Deaf student dances in Chesapeake Ballet's 'Snow White'

Marie Shepard Photo by Laura Hollon WMarie Shepard, 17, looks like any of the other talented dancers practicing on the stage for Chesapeake Ballet Company's production of “Snow White” this weekend, but there's one profound difference.

Marie is deaf.

“I often tell people that we have a dancer who is completely deaf in the company and ask if they could pick her out on stage. They never can!” says Barbara Haskell, executive director of the Chesapeake Ballet Company. “I often think how it can become frustrating for her, but she handles everything with grace. Marie is just an amazing individual.”

Marie, who lives in Annapolis, started dancing when she was 4 years old after her mother took her to a production of “The Nutcracker.”

“She said 'I want to do that,'” Peggy Shepard explains. “I thought it was impossible, but I went to a small studio in Annapolis, L'Ecole de Danse, and asked if they were interested in teaching her, and they said yes.”

Marie was fascinated by the dancers and just had to try it, she explains in an email. And though it has been hard, she loves performing.

“My favorite part about dancing is the way it makes me feel,” she says. “It’s like I’m a completely different person. I don’t have to think about who I am. I just can be myself.”

Marie is quick visually. She watches, and it helps that there are mirrors in the room, her mother says.

“She has to pay attention — watching the teacher or watching the students in front of her,” says Shepard, who sometimes stands backstage and moves her finger to the music so Marie can see her out of the corner of her eye. “There are times, honestly, that it looks like she has an internal metronome.”

Sometimes Haskell will look at the stage and Marie is the only dancer on time with the music, she says.

“I don’t always get the timing correct, but I do my best,” Marie says. “I have to memorize both the steps and timing during rehearsal, and I need to rely on the other dancers. Most classical music rhythms have been in my body since I first started dance.”

Marie is also in the Performing and Visual Arts magnet program at Annapolis High School. She will graduate this spring and plans to attend Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She was accepted into the associate program but hopes to transition into the four-year college where she wants to study photography. She will continue to dance in New York with a former instructor who now has a studio in Rochester, her mother explains.

The production this month will be her 13th — and final — performance with Chesapeake Ballet Company. She will play the role of a raven and waltz soloist.

“Doing my last Chesapeake Ballet production is very bittersweet,” Marie says. “Chesapeake Ballet Company has had a huge impact in my life. Since I first joined in 2007, they accepted me for who I am, and I hate to leave that behind. However, I’m thrilled to do my last production before leaving for college, and hope I have made a huge impact on the audience.”

You can watch Marie dance in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” May 7 at 1 and 4 p.m. and May 8 at 1 p.m. at the Children’s Theatre of Annapolis, 1661 Bayhead Rd. Tickets are $16-20, available at chesapeakeballetcompany.ticketleap.com.

By Betsy Stein
Photo by Laura Hollon