(NOTE: With the state dance tournament being held this week at Target Center, it's a good time to reprint one of my favorits stories from the winter. This story originally appeared on Dec. 18.)
Imagine this: You are a member of a high school dance team, and nothing is more important to your performance than hearing the music and the cues it provides.
Imagine this: You are deaf.
Erin Barrett doesn’t imagine this scenario. The junior at Roseville High School is indeed deaf and she is indeed a member of the Raiders’ varsity high kick dance team. How does she do it? Through a combination of visual cues, practice, experience and the assistance of a sign language interpreter. It is not easy, even if Erin makes it look easy.
“Sometimes I feel like she can hear because she always gets it,” said Roseville coach Brittany Rehling. “It’s super amazing.”
With the assistance of interpreter Alene Ray (pictured with Erin), Erin told me, “I’m not really hearing the music so I have to follow what everybody else is doing. I have to think about it, like ‘What are we going to do?’ and I’m counting as well, plus I’m looking at the coaches and the interpreter. I’m picking up all this visually and the team is sort of communicating with me and it sort of flows that way. If I’m stuck I just sort of follow what they’re doing and keep in the flow. It’s not easy.”
Erin was born in China, lived in an orphanage and came to the United States when she was 13, adopted by Sue and David Barnett of Roseville. She doesn’t remember ever being able to hear; she thinks she may have lost her hearing when she was ill as a very young child.
She splits her school days between Metro Deaf School in St. Paul and Roseville High School. She joined the Raiders dance program last year, which was an adjustment for her new teammates.
“I think they were at first kind of like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I instill a lot of trust in the girls,” Rehling said. “I noticed on the first day it was kind of an adjustment, everyone tried to not watch her interpreter. This year it’s really come together and everyone just talks to Erin like she can hear us.
“We don’t really acknowledge it, but at the end of the day you look back and realize she doesn’t hold back and isn’t treated any differently at all. That’s the most beautiful thing of all. She’s just like any other member of the team.”
Prior to Monday’s Suburban East Conference dance championships at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, the Raiders high kick dance team was going through its final practice. Rehling sat high in the gymnasium bleachers, directing traffic.
The coach asked, “Erin, are you behind Fortune?” Ray relayed the question and Erin nodded. Rehling then counted off “1! 2! 3! 4! …” as the team resumed its routine. As the coach counted, Ray held up fingers to match the count so Erin knew the cue. And once the routine began, she was perfectly in step with everyone else.
“She somehow finds that beat and stays on the beat,” Rehling said. “Sometimes girls who can hear have trouble keeping up.”
According to Sue Barnett, “When competition started and people started to find out that there was a deaf dancer on the team and they couldn't pick out who the deaf dancer was, it made Erin feel good. During last year’s dance season, we started to see a girl become more confident within herself, seeing that she can do something that is very challenging and being successful at it. …
“She learned about being challenged with something and keeping at it, and it gave a good feeling when she accomplished it, that she was just part of a team and that her deafness wasn't stopping her from doing things that hearing people do.”
Rehling, a 2007 Roseville graduate, said one of her high school dance teammates was partially deaf.
“Erin kind of resonated with me,” she said. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, someone hard of hearing is on the dance team?’ I was really excited to hear about Erin. She’s great.”
Erin said, “When I came in the first year they were all talking and I was like, ‘Sorry, I can’t hear you’ and they were looking at me like, ‘What? How are you going to do this?’ I knew I would be fine. They started to understand, we went along and everything was good. I’m not afraid of anything.”