The only singing going on was coming from a boom box, which was hard-pressed to fill the auditorium with its tiny speakers.

The real music, however, was all visual.

Thirty pairs of hands soared, dipped and fluttered like a flock of pinkish doves on the stage of the theater area in Boyd County Middle School.

The hands were attached to members of the Sign of the Times Choir, which was belting out the Disney tune “Under the Sea.” The choir was rehearsing for its upcoming spring show after school last week.

The performance is a combination of music and signing with a few dance-like moves mixed in. The performers use signed English, which is similar to American Sign Language, used by the deaf.

Most people think sign language depends solely on hand gestures, but in fact facial expressions play a significant role.

Choir director Nina DeSantis kept her performers moving on stage, creating a kaleidoscopic panorama with each musical number. “It’s almost a form of ballet,” DeSantis said.

“It’s not a funeral,” she called in her penetrating voice, reminding them there will be an audience watching on concert night and they’ll have to keep smiles on their faces.

DeSantis comes by her staging acumen via her own education at Eastern Kentucky University in theater with emphasis on theater for the deaf. She learned her first signs at church when she was in junior high school.

She brought the choir idea to the middle school when she came there to teach in the mid-1980s. It is an activity that employs a valuable skill and demands the discipline and poise of a stage performance, but not necessarily the heavy lifting involved in team sports.

“I started it for the kids who didn’t fit in elsewhere,” she said.

The first year there were 16 children in the choir. Eventually it became so popular she had to limit its size to 35 students, and now she requires auditions to get in.

Prospective members don’t have to know sign language to apply. There is a week-long prep period in the fall during which they can learn and practice the basics.

The choir learns signs for each song, and over the course of a season develops a considerable vocabulary.

Because sign language differs in vocabulary from English, members essentially learn each number twice, and perform both versions simultaneously.

The audible music comes from a recording; the choir mouths the words while signing because that’s part of the system whereby the deaf communicate.

During the rehearsal last week, DeSantis and several assistants directed from the back of the auditorium. The assistants are high school students, former members of the choir who come back to help out.

Rehearsals are disciplined but high-spirited.

“It’s really hard. You have to do really good or she’ll whip you with a shoe,” joked sixth-grader Morgan McCoy. But seldom does five minutes pass without a choir member enveloping DeSantis in a spontaneous hug.

The familial link extends to choir members, who tend to greet each other in the hall with bear hugs, said Sadie Grindstaff, an eighth-grader. “It’s a family. We love each other as sisters and brothers and we work all year to create something beautiful.”

Sadie also knows she won’t be alone next year. When they move from eighth grade top dogs at the middle school to the bottom of the high school food chain as freshmen, signers often find allies there in former choir members.

Besides their spring concert, which is May 18, the choir has an engagement in Charleston May 22 to perform at the West Virginia Power baseball game. They’ll sign the national anthem while assistant director Sonya Crites will supply the vocals.

By the time choir members move on to high school, many know enough sign language to have conversations, and, if they want, can parlay that into a profession. There’s a strong market for interpreters in hospitals, courts, schools and so on, DeSantis said.

Amy Hatzel, one of her original choir members from the 1980s, went on to major in deaf education at EKU, worked for the CIA as an interpreter and now interprets for deaf students in the Carter County school district.

Hatzel had known a few words in sign language as a child. DeSantis and the choir built upon that. “She took my interest and helped it grow,” Hatzel said.

The choir provides members with confidence and everyday skills for life, she said. And as the third most spoken language in the country, it’s not unlikely they’ll have the chance to use it even if not professionally, she said.

“They may be working at McDonalds, and if a deaf person comes in, they’ll be able to communicate. You just can’t know what that does for a deaf person.”

MIKE JAMES can be reached at or (606) 326-2652.

Trending Video