Daring to dance

Hearing-impaired McCluer North student has taken her love of dance to the Muny stage and beyond while gaining national acclaim

By Charlotte Beard

Few people can say they’ve had the opportunity to perform before thousands of people at The Muny and travel outside of St. Louis to participate in dance programs in New York City and San Francisco. One McCluer North High School student has managed to catch the attention of professionals in the dance industry to do all of this and more. Cici Gregory, a 16-year-old dancer who trains at COCA, has a unique story for how she began her journey.

When Cici was born prematurely it caused her a lot of health challenges. Montoya Gregory, Cici’s father, said that Cici was less than two years old when she was diagnosed with hearing loss in both ears at the Moog Center for Deaf Education. She then began wearing hearing aids in both ears until she was five-and-a-half years old, at which time she was implanted on one side with a cochlear implant.

Cici’s father and mother – Latisha, shares the difference between her phonak hearing aid and the implant. The cochlear implant has an internal electronic implant that requires surgery and the outer piece, the processor, which sits externally behind the ear. Sound that is detected by the processor travels to the internal implant which stimulates the cochlear and auditory nerve allowing these signals to reach the brain to produce hearing. The cochlear implant can filter sounds at specific frequencies to allow the detection of increased sound and better quality of sound or speech.

Her mom emphasized that unlike some prescription eye-glasses that correct vision, the cochlear implant does not correct hearing. However, it does improve her access to sound and speech quality.

In regards to the hearing aid in the other ear, it makes sound louder but it doesn’t improve the quality of sound or speech for Cici. Montoya gave the example of a radio station. When listening to an AM radio station if there is static as you’re listening to what someone is saying, to hear the speaker you might simply turn up the volume on the radio, but at the same time, you’re also increasing the static. This is similar to what Cici would have with just the hearing aid.

Her parents share, “The reason Cici continues to use both is because the hearing aid on one side, although she has severe hearing loss in that ear, is because it helps her with sound localization depending on the frequency and it allows her to hear bass (low frequency) sounds in dance which can be important for rhythm depending on the type of music. Her cochlear implant really helps with higher frequency where speech occurs. By having both devices, it allows her to participate in dance, but also learn to talk and communicate orally.”

Cici’s journey in dance began after her toddler years of enduring occupational and physical therapy due to being born a severe preemie. She started with gymnastics when it was recommended that she join dance or gymnastics to continue improving her gross motor skills. A year later when Cici didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore, she was enrolled in a dance studio where her cousin attended. By the age of four, Cici started the beginner combo class of tap, ballet and jazz.

Cici who was born weighing one pound and 11 ounces said, “I needed that to be stronger too because I was a little bit weak.”

Cici’s first dance competition was at the age of six or seven years old with Underground at CAC dance studio and she competed at Starpower National Dance Competition for regionals.

Latisha shares, “We were so nervous the entire time, concerned that her devices would come flying off or that she’d forget the dance and panic. She did an amazing job and won an award. She qualified for Nationals, which was held later in the dance season in Orlando. She traveled to Orlando for competitions and again had an amazing performance.”

Cici gained her opportunity to train at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City after auditioning at the COCA sponsored Regional Summer Intensive Auditions in January 2014. She received a partial scholarship.

The dancer got her chance to perform with The Muny when she was 13 years old in dance ensembles due to encouragement from Mr. and Mrs. Lara Teeter after one of their workshops. They noticed her dance skills and encouraged her to take voice lessons to give The Muny audition a try.  She landed in “Hairspray.”

“It was so much fun,” stated Cici. “It was very eye-opening for me. Now I’m into more musicals. The environment in (The Muny) community was very, very open and very loving and welcoming.”

Later that summer she received an invitation to perform in their production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

In July 2018, Cici participated in a summer dance program in San Francisco – “Alonzo King Lines Ballet” due to a selection process from a January 2018 audition in Atlanta. The opportunity was part of their national audition series.

“When I got to the audition,” stated Cici, “there were maybe 30 kids in there. So, I was like okay…I’ll do my best. I was (positioned) in the back corner. I was (thinking) ‘I’m very short so I’m gonna’ have to really do the best I can.’ The teacher walks around and I’m trying to make sure I know what I’m doing but also give my artistic vibe. Then we had to do improv. That (was) the first time I did improv ever in an audition. I was really trying to improv, trying not to look too crazy. Then the teacher wanted us to portray ourselves as animals. I was trying to be like a little snake. I’m trying to do something different…something risky but I don’t want to be too risky where it just knocks me out (of the running). So, I kinda’ keep it cool. When I left the audition I (thought), ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it. These kids are too talented.’ I did my best, but I didn’t think it was enough to surpass the other kids. So, I said (to my) mom, ‘I appreciate you having me go all the way to Atlanta to do this audition. I don’t know if it’s going to be worth it.’ Three days later (I got notice), ‘Welcome Cici, you got a full scholarship.”

Montoya shared that one of the most impressive things about this selection of his and Latisha’s daughter is that she was auditioning among 30 kids at the highest skill level from across the nation.

Cici opened-up about her challenges with performing in the dance industry while deaf.

“Before the ‘Alonzo King Lines’ program, I would kind of be constantly on myself. I want to stand out more but also want to make sure I’m fulfilling what they want and try to make sure I’m on time with the rhythm and counts. But after ‘Lines’ I felt more competent and a lot more peace with myself instead of worrying so much about those things. Also, throughout the program I learned more about the rhythm. So, I understand more about how to find the rhythm in the music. I just [must] calm myself, listen to the beats, count it and go over and over it. Yes, the process of doing that will take me longer to get [what I need] than other people but I know soon I will be able to master it. I feel like now I am doing much better in terms of handling different situations with given instructions at a fast pace. Yes, I will ask questions like, ‘Hey can you say that again? I didn’t hear what you said. Will you please repeat that for me?’ I’m not as nervous anymore, I’ll just step up and ask questions.”

Listening to Cici, Montoya shared that he has often wondered how she knows to transition in music with her dance. Cici shared that she feels she hears sounds that no one else hears and uses her process of counting with those sounds to navigate her performances. She also has been able to find a physical connection in syncing with sounds and rhythms. In addition, for collaborations Cici learns some of the movements of others to use as her queue for when there should be a start or change in her own routine. By doing this, if someone misses or makes an error in their routine she knows the timing for following with her own. On occasion, Cici has found herself ‘faking it until she made it’ when her processor for the implant has fallen off during a performance.

“While all of that is happening in my head, Cici shares, “I also have to find peace because if I over work I get a little bit frustrated with myself if I don’t get it. So, I have to calm down, find peace, and start all over again. It’s a process.”

Cici desires to keep dancing into her adult years as a professional. She encourages others, especially youth, to be themselves and follow their dreams.

CUTLINE: Cover-Dancer1 Photo courtesy Fresh Arts Photo Cici Gregory, a 16-year-old dancer and McCluer North High School student, trains at COCA and has performed before thousands of people at The Muny and traveled to participate in dance programs in New York City and San Francisco.

Cover-Dancer2 Photo courtesy Valerie Sonneveldt Cici Gregory, a 16-year-old dancer and McCluer North High School student, trains at COCA and has performed before thousands of people at The Muny and traveled to participate in dance programs in New York City and San Francisco.