While growing up as a deaf child in an adopted family with hearing parents, Brandy Mimms felt conflicted about whether she belonged in the hearing world or the deaf world.
“When my parents found out I was deaf, they tried their best to make me into a normal kid,” said Mimms of Little Rock. “I grew up in the hearing world. I went to speech therapy, and I learned how to talk. In the deaf world, I had a hard time because I didn’t know sign language. I always found myself in the middle of two worlds, feeling isolated.”
Now a graduate of UA Little Rock’s dance performance program, Mimms has opened a nonprofit modern dance troupe to bridge her two worlds. Mimms created the Listen With Your Eyes Dance Troupe to provide more opportunities for dance performers in Arkansas and to raise awareness about deaf and hard of hearing performers.
“I am a deaf dancer, and I want to open opportunities for other deaf dancers out there like me who may be too scared to come out to perform,” Mimms said. “I love to dance, and I want to continue to share my journey and story with the world. If you love to dance and you have a story to share, then my dance company is the perfect place for you.”
The dance troupe, which includes members Ronesha Butler, Alexandreia Tolbert, Shalondra Martin, and Jaime Smith, gave its first performance, “Al Courant,” at Little Rock’s Southwest Community Center on Oct. 26.
“Our first performance had a very good turnout,” Mimms said. “The dance company is very welcoming to everyone. People enjoyed the performance and wanted to know how they could be more involved in the deaf community.”
The dance troupe’s successful first performance will certainly not be its last. Any theater, school, or community organization who is interested in hosting a performance with the Listen With Your Eyes Dance Troupe can contact Mimms at email@example.com.
“I want to give people a chance to share their stories. Everyone is welcome in my company, no matter what,” Mimms said. “If you love to dance and you have a story to share, then my company is a perfect place to be. We really express ourselves with our bodies. We are trying to break the language barrier.”
I need a hero
While growing up in New Orleans, Mimms recalls how tough it was being the only deaf student at her elementary school. She didn’t know sign language, and she didn’t go to school with students like her until junior high school.
“When I was in high school, I saw other deaf students, but they did not allow us to sign in class because they thought sign language was a barrier that kept us from learning English,” Mimms said. “My parents died when I was a kid, so I wished there had been a deaf person when I was growing up who could inspire me.”
Mimms met the childhood hero she was looking for in Antoine Hunter, a black deaf dancer who founded the Urban Jazz Dance Company in San Francisco. After connecting on social media, Hunter invited Mimms to attend the Bay Area International Dance Festival in 2016, which turned out to be a life-changing trip for Mimms.
“When I met Antoine, he showed me that it is possible to be a deaf dancer,” Mimms said. “San Francisco is where I found my identity as a deaf dancer. Growing up in the hearing world was very hard for me, so I hadn’t fully accepted my identity as a deaf person at that time. Going to San Francisco helped me to embrace my identity.”
College provides a new opportunity in life
As a child, Mimms loved to dance, but she never imagined pursuing the art as a career. She never took dance lessons, but she taught herself how to dance from the performances she saw on television. Her favorite dancer was Shirley Temple.
“Brandy began her formal dance study with the UA Little Rock Dance Program in August 2013 as a displaced survivor of Hurricane Katrina,” said Stephen Stone, associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance and Mimms’ academic advisor. “From the onset of working with her, our faculty could see that she had a passion for dance because of her attitude of appreciation. She has always been especially thankful for the opportunity to study what she instinctively loves.”
Mimms’ professors said that her presence in the program inspired many of the students and teachers to gain an interest in sign language.
“Brandy’s presence in our program has been wonderful for the departmental culture,” said Stephanie Thibeault, associate professor of dance. “The presence of interpreters in our classes became the norm, and they became a part of our dance family. Many of our majors have shown an interest in sign language and interpreting. While this can be a natural extension of dancers’ nonverbal communication, I believe our dancers may have been more interested in the field after interacting with Brandy on a daily basis.”
Ever since coming to UA Little Rock, Mimms has been all about being the first. She became the first deaf member of the Little Rock Dance Team after her third tryout and became the first deaf graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance performance in December 2018.
“I was even the only deaf student who graduated during my commencement ceremony, and the school officials made sure I had a good spot to see the interpreter,” she said. “I love my school.”
After graduation, Mimms has used the time to establish her career as a dancer and advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing. She performed in the Bay Area International Dance Festival and participated in two panels about life as a deaf dancer at the International Black Dance Conference and Dance USA.
Mimms received a $1,000 Signature Experience Grant from UA Little Rock in 2018 to give dance lessons and choreograph a dance performance with students at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. After three weeks of dance lessons, the students performed during the Research and Creative Works Expo at UA Little Rock in April.
Mimms’ project, “Deaf Can Dance,” received first place in the Service Work/Professional Application category. After the success of the project, the Arkansas School for the Deaf hired Mimms as a dance teacher.
Her professors says that Mimms’ accomplishments have served as an inspiration to many and have grown as she has embraced her identity as a deaf dancer.
“For many years of her life, Brandy felt that her hearing loss was a detriment to her dreams and what she could potentially offer to others,” Stone said. “As time has moved forward, Brandy has grown to embrace this aspect of who she is…now realizing that this is the very gift that she has to offer her students, performers, peers, and also her mentors.”
At age 40, Mimms acknowledges the fact that there’s little chance she’d ever be hired by a professional dance company. As someone who has spent her entire life overcoming challenges, she wasn’t about to give up on her dreams of performing as a professional dancer. She also wanted to open her own dance studio to provide dance lessons and free ASL classes.
“I am at an age where there is a very small chance that I can go professional in New York or California with a professional dance company, but I love to dance so I am seizing every opportunity I can find to continue to journey,” Mimms said. “There are a lot of deaf people in this world, and not a lot of people can communicate with them. I want to break the language barrier to help all people communicate freely.”