Once-deaf woman a passionate performer

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Sarah Clark is a dancer from way back: first with tiny ballet slippers and tap shoes, then learning en pointe.

She spent much of her childhood at Patty's Place, a local dance studio "that was practically my home. Everyone was family," said Ms. Clark, 29.

The music was in her, but it wasn't until fairly late in life that she could actually hear it.

"I was born deaf, but a cochlear implant changed my life," said Ms. Clark, whose family now lives in Bethel Park, although she is a 2001 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School.

A cochlear implant is a tiny, surgically inserted electronic device. It allows the representation of sound to be felt by the wearer through stimulation of the auditory nerve.

Ms. Clark received the implant at Allegheny General Hospital in 1999, and it was a resounding success. The first thing she remembers hearing were birds, and in the fall, she was puzzled to hear crickets chirping.

"It is the greatest thing; I got to hear my nephew talk," she said. "He said my name, and it stole my heart."

Up until then, she was able to pursue her passion, dancing, by following visual cues.

"How I learned to dance was just follow the pace of the other dancers," she said. "I could hear a little bit, but not quite well."

She was profoundly deaf from childhood, but a car accident when she was 16 "destroyed all of my hearing."

Doctors told her that strenuous activity, including dance, was not an option for the foreseeable future, which led to a new hobby: signing.

"My father [Richard] would sing, and I would sign," she said. She had the words and music on paper and, using the same concept of following the other dancers years before, she was able to keep up.

There are several schools of thought among parents raising children who are hearing-impaired. Some believe they should be incorporated into society knowing how to read lips. Others believe that only signing is the way to go. Ms. Clark learned both as a child.

"My parents, whenever I got to high school, said I was to decide on my own if I wanted to sign, or talk, or do both," said Ms. Clark, whose speech is excellent.

The issue recently came up in public when a popular reality show, CBS' "The Amazing Race," featured a mother-son team. On that show, Denver native Luke Adams does not read lips, and his mother, Margie, served as his translator, using American Sign Language.

At one point, a disagreement with another team led to bad feelings over the way the mother felt her son was being treated.

By coincidence, Ms. Clark is a friend of Mr. Adams, who attended the National Technical Institute for the Deaf with her in Rochester, New York.

"I was in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' with him," she said.

Ms. Clark recently participated in the Rochester Institute for Technology's second annual Innovation and Creativity Festival, where song, dance and other forms of the arts were incorporated into the exhibits.

Her particular program involved both deaf and hearing participants, with signing and singing.

A year ago, Ms. Clark performed at the Interborough Repertory Theater in New York City for its Deaf Theater Festival.

And last April, Ms. Clark was thrilled to meet and speak with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who visited the institute for the deaf.

"My first question was, 'You and I both have a lot of things in common; both of us are dancers. How did you feel when you were picked to be on 'Dancing With The Stars' ?" she said. "She said she was scared."

Now that Ms. Clark has graduated with a degree in web design -- as well as certification to teach dance -- she has tried to stay involved in the arts.

She's currently doing web design work for the Pittsburgh Camerata, a professional chamber choir. Ms. Clark also will be signing for the group as they sing.

On June 28, she will sign while the choir sings at South Hills Assembly of God.

"I would like to get dancing with some groups, or in dance competition. But I know this fall is going to be busy with Pittsburgh Camerata, it should be a good challenge for me.

"Choral singing is ... the way they sing and move is like air on a cloud, so smooth. My body just wants to flow with it," she said.

Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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