Amnon and Jill Damti are two unique personalities who I am very happy to call my dear friends. Despite the rigors of Amnon’s early years, he was determined to follow his dream, to dance – eventually winning an award from Gallaudet University in Washington for being considered the Best Deaf Dancer in the World.
But first, something about his background. His mother Shulamit, born in the mid-1920s in Yemen, was given in marriage to a divorcé when she was 10. Her new husband, all credit to him, was patient, waiting until she was “mature” (12) before the marriage was consummated.
Her first son was born when she was 14 or 15 – she never knew her real age – and she later had three more boys. In 1947, the family moved to Israel and had another son and daughter. Three of the sons, including Amnon – the youngest – were deaf.
The family had trekked across Yemen, encountering many hardships en route until eventually reaching a place where airplanes were waiting to fly them to the Holy Land as if “on the wings of eagles.” On arrival they lived in a tented camp. Life was hard, but Israel represented a safe haven for Shulamit and her family, far from the dangers they had experienced in Yemen.
She had brought some jewelry with her, made by her artisan grandfather. Unfortunately, this was stolen, but compared to the subsequent “theft” she suffered, the loss of the jewelry was insignificant.
After two years she gave birth to a long awaited daughter, Miriam.
When the baby was almost a year, Shulamit, having insufficient milk to breast feed was advised to visit the doctor for stamps to receive extra food.
She had heard stories about Yemenite babies being taken away from their parents so was nervous about going, even more so when, at the surgery, the doctor told her that she was young and beautiful and could easily have more children. He continued: ”Your daughter is very ill, and must go to hospital.” Shulamit replied saying “I may be primitive, but my daughter had neither fever nor cough, however she could not argue with the doctor. They were immediately taken by taxi to a hospital where a waiting nurse took the baby from her arms – it was the last time she ever saw her.
Returning to the surgery, she discovered that the “doctor” had disappeared. Shulamit desperately searched for a year but could find no trace of Miriam. Even when she was 90 years old, she said there was not a single night that she did not cry herself to sleep and never once stopped looking for her baby.
When Amnon was young, his mother left his hair long and in pigtails. On one occasion there was a fancy dress party for the Jewish festival of Purim. He wanted to be a cowboy or a soldier but his mother insisted on dressing him as a girl, telling him how beautiful he looked. He never knew the story about his sister until his brothers told him several years later, but his mother never spoke of it until many years later when Jill was making a film on this subject.
Amnon began slowly to realize why, despite his being loved by his mother, he somehow felt as though he was living as a mere shadow of the sister he never knew, whilst Shulamit spent her whole life looking endlessly for her missing daughter. Despite years of searching no trace was ever found.
When Amnon was five, his mother took him on a long journey from their home in the north of Israel to Jerusalem where there was a building full of children. On arrival he enjoyed playing with them, but later that evening realized that his mother had gone, with no explanation. It was the counselor who tucked him into bed who told him this would be his home for the next 13 years. It was eight months before she visited him. Decades later, this story was the inspiration for a dance called “Man in Shadow of Bird,” which Damti, now Israel’s most famous deaf-born dancer, would perform at the White House in front of President George H.W. Bush.
His inspiration to become a dancer began when, aged 10, he saw the Bolshoi Ballet dancing Spartacus on TV He was overwhelmed by the masculine physicality and strength of the dancers and immediately determined that this was the path he must follow.
Five years later Moshe Efrati, producer/choreographer, saw Amnon dancing in a folk group, recognized his raw talent and invited him to join his company, DEMAMA (silence). Efrati promised, “I will make a dancer out of you.” He kept his word. Amnon began classical ballet lessons and within six months emerged as a professional dancer.
He was blessed with natural ability and a great sense of rhythm that, combined with a powerful physique, enabled him to excel at the high leaps and pirouettes that were part of the choreography.
Amnon explains how, despite being profoundly deaf, he “hears” music. The “bass” tones resonate through the wooden dance floor and he feels the beat as vibration from his foot up to his knee. Touch and visual signals are other means of communication between the dancers.
Efrati then combined hearing dancers from Batsheva Ballet Company with his deaf dancers and formed the group Kol U Demama – Sound and Silence. This, the world’s first professional dance group to include deaf dancers gained an international reputation for its artistic merit and contribution to the rehabilitation of the hearing impaired. Such was their expertise, audiences could not identify who was deaf and who was not. Amnon became their lead dancer for 16 years.
In 1983, fortune truly blessed him when he met American-born Jill, whose family moved to Israel when she was a girl. She served as an officer in the IDF, commanding a special unit that integrated at-risk youth and after military service, continued to work as a youth counselor. She studied gymnastics and water ballet and also trained and performed with dolphins and whales. This experience was instrumental in helping her to develop her natural gift for non-verbal communication. She also completed academic studies at Tel Aviv University in cinematography, television and psychology.
Amnon and Jill became friends. She learned sign language, they fell in love, got married and together established “Two Worlds” – a performance showcasing their respective dance backgrounds. It became the longest-running dance show in Israel’s history, combining dance, pantomime and audience participation.
I first met them 30 years ago when, as director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, I invited them to the UK for a tour to several cities and a BBC TV performance in London. The reactions of all audiences were unforgettable. One small boy, wheelchair bound and with mental problems, leaped out of his chair and moved around whilst watching them. His teachers were in tears, this was the first time he had ever shown such a response.
From the start they have traveled the world performing in all manner of institutions – prisons, shelters for asylum-seekers, embassies and orphanages and have time and time again seen the effect of their creative therapeutic work on those in need.
On one occasion they were invited to work at a secret location in California for youngsters rescued from sex trafficking. Holding hands is usually part of the couples’ dance therapy, however, because of the trauma these children had undergone, the dancers were given strict instructions not to use touch. Nevertheless, one by one, the children slowly began to open up – demonstrating the beginnings of their ability to communicate with trust, without fear and having confidence in their future.
Amnon and Jill never tire of performing, constantly experiencing the positive impact they have on those from diverse backgrounds who often have a some social or medical problem that causes them to feel isolated.
They recently published The Damti Method – a complete guide to their technique plus some powerfully moving comments about many of those they have helped. One such tale is about a 13-year-old boy, born profoundly deaf with extreme speech disability as well as a balance problem. He was told he had to come to their course but was apprehensive and rarely smiled.
Jill writes “During a break, he was sitting alone in the coffee shop. We walked up to him and asked him: “What are you good at?” He shrugged and answered “Nothing.” ”What do you like to do?” we asked, “Surely you are good at something?” He took out of his backpack several pictures of robots that he had drawn. Amnon said, “How about I teach you to dance like a robot?”
The boy’s face lit up and from that moment he joined the rest of the group, moving and dancing, with a huge smile on his face for the remainder of the program. His showcase piece was a robot dance, with his drawings projected on the back wall.
Amnon and Jill have also spread their magic into the wider community. Once, in a high security prison they were asked by an inmate, “You have danced before the president of the United States at the White House – what have we done that you come to dance for us?” to which Amnon replied: “Everyone deserves a chance in life.” All the prisoners cheered.
At another show for soldiers affected by post traumatic stress syndrome, Amnon was asked to divulge the secret of his eternal optimism, bearing in mind his very difficult childhood. I do not know how he answered, all I can tell you is that in all the years that I have known him I have never heard him complain or be negative about anything. He is someone who always lifts ones spirits.
Over the years they have received many awards in Israel – the David’s Harp prestigious annual cultural prize, the Golden Cylinder Award, and Person of the Year award. In addition, having performed in Russia, Africa, India and more, they were named by the Foreign Ministry as “Ambassadors of Israeli Culture.”
Not only are they demonstrating an important aspect of Israeli culture, but their book, The Damti Method, will, as Jill says, be their legacy. This system can now be used by dance teachers and others world-wide to bring joy, self confidence and a positive outlook to those in need, as Jill and Amnon have proven over the years.
Throughout his professional dance career, being deaf has never been an obstacle for Amnon, rather it is what has made him exceptional. He and Jill have used the power of dance to transform lives and Amnon is a living example of how with perseverance, courage and talent one can aim for the stars and achieve the impossible.■