Anna Gichan is privy to two special worlds. In one, she wears her hearing aids and interacts with the frenetic sounds of everyday life. In the other, she exists in near silence.
This duality, she believes, is tied to her love of dancing and sense of happiness.
“I consider myself lucky to be able to tap into two very different worlds for inspiration,” says Gichan, 21, a senior dance major at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts who was born moderately-severe to profoundly deaf.
“When I don't have my hearing aids in, I feel very in touch with my body and mind. It’s like meditating,” she says.The silence may also make her a better dancer. “I can’t prove it, but I think there’s a millisecond lag between the music as it plays and the moment it gets to my ears. By paying more attention to the vibration of the floor and everybody’s body language, I become more in sync with the class.”
This appreciation for what she calls her “unique ears” is new for Gichan. Not so much because she has struggled to fit into a hearing world, but because she has always been so good at it.
“No one even suspected I was deaf until I was 3, when my grandma realized I was not reacting to noises coming from behind or around me,” says Gichan, who grew up in Flemington.
She credits her twin brother, Jacob, who constantly talked to her in a loud voice she could respond to when they were younger, for allowing her to develop speech early on. “What I didn’t hear,” she says, “I compensated for with lip reading.”
For most of her life hearing aids have been Gichan’s lifeline. She got her first pair when she was 3 – “big, blocky ones that came in all kind of colors with glitter.” Without them, she would not have excelled at dance, which she began studying at age 5, when her mother, a dance teacher, brought Gichan with her to class. Hearing aids allowed her to assimilate, hear her teachers’ instruction, the music, her classmates’ lively chatter. Throughout her schooling, she was mainstreamed, choosing to split her day between Hunterdon Central Regional High School in the morning and Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School’s dance program in the afternoon.
“I was lucky. Kids never made fun of me,” Gichan says. “Even when I carried around this FM box with an amplifier in grade school, the other students thought it was cool. They liked to talk into it.”
Still she felt different. “I’m from a family of six. Nobody’s hard of hearing. It was just me and my ears, and I wondered: Why was no one else like me?”
A pivotal moment came during her sophomore year in high school. She was selected to attend a weeklong camping trip in the Grand Canyon for hearing impaired teens from the U.S. and Canada, sponsored by the Hear the World Sound Academy. “I met incredible kids doing amazing things. One was a painter, another into computer science. It made me feel a great pride,” says Gichan, who still keeps up with members of the group.
She came home from the trip with a new sense of herself as a deaf person that was part of a community. That’s when she began to take her hearing aids off and dance in her room – which was “great therapy for an angsty teen,” she says. “I felt light and free twirling around the room like nothing mattered. It was so liberating.”
It was while auditioning for college that she realized she wanted to make dance a focal point of her life. Originally, she had planned to study biology or anatomy and minor in dance. But for her auditions at several colleges, including Mason Gross, she had to create a solo for which she got positive feedback. “The whole process of moving around and watching the different dancers was exhilarating,” she recalls. “I knew, then, that’s what I would study.”
At Mason Gross, she has learned all types of dance, focusing on modern techniques, and her teachers have been supportive as she experiments without her hearing aids. Last year, Gichan spent her junior year in Israel with DanceJerusalem, a dance exchange program between Rutgers and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Following graduation she’d like to travel and also plans to audition for dance companies. But her ultimate goal is to get involved – in a big way – with the deaf community. “I want to find a way to get back to the deaf culture and explore this other aspect of myself,” Gichan says. “Besides the Grand Canyon trip, I haven’t been in any other closed hearing impaired or deaf environment and that upsets me.” She knows a bit of sign language but wants to become proficient.
At some point during the next few years, she would like to apply to graduate school at Gallaudet University, a renowned private institution for education of the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington D.C. – and then maybe even teach dance to people who are hearing impaired.
“I spent most of my life assimilating, and as I get older I’m discovering that there are things I love about being hearing impaired and being part of a special community,” Gichan says. “This was a part of me I couldn’t explore when I was younger. I was just trying to deal with everything else.”
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