Every semester, UR’s American Sign Language (ASL) Club puts on a show called Sign Idol. It’s almost exactly like American Idol — with many singers competing to win first place for their performance — except that the contestants sign all the words. There are no voices, just moving hands.
This year’s Sign Idol took place on Thursday, Nov. 3, under the flags of Hirst Lounge. The turnout was great, with many people hanging over the balconies outside of Starbucks and watching from the staircases.
The show featured 13 acts — one of which was a duet — with signers ranging in skill and experience from ASL 101 students, who only have two months worth of ASL knowledge, to the very competent and experienced signers from the ASL Club and its executive board. The music included Billboard Top 100 songs such as Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” recent tracks by Adele and Regina Spektor and even some pop culture hits like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s “Mulan.”
The contestants received feedback and comments from a small panel of judges, which included two ASL professors, Dolph Rehkop and program advisor Guillaume Chastel, as well as ASL Club president and senior Justin Gumina.
In some cases, the performances were direct translations of a song’s lyrics — especially in the performances by beginner students. Freshman Zena Levan performed Regina Spektor’s “Two Birds on a Wire,” and her use of classifiers was excellent for a first semester ASL student.
A classifier is a kind of manual placeholder that indicates an object or person as the focus of the signed phrase, and usually takes the shape of and imitates the movement of the subject. In this case, the classifier was for two birds sitting on a wire, and Levan stretched out and bent her index and middle finger to mimic the shape of a chair while imitating the movement of flying away. She grasped this feat extraordinarily well for such a new signer, and the judges commented to that extent.
All of the performers also did very well in showing the emotion of their songs through facial expressions. ASL Club secretary and senior Heather Winegrad performed a stirring interpretation of “Love the Way You Lie” that really made her seem like a part of the story she was telling. Freshman Nahoma Presgberg did a very theatrical job of wooing her duet partner, freshman Rachel Milner, in “Elephant Love Medley” — all while the two executed very “smooth turn-taking,” according to Chastel, which he said was difficult to pull off in a signing duet.
Some song interpretations were very stirring, as the signer shifted between the characters that the lyrics portray. Winegrad’s performance was one of them, as was freshman Kelsey Sahinen Pedroso’s rendition of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” which she filled with all the attitude and sass of the original.The best performances, though, were those that introduced the song’s characters before the lyrics even started. Junior Shani Fox performed The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and began with an introduction to the characters, which she continued between each verse so that she was signing for the majority of the time she was on stage.
Sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate on ASL when English is being spoken or sung simultaneously, but Fox’s signing of filler information about the characters between verses eliminated the gaps in language and appropriately brought the focus back to the signs.
The event ended with a performance by the ASL Club’s event coordinator and senior Mel Balzano. She performed the spunky, attitude-filled tune by P!nk, “Raise Your Glass.” The judges said they really “felt the beat” in her performance and just watching her have fun on stage certainly inspired the audience to get up and dance. Balzano was chosen as the winner by the audience, and as she stood up to claim her prize — a Snuggie — she happily signed, “Now, I can stay warm and sign!”
Holland is a member of the class of 2014.