most of the time, though, he’s on his own, stepping up between dances to a prospective partner and prancing two right-hand fingers over his open left palm, then extending them as a clear, unspoken invitation: “Come, dance?”

Renaud worked in Greenfield for decades, and he knew that contra dances were drawing lots of people to the Grange there, but didn’t discover those dances for himself until he dared to walk in about four years ago.

Taking it all in

“The first time, I sat there and just watched and took it all in,” he says using sign language that he learned first at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., the birthplace of American Sign Language, and then at the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, Vt.

Born hearing, Renaud was just a few months old when an untreated ear infection left him deaf.

Around him at the Guiding Star, he can see a sea of people moving joyfully to intricate rhythms and melodies that he can only try to imagine. But he’s been used to that sense of separation for decades, he explains.

At that first dance, Renaud recalls, “A woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Do you want to dance?’ I tried it and I made lot of mistakes. Then I sat and I watched some more. Little by little, I tried all the dances. They kept asking me to dance, so I went out on the floor.”

With the help of some patient women, and men as well, he says, “Now I don’t worry about it.”

Renaud, who’s always been athletic and has loved playing basketball until recently, works out regularly at a gym. He says that dancing provides great exercise. “This is my new sport,” he jokes, especially since years of enthusiastically participating in athletics has left parts of his body aching.

It’s also great exercise for his mind. It’s a mind that’s long used visual cues as strong compensation for an inability to hear.

“I just watch what everybody is doing. I can’t hear a thing,” said Renaud, a skilled woodworker who examines so carefully how a piece of furniture is made that he can go home and duplicate it, as he once did when he needed a gift for his daughter, measuring in his mind something that had caught his eye at Andy’s Pine Shop. “Dancing is the same way,” he says. “If people stop, I stop. All with my eyes.”

“Everyone asks, ‘How can you dance if you can’t hear anything?’ My eyes have become my ears.’”

After four years, some dancers have taken notice of this dancer in his white shoes who fits in so seamlessly in the contra line that you might not even know he can’t hear.

“He’s a wonderful dancer,” says Mary Jones of Turners Falls, who’s seen Renaud week after week at English country dance sessions in Amherst and has encountered him at contra dances as well. “A lot of contra dance callers have had no idea he’s deaf. He watches carefully and he’s very, very good with short-term memory. You go through the dance once or twice and he knows what the patterns are.”

Mimicking is one thing, but Renaud also keeps his wits about him in a jumping Grange that’s cloister-silent for him, whether Becky Tracy or Van Kaynor is fiddling or Steve Zakon-Anderson is calling. It’s the ultimate social situation for someone for whom life can be isolating. “You have to change partners all night, so you’re meeting lots of people.”

But it’s not necessarily a breeze. He’s watched four deaf friends come to dance only to be scared off by how mixed up they got and how difficult it was for them to get the hang of what they were doing. They gave up, but Renaud takes pride in the fact that he stuck with it.

“My attitude when I first started dancing was, ‘I can do it,” said Renaud, who makes sure he gets to special dances in Peterborough, N.H., or the all-night Brattleboro, Vt., dawn dances or Dance Flurry in Saratoga, N.Y.

“Contra dancing can get rough and fast. Fast, fast, fast — pushing and pulling and twisting and turning and spinning. You have to use light hands so your partner doesn’t get injured,” he said. Sometimes he finds himself close to getting slapped in the face by a spinning partner’s ponytail. Sometimes, he adds, expressively with a panicked pace, “with chopsticks in her ponytail!”

Feeling the music

English country dancing, which Renaud enjoys going to weekly, is graceful, often slower and more difficult, although there, too, the other dancers are helpful.

Sometimes, though, it’s Renaud — undistracted by the music or the chatter of people around him — who comes to the aid of other, more befuddled dancers.

Balding, smiling, Renaud doesn’t necessarily know the terminology, like “balance and swing,” or “hay,” but then, those words also don’t get in the way of him showing a wayward dancer with gestures to “go there and spin.”

That happens plenty at Wednesday night dances in Amherst, he says, where many of the dancers are students who are first-timers at contras.

“They want me to teach them,” he says, gesturing dra matically how he tried to convey the absurdity of the situation. “I’m deaf, I can’t do it! You’re hearing, you can do it!’ They’re stuck in one spot. I can’t turn them around.”

Still, while he can’t hear the tunes, Renaud can often feel the pulsing vibrations from the dance floor, thanks to enthusiastic dancers who kick up their heels in a steady tempo or bang the floor accenting a balance, swing or step here or there.

“It helps me dance,” he admits.

If there are drums, as there sometimes are, Renaud can feel those as vibrations in his chest. But when there are mainly fiddles and keyboards, and no musical vibrations — as with waltzes — he depends on the guidance of partners.

“It was mind-boggling,” he says of his first encounter with a waltz in its three-four meter. He’s had help with partners who have tapped out the rhythm on his back and now he says he loves waltzing.

“A few people know the basics of sign language,” and he’ll write his name for them on his hand. On the sole of his black-and-white shoe he’s written, “Hi. I’m Ted.”

“It is difficult for me in a hearing world. And I do feel isolated and left out, cut-off,” Renaud admits. “But I have lived in this world 63 years and this is normal for my life. Often there are people at the dances who know a little sign language and I’m really lucky that there are a couple ladies who can actually interpret for me. I am very grateful for their help and everyone who makes the effort to communicate with me in sign language helps me to feel a little less isolated.”

Dancing is not only good exercise, Renaud says; it’s also good therapy.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of smiling.”