As the pianist's hands slide across the keys of a gleaming baby grand, Karen Dearborn lays one hand on the instrument and gracefully stretches her other hand out to her side. Her feet glide seamlessly across the floor, her body moving to the beat of the song in perfect time. But Dearborn cannot truly hear the music. Nor can she hear the responses of the 25 young dance students who stare at her, transfixed.
In technical terms, Dearborn, an accomplished 44-year-old professor trying to carve a national name for Muhlenberg College's dance program, is profoundly deaf. She was in her early 20s before she knew anything was wrong.
"People are always amazed at how positively I took it," the petite woman says, running a hand through her short, dark hair. "I always look at the glass as half full. Always." Doctors told her the hearing loss resulted from antibiotics she took following a car accident when she was 18.
For the woman who had earned a bachelor's degree in dance from Radford University and who had given up performing with the Milwaukee Ballet to pursue a New York career in musical theater, the news forever changed her life.
By the time she was 25 she had lost 50 percent of her hearing and was losing still more. "I immersed myself in sign language," Dearborn says.
Musical theater was out of the question. But so was the possibility of giving up ballet. For Dearborn, life was all about dance.
So she shifted gears, changed her focus. She couldn't dance professionally. Well, then, she would teach others who could.
"I wasn't devastated," Dearborn says. "I was just, 'OK, then this is what I will do.'" She moved to Connecticut and took a job teaching dance at the National Theatre of the Deaf. Then she went to graduate school for dance at Connecticut College and, after graduation, became a dance professor at Mount Holyoke College. Shortly afterward, Connecticut College wooed her back as a professor.
Being a deaf dancer isn't as hard as it seems, insists Dearborn, who wears a hearing aid in order to capture a limited amount of sound. The hard part is communicating with her students. "I can always lock myself in the car and turn the music up full blast," she says. That way, she says, she can make out some of the music, although she still has difficulty hearing high notes.
Talking to her students, understanding what they're saying, is tougher.
She makes do by reading lips, asking people to repeat their comments and piecing together what she sees with the sounds she can hear.
Students are required to raise their hands before speaking and when they chat with each other out of turn, Dearborn is quick to reprimand. "It's my joke," she says. "I tell them, 'I can see your lips moving.'"
When she teaches dance theory courses, she spends the class period moving from student to student reading lips. "I spend a lot of time running around the room," Dearborn says, grinning.
"She is one of the most demanding in terms of staying with the music and expressing what's happening in the music," says pianist Brian Henkelmann, who plays for Muhlenberg dance professors during their classes.
Students say Dearborn's deafness does not affect her capabilities as a professor.
"She doesn't let anything pass her by," says freshman Mary McLaughlin. "She's always right there with the music. Sometimes it seems like her senses are five times better than anyone else's."
But production week for dance performances is very hard for Dearborn.
"In a darkened theater, I don't know what everybody is talking about," she says. "Once I'm in the dark, I'm lost."
Still, Dearborn believes her 'weakness' has made her stronger. "It's taught me to really listen. I can't get away with not listening to my students or only half-listening." What's more, she says, "I understand their limitations more and how to work around them. I hope it makes me a good role model for adversity."
For her, it is still all about dance.
"I've been lucky," Dearborn says, adding that despite her disability, she never struggled to find work as a dance professor. Something always seemed to come along.