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Friday, October 13, 1995
New York Times

Peter Wisher, 84, Who Created a Dance Genre for the Deaf, Dies

Peter R. Wisher, a former Gallaudet University athletic coach who was so struck by the graceful flow of his students' sign language that he choreographed their hand movements into an acclaimed genre of dance for the deaf, died on Sunday at the Veterans Hospital in Washington. He was 84.

Mr. Wisher had been recuperating from injuries suffered in an automobile accident last April.

Before he took up his position as coach and professor of physical education at Gallaudet, the school for the deaf in Washington, Mr. Wisher, a former assistant basketball coach at the University of Maryland, spent the summer of 1955 learning American Sign Language.

But it was not until that fall, when he watched Gallaudet students signing the Lord's Prayer in a campus ceremony, that he had a vision of the hands as bodies on a stage.

In short order he created a new form of dance, one marked by large, exaggerated movements involving hands, arms and bodies. Although the prayer and countless other works that followed are perceived by most hearing audiences as dance, to those who know American Sign Language they are also opera since the dancers, moving in synchronization with the music they never hear, use the movement of their bodies to sign the lyrics they cannot sing.

Mr. Wisher's students, whose previous forays into dance had been limited to private, often furtive, mimicry of standard dance forms, were so enchanted by his initial exercises in choreography that he formed the college's first performing dance troupe, the Gallaudet Dance Company.

By the time he retired as athletic director in 1981, successive versions of the company had made national and international tours and performed on television.

For Mr. Wisher, an all-around athlete who coached everything from swimming to wrestling, the leap from athletics to dance was hardly a stretch.

He and his wife, Anne, had been involved in dance since their days on the gymnastics team at East Stroudsburg State College in Pennsylvania.

"We even operated a Fred Astaire dance studio," Mrs. Wisher said yesterday, recalling that she and her husband also spent a summer at Connecticut College in the late 1940's studying with some of the greats of modern dance including Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey.

Indeed, Mr. Wisher, who obtained a master's degree and a doctorate in physical education from Penn State University, regarded dance as such an integral part of the athletic experience that his doctoral thesis was "A Modern Dance Manual for Male Teachers of Physical Education."

In a peripatetic coaching career, he routinely used dance both as a training regimen and as a full-fledged sport, often selecting the burliest athletes and transforming them into a performing dance troupe.

"He wanted to counter the idea that men's dancing was somehow sissified," Mrs. Wisher explained.

Mr. Wisher, whose high school specialties had been diving, hurdling, pole vaulting and high jumping, did not see dance so much as a form of athletics as he saw athletics as a variation of dance.

"Movement," he once said, "was the prime interest in my life."

Mr. Wisher, the son of a Polish immigrant, was born in Shenandoah, Pa. His original name was Wiskersky, but he changed it after college, his wife said, as the only way he could get a job in an era of ethnic prejudice.

His father was killed in a coal mining accident when Mr. Wisher was 6, qualifying the youngster for a free primary and secondary education at the Girard College boarding school in Philadelphia, an experience he attributed to changing the course of his life.

"He always said that if it hadn't been for Girard he would have become a coal miner, too," Mrs. Wisher said.

Mr. Wisher, who served in the Navy during World War II and was coaching at Maryland when he was recalled to active duty during the Korean conflict, came to Gallaudet by accident.

"Maryland saved his job for him, but not his seniority," said his wife, recalling that her husband was so miffed by what he saw as an injustice that he started looking for another job and found one at Gallaudet, a college he had never heard of.

Mr. Wisher had also never known a deaf person before. It gave him a certain advantage at a time when sign language was actively discouraged by traditional educators of the deaf, and the belief that those who could not hear music could not dance was so ingrained that it took someone who did not know any better to show the deaf and the world otherwise.

In addition to his wife, of College Park, Md., he is survived by a daughter, Judee Thompson-Judy of Waldorf, Md.; a sister, Anna Benjamin of Forty Fort, Pa., and a brother, Anthony Wisher of Reading, Pa.


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