Burst of Sign Project

Students walked quickly into the Madsen Center as chapel bells sang 6 p.m. Their footsteps echoed as they walked upstairs to the American Sign Language (ASL) lab for a silent supper, beckoned by the smell of pizza. The first to arrive were upper-level signers communicating in ASL. Their hands sliced swiftly through the air as they chatted.

Augustana Deaf Awareness (ADA) club members gathered around a circular table and greeted each student who entered. Club president Naomi Miller updated students on Burst of Sign. Then with a nod and smile, Miller transitioned into ASL and students followed her lead. For the next two hours, students’ hands held the conversation.

The silent supper began as a meeting for ADA club members to discuss Burst of Sign, the organization’s annual performance for the Deaf community. Miller shared details already set and listed tasks that needed to be completed. Miller’s hands moved naturally in front of her as she spoke.

When invited to discuss the event, students seemed shy and chose to listen rather than join the conversation. Miller was the only person who spoke.

Miller spoke aloud for 10 minutes, during which time the attendees were reserved. As Miller spoke, her hands moved in ASL. After finishing the Burst of Sign updates, Miller required members to Sign only.

The subsequent silence brought the interpreters to life.

Students separated into small groups and chatted. They signed with speed and efficiency, hands pausing only to pick up a slice of pizza. Their signs were confident and constant, the opposite of the motionless, quiet students seated in a circle only 15 minutes before.

The attendees abandoned their roles as Augustana students and transformed into interpreters. For a few hours, their hands and faces told the story. As students signed, animations lit up their faces and the lab filled with laughter.

“The reason I become more confident and break out of my shell is because for that moment, I get to be someone else,” Sydney Cain, ADA vice president, said. “I’m not Sydney, I’m whoever is speaking or signing at the moment. It’s really fun to be someone else for a little while.”

A circle of nine students in the lab shared their names, majors and hometowns. Only two were interpreting majors, but most were ADA club members. Three students attended as a requirement for ASL 111.

Any Augustana student is welcome to volunteer to perform in Burst of Sign as solo acts or groups, Miller said. The acts are performed for the ADA president, vice president and faculty adviser before being accepted into the performance.

“We watch that what they’re doing is appropriate and give suggestions if they’re not sure what to do,” Miller said.

ADA begins planning Burst of Sign in January, Miller said. The club meets weekly for 30 to 45 minutes.

Burst of Sign participants read poetry, dance in group songs, perform skits, tell jokes and share stories.

Audience members do not need to know ASL to benefit from Burst of Sign, Ally Miller, ADA public relations manager, said. There will be professional interpreters, Augustana alumni, present to translate.

In the lab that blustery March evening, the interpreting majors appeared to step into their comfort zones when Naomi called for silence.

“The expression in the language helps you to become more comfortable with your body movements and in how you express yourself,” Ally said. Ally’s eyes were focused, never drifting down to watch her own hands as they moved rapidly before her as she signed her words. “Being an interpreter strengthens my confidence by allowing me to just be comfortable with who I am.”

Ally’s comfort was echoed in the lab as students stood close together, frequently touching one another on the shoulder or smiling at comments.

“I’ve met so many amazing and supportive people from the start of this career journey,” junior interpreting major Mikayla Magnuson said. “That has helped me come out of my shell and become more expressive.”

Students mingled for an hour, then regrouped to discuss Burst of Sign.

The meeting attendees pulled their chairs into a circle. Naomi passed around slips of paper for students to vote for a song. While the students waited, they grew quieter.

ADA secretary Elizabeth Schumacher set up her laptop and played three song options for the group. As the music played, the interpreting students emerged once more as they danced and signed in their seats.

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Students built off one another’s energy. They smiled at each other, signing rapidly with the music. No one was still while listening to the music.

“Once you’re actually signing, you get in your element,” Ally said.

Sophomore interpreting major Amity Malmquist could not contain her passion. She danced to each song while signing the lyrics. Other students swayed, bobbed their heads, tapped their feet and signed choreography suggestions.

The votes were tallied after the third song. The winning song was “This is Me” from the 2017 movie “The Greatest Showman.” ADA members discussed their plans for starting the song with a solo dancer and gradually adding more dancers from the back of the recital hall throughout the song.

Group songs are enjoyable for Deaf and hearing audience members because the song will play over the loudspeaker while the dancers sign the lyrics. Schumacher will oversee the tech lighting and sound.

In addition to group songs, Burst of Sign provides food, performances and raffles for items donated by local businesses and people.

Burst of Sign will take place on April 27 and 28 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Kresge Recital Hall. Tickets are free with an Augustana ID or $5 at the door.

The money raised from ticket sales will be used to fund scholarships for interpreting students, Naomi said.

The interpreting students encourage everyone to attend Burst of Sign, regardless of signing ability.

“It’s really cool,” Cain said, signing as she spoke. “It’s an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and experience a new culture.”

Augustana Deaf Awareness members wave farewell from the ASL lab at Augustana.
Augustana Deaf Awareness members wave farewell from the ASL lab.