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Kerry Thompson, who is deaf and legally blind, gave a salsa lesson to Paul Ingemi at the Blackstone Community Center.
Kerry Thompson, who is deaf and legally blind, gave a salsa lesson to Paul Ingemi at the Blackstone Community Center.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

To be deaf, legally blind, and a dancer means that Kerry Thompson doesn’t need to hear the music to know how it moves her. She feels the rhythm as it vibrates through the speakers and the floor.

The disability advocate and dance instructor discovered salsa 13 years ago. It was a tactile language that spoke to her. It was also one of the first times a friend invited her to dance.

“That doesn’t sound like a big deal but it is a big deal. She wasn’t thinking, ‘how would Kerry hear the music? Would Kerry even be interested?’” Thompson said. “People make assumptions about what you can do, can’t do, what you will like and what you won’t like.”

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Thompson began taking lessons with MetaMovements Latin Dance Company , internalizing the rhythms, and learning to perform “rueda” with a team of several couples. They danced in sync in a circle, with one dancer using calls and hand signals in a loud room to communicate their next move.

Once she had the steps, she wanted to teach Latin dance. She trained in bachata, cha-cha-cha, and salsa, with the goal of creating adaptable dance lessons that were more accessible to people with disabilities. She also founded and serves as executive director for Silent Rhythms, a nonprofit that has paid for sign language interpreters to accompany students to classes that lacked accommodations, covered the costs of their transportation, and has created opportunities for people with disabilities and taught thousands to dance.

“Silent Rhythms isn’t about teaching dance only,” Thompson said. “It’s about trying to support inclusion in the arts. That could be theatre, that could be dance, that could be going to museums, that could be going to a Broadway show. I want to raise awareness.”

Born in a bayou community outside of New Orleans, Thompson learned about exclusion and discrimination early in life. She grew accustomed to being underestimated.

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“I was always the only deaf person in all of my classes from kindergarten through 12th grade,” Thompson said. “It can be lonely. It can be isolating. I didn’t use sign language in school because they wouldn’t provide an interpreter for me.”

Doctors told her family not to teach her to sign and recommended a school a 100 miles away.

Kerry Thompson (right) instructed Elena Topoo in salsa moves during a class at the Blackstone Community Center.
Kerry Thompson (right) instructed Elena Topoo in salsa moves during a class at the Blackstone Community Center.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

“You don’t tell a Southern mom you want to send her babies away,” Thompson said. “My mom said no and that she would do whatever she could to make sure we got a good education.”

Both Thompson and her kid brother were born with Usher Syndrome, a condition that causes deafness and the slow deterioration of their eyesight. Her mother still required everyone to learn sign language. Thompson attended a class for deaf children before going to a regular school.

“We were separated from the rest of the school. We were not allowed to have recess together, we were not allowed to have lunchtime together,” Thompson said. “We had to go through a special entrance to the school away from the other kids.”

She never saw herself as very different. She simply perceived the world in a different way. Even then, she danced. She took ballet, imitated moves she saw in music videos, and invented routines inside her parent’s garage. She learned to read lips and speak verbally through a speech pathologist. This is one reason that Thompson doesn’t curse. Speaking was a hard skill to master, she said.

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Why would she waste her words?

Her parents convinced her she lacked nothing she needed to succeed.

But even they marveled at how far their daughter would go. Thompson studied abroad in London, graduated from Louisiana State University with degrees in psychology and english, and later from Harvard University with a masters degree in human development and psychology. Today, she works as the information and program coordinator for the Disability Rights Fund. Among the organization’s responsibilities is to provide grants to disabled persons organizations around the world. Every Monday between June and the end of August, Thompson teaches salsa. In the fall, she offers classes that combine salsa with sign language. People with disabilities learn to dance and people without disabilities can learn a new way to communicate.

“I hope my story can inspire people to take on challenges, to step outside the box, to try things they thought they never would be able to do,” Thompson said. “There are many people that are afraid to go dancing, but if I can do it nobody else can use excuses.”

All her life, Thompson defined herself as a “deaf person.” Now she’s adjusting to the title, “deafblind” person. She’s devoted herself to learning to read in Braille, using a white cane, and tactile sign language, which is when someone signs into her hand.

What she can see during the day is about the size of a quarter. Her peripheral vision is gone, but her fear of losing her sight has lessened as she finds new ways to connect without her hearing or seeing.

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On summer nights when the heat seems to rise from the cobblestones, the music draws people in to a courtyard outside the South End’s Blackstone Community Center for “Salsa in the Park.” Two dance lessons occur at once. Beginners listen and watch their instructor’s feet before practicing their steps. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. Thompson’s students watch her hands and read her lips.

“Before I teach more things, I want to see what you remember,” Thompson signs to 35-year-old Paul Ingemi of Norwood, a deaf electrical engineer who comes every summer. They practice turns.

“Would you like to dance?” he later asks a woman in sign language.

She nods and they join other couples in the courtyard.

This is the real America, said Randy DeWitt, 36, one of Thompson’s longtime students who also has Usher Syndrome. Dancing helped improve his balance and make friends.

“One of my goals is to dance as well as the people you see here,” said DeWitt. “It doesn’t matter that I’m deaf or deafblind. Everyone accepts you for who you are. Everyone just wants to dance.”

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.