'There is no limit': Winnipeg dance group breaks down deaf stereotypes

A new Winnipeg dance group is proving you don't need to hear to feel the music.

DEF UP features 3 deaf dancers who will perform their hip-hop routine Sunday

From left to right, Chris De Guzman, 32, and Natalie Sluis, 18, and Jordan Sangalang, 32, are working to build up Winnipeg's deaf dance community. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Make way, Manitoba, for a new dance group that proves you don't need to hear the music to feel the beats.

DEF UP, a group of deaf hip-hop dancers led by a hearing dance instructor who's lived with physical disabilities, wants you to stop assuming, start watching — and learn to dance along.

"To see them dance just as good if not better than me, it was like, yeah, there really is no limit. There really isn't. So we need to break those limits —​ however that needs to be done — to break the stereotypes," said Stephanie Strugar, owner of Difinity Dance Studio and Productions.

The group performs Sunday at 1:45 p.m. at the Deaf Centre, but it doesn't stop there. They plan to record the performance, post it on YouTube with the hashtag #GETLIVE and use it to teach others the dance.

The goal is to get other people around the world performing and posting their own videos, and hopefully spark a mass flash mob performance on Dec. 3, World Disability Day.

It will be the culmination of a lot of work.

Strugar was determined to make her passion for dance more accessible to Winnipeg's deaf community, so she reached out, even though she doesn't know sign language.

In October, she met Jordan Sangalang, 32, Chris De Guzman, 32, and Natalie Sluis, 18 — and DEF UP was born.

Watch Strugar and Sangalang "talk" about their dance relationship:

Winnipeg dance group is breaking down barriers

5 years ago
Duration 2:28
Featured VideoDEF UP features three deaf dancers, recruited by an instructor who wanted to make dance more accessible.

Using interpreters, mime and a lot of bass, the dancers came alive to Fire by Pink. In five hour-long rehearsals, they mastered it.

"It's not only about sound. It's about rhythm, it's about emotion, it's about creativity and how they amalgamate as one in the individual. So I don't hear maybe that specific sound, but I feel it," Sangalang said through an interpreter.

"I feel that rhythm internally and then I express it through dance."

Their hip-hop medley includes the song Brave by Sarah Bereilles and Fire, which contains the lyric: "Just like fire, burnin' up the way, if I could light the world up for just one day."

"They talk about expression, they talk about nothing can stop us, and so those are kind of the themes — the theme of empowerment. The words of those songs resonate with everybody," said Sangalang.

He's always loved dancing and was already involved in theatre and a local mime group. He'd never danced professionally before, but with Strugar, he found a natural connection and trust that made learning the sequence effortless.

"She was just very open-minded. There was no judgment, there was no limitations put on us. It was an amazing experience," he said.

"Most people think of music as really only being about the sound, but for me it's about the feeling, it's about the creativity."

Dance instructor Stephanie Strugar and deaf dancer Jordan Sangalang have trust and connection stronger than Strugar's inability to speak sign language. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Strugar knows what it's like to thrive beyond limitations.

As a child, she had arthritis, patellar syndrome and chronic pain. Her physical education teachers mistook her disability for laziness, she said, and even chastised her for her weight.

"I dreaded anything that tested my physical abilities and I pretty much just shied away from it," she said.

She hit a point where she just wanted a day without pain; she hoped for a magic pill or supplement that would fix her disability.

"I just wanted to live my life and dance."

Jordan Sangalang says dance isn't only about sound: 'It's about rhythm, it's about emotion, it's about creativity and how they amalgamate as one in the individual.' (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Her mom couldn't afford lessons, so she spent hours in her room, watching music videos and teaching herself.

"I heard you can't, you can't, you can't, and so I made it my adult mission to prove I could. And once I knew I could, I wanted to show all the people who ever felt that emotion, that simple emotion that I can't do it because XYZ, that I could. And it was as simple as that," she said.

Dance is limitless and liberating, she said, hence her drive to inspire others. She's funding the project herself but hopes it grows and is supported by the community to expand into school curricula.

"I never thought it would move up this fast in such a short time, but we believe it's time and people are hungry for this change."​

'Music is for everyone'

Sangalang wants the deaf dance community to expand too, and has plans to teach deaf toddlers.

The biggest challenge for him in learning dance was the expectations of others, he said.

"I think often people assume, and they assume again and again and again, and they assume wrongly. And they think that deaf people can't, and again, it's that kind of thought that everything is based on sound," he said.

"They only look at the deaf person related to their inability to hear. They don't look at the rest of the person."

Members of DEF UP hope Winnipeggers will learn their dance and join them on World Disability Day for their flash mob performance at an undisclosed location, regardless of their ability.

"Music is for everyone. It's for everyone. Music is really a platform we can use to express ourselves — that we are able. We're not disabled," Sangalang said.

"No one is going to stop us."

Don't let the world limit you and don't limit yourself, Strugar said.

"Give yourself a chance to shine. Try new things, and you'll be blown away what you can discover," she said.