TEL AVIV – Amnon Damti was born to be a dancer. But this son of Yemenite Jews who immigrated to Israel by foot was also born deaf. After enduring a difficult childhood in an institution for the deaf, Amnon saw a dance group on television and knew intuitively that this was his calling.
Within half a year, Amnon’s raw talent had blossomed and he had a name for himself as an outstanding classical and modern dancer – not just among the deaf community, but the industry in general. He segued into choreography and after being discovered at the age of 15, he became a lead dancer in the Israeli dance troupe Sound and Silence. Today, he is recognized as one of the best deaf dancers in the world, and has bagged a series of accolades and awards.
“Dance is my language,” Amnon, who communicates in Israeli Sign Language, said to an Israeli TV host. “On stage you can’t see that I’m deaf.”
So how do you dance when you can’t hear the music?
According to Jill Damti-Feingold, Amnon’s wife and dance partner for nearly three decades, there are a variety of ways.
If the stage is wooden, Amnon can feel the vibrations of the music move through his body. It helps if the music contains a bass drum to define the downbeat. If the music is softer, Amnon will take cues from Jill, who sometimes acts as the narrator signing throughout the performance, or from other dancers on stage.
During George H.W. Bush’s tenure as president, the duo were asked to perform in the White House.
“It was very exciting,” Jill told Breitbart Jerusalem.
Amnon performed a show for the president and his wife called “Man in the Shadow of a Bird” about his experiences as a child feeling isolated and closed in, and his desire to fly away. The musical arrangement was composed with Amnon in mind, so it contained plenty of percussion.
Jill, one of seven siblings, arrived in Israel from Portland, Oregon when she was eight-years-old. She met Amnon while she was still a student of film and television at Tel Aviv University. Her path in life already seemed set with her choice of studies, and in 1986 Jill established Israel’s first international film festival for students.
But Amnon had other ideas. They fell in love and Jill joined Amnon’s dance troupe, The Sixth Sense.
Despite a background in water ballet and gymnastics, Jill humbly admits, “My husband is a better dancer than me.”
The duo, who have two grown children, composed what would become Israel’s longest running dance performance, “Two Worlds.”
Jill explains that despite what most people think, the name actually refers to the contrasting dance disciplines they each come from and not the fact that she can hear while her husband is deaf.
“But actually, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “The truth is everyone takes ‘Two Worlds’ to mean whatever they feel it means. If we perform to mixed audiences of Arabs and Jews, or secular and religious, it always has a different significance.”
“Two Worlds” is unique because in addition to incorporating sign-language, pantomime, and of course dance, the performance is also interactive.
“It’s not a frontal performance. We bring the audience into our world, we’ll invite them on the stage with us,” Jill says. “That means that every performance is different. We never know what to expect.”
Jill waxes nostalgic about the audiences they’ve performed to all over the world, from prison inmates to centenarians. In one episode during a dance tour of the UK, a wheelchair-bound child jumped up from his chair when Amnon led him in a pantomime of a kangaroo. Members of the audience who knew the child were thunderstruck and said the boy had never lifted both feet off the ground simultaneously. The remarkable incident ended up attracting the attention of the BBC who subsequently produced a segment on the duo.
So what is their message to the world?
“That everything is possible,” Jill says. “It’s simple really. You see the way Amnon dances, and you know he cannot hear, you just know that everything is possible.”
Sponsored by the Israeli consulate, Amnon and Jill are taking “Two Worlds” to the east coast of the U.S. with performances in Boston, Rochester, New York City, and Maryland this April. Email here for details and tickets.