Deaf culture

Choreography: lip dancing and beyond

The term choreography usually evokes a traditional image of dance and any dancing form associated with music. Interestingly, Melanie Morrissette discusses about the absence or ignorance of discourse and film criticism on choreography in martial arts films.

Whew, I'm not alone. My works in sign language arts also inspected an notion of choreography in sign language.

Lip Dancing: a deconstruction

A friend wrote a narrative poem in ASL-like structure and asked me to read it aloud in ASL, because he was so curious how it turned out in ASL. With his permission, I recorded myself signing as part of my art projects and brought it to my class for critique.

One of the common comments I inevitably received in critique at an art college was that my signing was like "hand dancing" in their words. Initially, I was provoked or I somehow felt insulted for some reasons -- the same old story that sign language is associated with such terms as 'gestures' and other terms that reflect a hearing perception that sign language is not on par with speech language.

lip dancing and hand dancing
Screenshot from the video art Lip Dancing by Jolanta Lapiak

In response to the 'hand dancing' comments, I asked my friend to read his poem aloud while I recorded his lip moving. I recreated the video and labelled its title "Lip Dancing" to make a point that nobody said, "Oh, you speak beautifully. Your lips move like they are dancing." It might be flattering, but perhaps weird.

The video Lip Dancing (2003), which I created for my art class, contains the visual-manual speaker myself and the vocal-auditory speaker. It has no audio.

The video work and the critique brought me to thinking further about what "choreography" means beyond "language-less dance" and how it can relate to language.

The Jabberwocky in sign language

In the summer of 2003, I saw a videotape of the rendition of Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "The Jabberwocky" translated into ASL by Eric Malzkuhn and performed by Joe Velez. He didn't simply stand and narrate the poetic story in ASL within the head to waist frame.

Malz-Velez Jabberwocky
Screenshot from Malz-Velez Jabberwocky video. DawnSignPress, 2017.

Rather, he performed it beautifully. What I noticed a striking thing about his performance was that he did not only use language but also used a choreographic aspect integrated into his performance. He fluently moved around with his whole body and the way he moved his legs in harmony with the way he uttered words in ASL in manual-visual-kinetic space-time.

A year or two later at the WFD Youth Camp where I was one of the WFDYS leaders, the camp participants watched the video "The Jabberwocky" by Eric Malzkuhn. Delightfully, I took the opportunity to discuss my critique with few others. Understandably, an American Deaf leader was somehow offended by the mentioned term 'choreography' in my art-jargon discussion and, again understandably, he denied it. For the next few days, we debated until he slowly began to see the choreographic aspect in Malzkuhn's performative piece.


In 2004, I took a private lesson in Nepali traditional dance called Manjushree in Nepal. As I danced "Manjushree", I realized there was some kind of a "language" (symbols) in this traditional dance unlike dances in the West (which is generally based on emotions).

mudras in nepali traditional dance
Screenshot from Zone Upside Down video docu by Jolanta Lapiak.

Since the traditional dances in the East (India and Nepal) have some symbols which is a set of mudras, I envisaged a possibility to integrate choreography with visual-spatial language (that is, sign language) to the fullest. The ASL performance Jabberwocky is one good example.

Choreographic element in sign language arts

Eventually, some of my works include some experimental choreographic elements in languages (Ameslan/ASL and English). Some also included choreographic element in English text, such as Lone Poetry (2006-07) and Dandelions.

During this period, I also explored a comparison of choreography using language and calligraphy beyond writing. I compared calligraphy (which means beautiful writing) with choreography in vocal singing and ASL poetry.

People see Japanese calligraphy somehow as dance-writing. Further, I see vocal singing as a form of verbal-vocal calligraphy (beautiful writing in the air) and a form of lip dancing.

calligraphy in asl
"a splendid flash of concrete poetry", Photospeaking and/or Photowriting by Jolanta Lapiak

In my works, I inspected the calligraphic element in ASL, which I called "verbal calligraphy" (by 'verbal', it means non-written, nothing to do with speech), and related it to Japanese/Chinese calligraphy. Japanese calligraphy share the same visual-spatial modality with Ameslan language.

Poetry Performance in asl calligrpahy
Poetry Performance, Photospeaking and/or Photowriting by Jolanta Lapiak

In these images, my phrases in ASL were captured in movement on the camera. For each phrase, I signed many times until the form became perfect.


Now signed languages have been recognized as true languages in linguistics and neuroscience for the last half century. Since then, acceptance and recognition of signed languages give Deaf people the space to explore unventured elements in sign language arts.


Jolanta Lapiak.

Mélanie Morrissette. . August 31, 2002.

Related posts

If you're interested in philosophy, theory, and/or deconstruction, see another art work, "Reading, writing, and/or speaking".

You may also be interested in Deaf dancers and their dance performances

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