Over the course of his career, Antoine Hunter has made it his vision and mission to increase the visibility, accessibility and opportunities for Deaf and hard-of-hearing dance artists, as well as to provide opportunities for BIPOC people and the disabled community. As a Deaf advocate, dancer, choreographer, director and teacher, he’s done exactly that.
Founded in 2007 in Oakland, California, Hunter’s company, Urban Jazz Dance Company, has been a torchbearer for Deaf dance advocacy, shedding a light on Deaf voices through performances, workshops, lectures and master classes throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, nationally and worldwide. In 2013, he founded the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, an annual celebration of Deaf and hard-of-hearing companies and artists held in August each year. Troupes from as far as Ghana, India, Taiwan and Nigeria join both local and national artists to highlight the important contributions made by this often-marginalized population. Due to the pandemic, the festival was held virtually in 2020 and 2021.
The impact Hunter has made in both the dance and Deaf communities is undeniable, but it’s inside the classroom where a lot of the magic happens. “As a teacher, I’m driven to improve my teaching for people of any kind,” says Hunter. “I don’t come to class with one way of teaching. I come to class ready to throw out my plan.” With a hand to the speaker to feel the vibrations of the sound system and an eye for clean, classic urban jazz technique, Hunter utilizes a mix of American Sign Language, spoken word and demonstration to create an accessible and fun-filled dance experience for Deaf and hearing students alike. His adult urban jazz classes have become a staple of the East Bay dance scene, with many Deaf and hard-of-hearing dancers finding a dance home for the first time in their lives.
One such dancer is Zahna Simon, assistant director of Urban Jazz Dance Company and Hunter’s right-hand person in his dance and advocacy work. As a Deaf dancer herself, Simon didn’t have a role model growing up. “When I first started working with Antoine, I saw Deaf children get inspired and have a Deaf adult as a role model,” she says. “I saw him doing that work, and that really started me wanting to support his vision of exposing the world to different cultures—to Deaf culture especially—and to inspire Deaf children to have a future and achieve their dreams.”
When the pandemic hit, the switch to teaching over Zoom presented both a unique opportunity and a challenge for Hunter, as his magnetic presence, infectious positivity and seamless incorporation of ASL are integral components of his class. Nevertheless, he turned lemons into lemonade—adapting his adult jazz classes for Deaf and hearing students for a digital medium. The result was an even greater reach for his Deaf advocacy work. “I’m all around the world virtually,” he says. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
For many Deaf artists, visibility, accessibility and funding are still lacking, which is why Hunter continues to fight for Deaf voices to be heard—not just in the Deaf community but beyond it, as well. Just as students who aren’t fluent in ASL can nevertheless enjoy the classes he teaches using it, Hunter wants Deaf dance teachers to be trusted to welcome anyone to their classes, whether Deaf or hearing. “Funding has been a big issue,” he says. “I’m hoping for the support to make a better investment in the Deaf community. What happens for the next generation of Deaf who want to lead their own businesses and communities? That’s my concern.”