Holly Maniatty had just handed off to Edie Jackson and stepped off the American Sign Language translator platform at the base of the Acura Stage at New Orleans Jazz Fest. This was duringBruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s set on Sunday (April 29). The women were team-translating Bruce’s marathon performance, which was nearing its conclusion with “Dancing in the Dark.”
“I was looking out in the crowd, and this woman turned all white, and she started crying and she was shaking,” Maniatty said. “I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, where’s medical?’ And then I realized Bruce was coming over, and that’s what she was reacting to.”
Maniatty jumped right back on the platform.
Earlier in the show, both Maniatty and Jackson had noticed Springsteen taking an interest in what they were doing.
“We had some back-and-forth there,” Jackson said.
“It was a really nice kind of private shout-out,” Maniatty added.
Tom Petty and his band had given them both similar attention from the stage the day before. One Heartbreaker had even signed “I love you” to the women.
As the E Street Band vamped on “Dancing in the Dark” on Sunday, Springsteen tossed his guitar to a tech, bounced down off the stage and onto the side-stage translator platform. There, dancing commenced. Then all three signed the song’s chorus.
“Musically oriented people don’t pick up sign language right away,” Maniatty said. “It was great to see him very quickly pick up on the signs.”
Springsteen dancing with an audience member during that song is a rite that goes back nearly 30 years, to the 1984 MTV-ready video for the song, directed by Brian De Palma, during which the newly buff Boss pulls pre-“Friends” Courteney Cox onto the stage for an arm-swinging spin.
And, thanks to video, this dance has taken on an afterlife of its own. A YouTube clip taken by a nearby spectator (see below) had more than 2,000 views as of Friday (May 4), many apparently by members of the deaf community.
“A lot of people from all over the country have sent me emails saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you got Bruce to sign,'” Maniatty said. “People who saw him signing were very touched by that.
“For them to see someone who’s a music icon and an American icon use their language, which is not spoken … One person said to me, ‘I saw him sign, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe he thinks about deaf people listening to his music, too.’ This person, I know, has been a fan of Bruce’s music for 20 years.
“That was a paradigm-changing moment for them (from) someone they care about and follow.
“That one small moment has gone all over the Internet and all over the United States. People are very, very touched by it.”
As were both Maniatty, an ASL instructor in Portland, Maine, and Jackson, who teaches deaf and hearing-impaired kids in Pawleys Island, S.C.
ASL-translation veterans of many festivals (Jackson signed Springsteen’s 2009 Bonnaroo show) and concerts, both worked other stages during Jazz Fest’s first weekend, including the Gospel Tent and cooking demos at the Food Heritage Stage.
“I’ve interpreted for Bruce a number of times, and that concert had a different feel from any of the other concerts I’ve done for him,” Maniatty said. “It was almost like he was way more connected with the crowd, almost on some level more vulnerable.
“From the moment the show started, it was a very different feeling. He seemed so into bringing people into his experience.”
Signing for a music performance requires preparation and stamina, said both translators, reached via separate telephone interviews a few days after the Springsteen performance.
“It’s very intense. It’s very stressful,” Jackson said. “We kind of have a little idea of who we’re going to perform, but you don’t have a set list, you don’t have lyrics. You basically have to learn all of that person’s music, and when you’re talking about Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, that’s a lot of music.”
Translating a concert performance, Jackson said, is usually not a “word-for-word” process.
“It’s much more conceptual,” she said. “You’re trying to convey the instrumentation, the whole big picture of the story, the emotion of the story. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes that’s not.”
Jackson had been assigned to do Al Green’s concurrent show at the Congo Square Stage until about an hour before Springsteen’s set. She’d studied a lot of Springsteen’s older music – “His lyrics are just fabulous,” she said – but wasn’t as familiar with some of the newer material he played.
“His new stuff was challenging, but fun,” she said. “It was certainly worth all the stress to have that little moment.”
Which she punctuated by laying a parting thank-you smooch on Springsteen, also captured in the YouTube video.
“I totally did,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want him to leave. It was so much fun.”