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Krishna Washburn: “I’m Cutthroat; This is My Career” (Stance On Dance)

Originally posted on February 8, 2021 at Stance on Dance

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Krishna Washburn: “I’m Cutthroat; This is My Career”

February 8, 2021

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO

Krishna Christine Washburn has performed with many leading dance companies including Infinity Dance Theater, Thinkdance, Heidi Latsky Dance, marked dance project and LEIMAY. She has collaborated with many independent choreographers, including Patrice Miller, Iele Paloumpis, Perel, Vangeline, Micaela Mamede, Apollonia Hoelzer and, most notably, with A I Merino who especially created her signature role, ERZSEBET Bathory. She boasts several ongoing artistic collaborations, including work with wearables artist Ntilit (Natalia Roumelioti). Krishna is the artistic director of The Dark Room, a multi-disciplinary project with fellow visually impaired dancer Kayla Hamilton.

Please consider making a donation to support the completion and publishing of the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project!

To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

Illustration of Krishna Washburn

Image description: Krishna is pictured facing the front, her head tilted toward her left shoulder and arm. She is holding a white cane in her right hand and her left hand and arm are extended to the side. She is illustrated with long brown hair sweeping right above her head, adorned with red ornamentation. She is wearing a white slip dress.

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How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?

I started dancing as a sighted child at age three. I studied ballet with the Royal Academy of Dance. I was accepted to Barnard College at age 18 and was in a preprofessional dance track. By the end of my first year, I experienced rapid dramatic vision loss. I stopped dancing for a long time. I missed dance a lot, but I didn’t have any life skills; I didn’t know how to walk or open a door. I was helpless for a long time. Seven years ago, I felt like I had regained confidence enough to study dance again, and I’ve been working professionally for five years now.

I have been a principle dancer with Infinity Dance Theater and Jill Sigman’s Thinkdance. I just did my second leading role as Elizabeth Báthory in Erzsébet at the New York Theater Festival Summerfest. I’m also working with other visually impaired dancers and choreographers like Kayla Hamilton. I used to dance for Heidi Latsky, for which people probably know me best because she uses photos of me in promo material. In addition to ballet, I have a considerable background in butoh. I’ve played a lot of ghosts.

I primarily dance in other people’s work, but I’ve done some of my own choreography as well, usually in collaboration. I’ve choreographed for collaborations with a visual artist who does wearable sculpture and with a playwright.

How would you describe your current dance practice?

I take class 365 days a year. I’m one of the only people I know at this point in their career who literally takes class every day. I take mostly ballet class, though I also do a lot of jazz and some contemporary. Most days of the week, I’m also rehearsing in one project or another. I generally have three or four projects going on at any given time. In addition, I am a strong believer in conditioning. I weightlift most days. I also teach athletics to disabled youth; I have a certification as an integrative conditioning coach through the American College of Sports Medicine.

When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?

Though I use a white cane, a lot of people don’t know what a white cane is for. They don’t know that it means I’m blind. I generally have to explain. People who know I’m blind often think that dance is some kind of hobby or cute inspirational thing. No dude, I’m cutthroat; this is my career.

A lot of people assume things about the dancing I must do. They wonder how I know where I am. I am patient and happy to explain the minutia to people if they are asking me those questions in good faith. I’m more patient than most, but it is kind of sad. Most people don’t even know a blind person. They don’t understand what it means to be blind.

What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?

There are two categories of feedback I find problematic. One is: “I couldn’t even tell you are blind/visually impaired,” as if I’m trying to hide it or I’m ashamed of the fact. Why would I be embarrassed? This is who I am and this is the body I work with. I think they are trying to assure me that they couldn’t tell I have a disability. The other feedback generally comes from people who know ahead of time that they are going to see a blind performer. I think it colors their perception of what they are about to see so strongly that they are not able to see the content of what I’ve done, and instead are fixated on seeing some blind lady dance. It’s almost as if my identity is too distracting that they can’t pay attention to the performance itself.

With regards to press, what advice would you give to a reporter who is unfamiliar writing about dance artists with disabilities?

Talk to the disabled performer. I understand that sometimes reporters work on a deadline and have to run home and write but, if you have the opportunity, talk to us directly. If you have dumb or embarrassing questions, let me help you out so what you write isn’t detrimental to disabled dancers as a whole.

Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?

I’m only going to speak for blind and visually impaired dancers, but I feel like the educational opportunities available take the worst possible approach. They treat the blind or visually impaired dancer’s body like a marionet and don’t encourage bodily autonomy. In other words, the teacher moves the student around, which basically prevents the student from learning how to dance.

Nobody should ever touch a blind person without saying something first. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to understand. I know a lot of blind people are accustomed to being manhandled, but it’s not the mindset I want serious dance students to cultivate about themselves.

There are certain skills I believe a visually impaired or blind person needs to have prior to studying dance seriously, which are directional hearing, internal balance and foot sensitivity. I created a workshop called Dark Room Ballet which develops these skills. However, I haven’t gotten to teach it to many blind people, though I keep trying. I’ve mostly been teaching it to sighted people, which is kind of sad. But if a blind or visually impaired person can cultivate those skills first, they can study any dance technique they want.

I really like when teachers use verbal descriptions. That’s one of the reasons why I’m still in ballet class; I know my terms, so I can listen and comprehend. I feel that the more contemporary tradition of just having dancers follow the teacher or choreographer is very inaccessible. Being able to describe the steps or choreography is vital for visually impaired dancers.

I also like when dance teachers offer their own body for blind students to touch and learn from for more complex shapes and patterns. It’s much more respectful than moving the dancer like a piece of clay.

Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?

Something I like about our disability arts community is that in a way we’re pioneers. We don’t have to replicate the crappy things about dance culture that already exist. We don’t have to encourage dancers to trash themselves physically and ignore their wellbeing. We don’t have to replicate tyrannical choreographers. We have a cleaner slate. I would actually like if non-disabled dance culture would assimilate to us.

With regards to open classes, I sneak into open class every day. My money is the same as anyone else’s. Sometimes I ask the teacher for permission; usually I don’t. If you feel confident enough that you can be in the room and no harm can come to you, do as you want. If somebody treats you wrong, they’re breaking the law.

As for performance venues and festivals, why would they not consider disabled performers and artists for any program? We’re spectacular. We’re talented. We’re creative. We’re coming up with some of the newest and most innovative ideas.

Once I auditioned for a dance company and had a great audition, but the choreographer told me that, while he liked the way I moved, he wasn’t sure if he wanted his company to go in that direction, as if disability is a distraction from his genius. I don’t know what to do about people like that. I don’t want to collaborate with people who aren’t thrilled to collaborate with me.

On the other hand, I sometimes get approached for projects or companies I’m definitely uncomfortable with. I was recently approached by a playwright wanting to make an inspirational semi-autobiographical play about me but with a tragic romance. That’s called fetishism.

What is your preferred term for the field?

I like the term “visually impaired” because it’s like a big tent and it doesn’t ask people to go into the minutia of how much sight they have and thus create a sight hierarchy, which I think is counterproductive. I like “disability arts” because we all have multiple artistic skills, whether it’s dance, music, acting, writing or visual arts. As for me personally, I call myself “blind lady” or “blind lady dancer.”

In your perspective, is the field improving with time?

I feel like it is improving in certain ways. Alice Sheppard won a Bessie award, and that was one of the greatest things that ever happened. I want to be Alice when I grow up. However, while the disability arts community is becoming bigger and more exciting within it, getting non-disabled people to support us is still challenging.

For example, in order for me to be safe in my performance space, I need a little time in the space before tech rehearsals. That’s just basic. If I can’t learn the dimensions and feel the floor texture, I can’t perform safely. Sometimes venues don’t understand that. On the phone or over email, they’ll tell me I can’t come in early, but when I appear and I have my cane and am wearing shades, they say, “Oh my god, what can I do for you? Can I guide you around by the arm?” It’s this weird bipolar relationship. On the phone they deny me access, but when they meet me in person, they suddenly feel guilty. It’s very complicated and stressful and puts me in a lot of uncomfortable situations. I was able to get an hour and a half on my stage when I performed last month. I had to work really hard really fast. If I was not as skilled as I am, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. This scenario happens to me repeatedly.

Any other thoughts?

What I would really love is to just do my work. That’s all I care about. It’s been so difficult for me to acquire the skills I have so that I can work at the level I do. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t the most important thing in the universe to me. I’d sacrifice just about anything else. I breathe dance every minute of my life. And I’m a hustler. I take every gig I can get unless I think it is inspiration porn. I’m in class every day. I’m constantly building my skills and talking to people about the art I do. I’m always striving. I work so hard, but some people think I just show up on stage and manifest as a fascinating other-worldly alien creature. No man, I’m a straight up jock hustler. I have a gig every month, and it’s going to be like that until the day I die.

Krishna Washburn, photo by Jazzmine Beaulieu

Krishna Washburn, Photo by Jazzmine Beaulieu, taken in relation to Maria, a choreographed drama by Micaela Mamede

Image description: Krishna is pictured standing and facing front with her left foot gently pointed to the side of her. She is holding a white cane to the right of her body and both hands are delicately holding the cane. She is smiling with her face cocked over her left shoulder. Her hair is in a long braid adorned with a white headdress and hanging over her right shoulder. She is wearing a white slip dress.

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To learn more about Krishna’s classes for visually imparied dancers, visit darkroomballet.com.

Please consider making a donation to support the completion and publishing of the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project!

To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Projectvisit here!

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Krishna's Thoughts

Krishna’s Mailbag #1

AUDIO: Krishna discusses her educational background and the idea behind Dark Room Ballet.

Transcript:

Hi, everybody! This is Krishna… and the Dark Room Ballet mailbag! Let’s see if there is anything interesting in the mailbag today.

(shakes bag)

Well I have here a very popular question, which is “Tell us a little bit about your own personal education, Krishna. How did you come up with Dark Room Ballet?”

All right, here is my own personal education. My education as a ballet dancer comes through Royal Academy of Dance, which I started studying when I was three. I also have an undergraduate degree from Barnard College which is the women’s college at Columbia University, and I have a Master’s of Education, and that would be elementary grade education, from Hunter College. I also have a special certification through the American College of Sports Medicine, I actually have multiple certifications through ACSM, and I have a specialty in biomechanics.

What is biomechanics, you might ask? Biomechanics is the application of mechanical science to structures of the human body. Lots of third class levers in the human body, and that is something that I know quite a lot about.

So, that is my educational background. So if you combine all of those things together, my many, many, many years of ballet study, my education background, and my long-term study of biomechanics, you have the fundamentals to develop a class like Dark Room Ballet, which is rooted in Royal Academy of Dance style ballet training, with real, recent understanding about human cognition and learning needs, and also the biomechanics background, so that way when I teach blind and visually impaired dancers, it’s easy for me to communicate anatomical concepts for them as they study, and learn dance from inside out.

How did I come up with the idea for Dark Room Ballet? I felt like it was something of a necessity, because while there are blind professional dancers out in the world, each one of us has had to kind of re-invent the wheel. I took what I have learned from all of the wonderful teachers in my life, and I am doing my part to end that system — make this into a way where we can help every artist self-actualize with the support they need.

So, that is Krishna’s mailbag for today. If you’ve got any questions for me, you can just ask me, and maybe I will dig into the mailbag (shakes bag) and find it for you.

Have a great day, everybody!

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Krishna's Thoughts

Krishna’s Movement Meditation

AUDIO: Krishna shares a message about movement education, progress, and patience.

Transcript:

This is a little movement, meditation, motivation message from Krishna, your Dark Room Ballet teacher.

Today, I am here to talk about educational process.

This is a hard truth, but it’s a beautiful truth. And, it’s not marketable; you might even call it an anti-capitalist message, but it’s the real truth, and it is something that has brought me so much comfort and joy over the years as I have been learning movements of different kinds.

Let’s start with a little story. About a year ago, I decided at my advanced age, that I was going to learn yoga for the first time. Now you could think, well that’s surprising, most of the dancers I know do yoga. Well, I’d never gotten around to it. I knew that it was something I wanted to learn, but it’s not something I had ever tried before.

So, blind me decides I’m going to try some classes and, need a teacher that I can trust. And I did! Now it’s a year later. And I can tell you, in all truth and honesty, I am still mixed up and confused much of the time. Because, that is the nature of anyone’s first year of learning new movement.

Even someone like me, who is a professional dancer, who has studied movement types of other kinds. I knew from my first year, I’m gonna feel a little mixed up, a little cognitively off my balance, a little bit confused most of the time. And since I knew that coming in, it has been a very joyful and relaxing and very fun experience. I’ve known this fact ever since I studied education formally. This is just how the human animal learns.

Now, a lot of you know that I love jazz music, and jazz dance with all my heart and soul. I only really started to have an opportunity to study jazz as a dance form about six years ago, with an amazing teacher named Theresa Perez, we call her “T.” She’s an amazing teacher. I knew, that I was going to be the most confused person in class for at least a year. And it was, if I look back on it now, it’s probably two years, I was the most confused person in class. But, I knew that that was gonna be my educational process. But I was gonna come to class every week, and do my best, and stay focused, and listen to her and trust, that every time I try, it was going to make a difference.

Six years later, when I have class with her now, I almost never feel confused. I almost always feel confident. And, when I am confused, it’s really easy for me to formulate a question to ask her. But, this takes time, and it should be a joyful thing, not something to fear.

So, let’s say you you’ve been studying ballet for a week, or a month, or six months, or a year, or two years, and you feel confused, and you feel mixed up, and and you’re worried like “Oh my gosh! Can I really do this?” The answer is, yes. The answer is, of course! And, it is all right that you are going to feel confused for your first week, month, six months, one year, two years. That’s part of the joy of being a human being who gets to learn something new. Don’t worry if you’re in class and you’re like “Oh my gosh! I bet that I’m the one who is the most confused here.”

It’s a place everyone has had to be in at some point or another, and it’s okay. Take it from me (laughs), someone who has been the most confused in class, multiple times,. I love that feeling. It means that I’m getting to try something new, and I can just do whatever I can to help myself focus. So that means setting up my dance space the way I like it, making sure that I have a new piece of tape on the floor, and that I’ve swept all the bird seed and the hay off the floor that my pets leave for me; that I am wearing clothes that do not distract me, really comfortable things, that I have my technique shoes on, or my favorite socks that I love to dance in, that I have family members are not going to interrupt me while I am concentrating, that my phone is not nearby, that I don’t have other things that are going to interfere with my time to be in my movement practice, learning something new.

Do what you can to make the learning process comfortable, and it will happen. You just need to keep trying, and keep coming back. You will start to learn before you’ve noticed that you’ve started to learn. Your meta-cognition is always the last thing to know. One day you will find yourself in a perfect relevé, and you’ll come down out of it and you won’t even have felt a thing. The next day, you’ll be like “Oh my gosh, I felt so on my balance, it was such a nice experience.” It came because you just kept trying. Trust in yourself, trust in your ability to learn. It’s part of what makes us people. It’s part of what makes human beings unique and special animals.

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News / Announcements

Instead of a mirror, blind dancers rely on their ears, feet and a strong sense of their body in space

Originally posted on January 6, 2021 at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital’s BLOOM Blog

Woman doing ballet in kitchen in front of laptop
Bloom Logo

BLOOM BLOG
Jan 06, 2021

Instead of a mirror, blind dancers rely on their ears, feet and a strong sense of their body in space

Photo © Danielle Parhizkaran – USA TODAY NETWORK 

By Louise Kinross

Krishna Washburn (above) is a blind dancer in New York City who teaches a free online ballet class at Dark Room Balletfor adults who are visually impaired. Her students come from around the world. They can’t see her, but they rely on her verbal descriptions of exercises and how to move their body into different shapes. Instead of a mirror, students use a strip of tape on the floor to orient them in space. Krishna is a professional dancer who has performed with many companies. She holds a Master’s of Education from Hunter College and a special certification through the American College of Sports Medicine. No experience is necessary for her introductory class, which runs every Monday night. We spoke about her non-visual style of instruction which is grounded in a deep understanding of the body. 

BLOOM: What is dark room ballet?

Krishna Washburn: The concept is a system of teaching ballet that does not privilege sight. It’s based on several different techniques that I’ve absorbed over the years. I was taught ballet through the Royal Academy of Dance, so that is the ballet style we use. I don’t give my students a mirror as a tool. Instead, I give them a strip of tape on the floor, so we have to learn with a different mindset but with the same, shared vocabulary that all ballet dancers use. It’s very anatomy-based. I take a lot of inspiration from Feldenkrais techniques about coming to understand how your anatomy interacts internally, and from the great tradition of Japanese Butoh, which is also a dance style that is non-visual and very much about knowing how your nervous system works.

I have a Monday night group class at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and I have students who come from every part of the world and every time zone. My students mean so much to me. Monday class is open level so it’s suitable for people with an introductory level understanding of ballet positions. We typically do six exercises, including centre, and I use very fun music. I speak and describe continuously through the music. Some of my students have some sight, but most of my students don’t see me at all. The first hour is focusing on being in your body and ballet technique. The last half hour is the most important part, because it’s question and answer time. Students can ask me to explain something we did in more detail so they’re clear on it. It’s also a time for the blind and visually impaired community to get to know and support each other in their dance journey. 

BLOOM: Why do you call it dark room?

Krishna Washburn: For many reasons. A dark room in photography is where images develop, so the dark room is also a theoretical place where you as an artist take time to develop and allow yourself to change chemically.

BLOOM: I love that analogy. How is blind dancing different from sighted dancing? I read this on your website in a piece called Breaking down stereotypes about blind dancersSome people, even other disabled people, think that the aesthetic of the blind dancer is basically what a sighted dancer would do, just not as good. This is a mistake that people make because of ableism. A highly skilled blind dancer is absolutely not lesser than a highly skilled sighted dancer, but is, indeed, different.

Krishna Washburn: That essay is about breaking down stereotypes about blind dancers and taking the fear away from talking about ableism. When we talk about the difference between how a sighted and blind dancer moves, it’s really very different, because we need to think about our bodies and our movement choices very differently. We have to use our ears, use our feet, use our sense of internal orientation, and we need a much greater awareness of our own anatomy.

The study tool of the sighted dancer is the mirror. You watch your teacher in the mirror and copy your teacher. The blind dancer can’t do that. The blind dancer has to understand the floor, that is our tool. We use a tape strip. The orientation tape on the floor is a very old tradition. It’s how blind teachers teach blind students how to keep their spot as they’re studying, how to keep their sensitivity in their feet, how to understand where they are, and how to feel confident where they are. I need to understand where all of my bones are in my body. Maybe a sighted dancer doesn’t have to do that. I need to know exactly how much space I have before I begin a choreography. A sighted dancer doesn’t have to think twice about that. That doesn’t mean that the quality of my artistry is in any way secondary to what a sighted dancer does. I’m not compensating. I’m using technique that is appropriate to me. I’m a master of my art in the same way sighted dancers are a master of theirs. 

I feel there’s a very unhealthy narrative we teach to kids that you have a disability so you’re going to have to overcome that disability and compensate in order to achieve what you want to achieve. That’s a terrible thing we teach our kids. It doesn’t reflect reality. The reality is we live in an ableist world. I’ve mentored younger, pre-professional dancers who’ve told me ‘I thought I needed to compensate or work harder or do something to overcome.’ We need to be frank. There is a problem in our culture called ableism. People think what you do is less valuable and less important than what non-disabled people do. And that isn’t true. When people discriminate against you and use stereotypes about your disability, instead of interacting with you as a unique person, we need to point it out, or get an older person to help. 

BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge of doing your class online?

Krishna Washburn: The hardest part is making sure my technology is not going to break, because that has actually happened. The compressor in my extremely expensive microphone did break and we had to do old school and use the internal microphone in my laptop. But I got a new one right away. So you have to make sure the technology is your friend.

I love teaching online because I don’t have the commute. I didn’t even realize this but prior to quarantine, I spent an easy four hours a day in the subway in New York City, getting to studios. I have so much more time now and I work so much harder. I’m doing many private classes as well as group classes, and I’m rehearsing in arts projects and creating art on my own. 

BLOOM: What’s the great joy of your online class?

Krishna Washburn: There’s so much joy. Having conversations with my students in Q and A time, when you can hear in their voice that something clicks. Ballet is fundamentally a dance form that prioritizes balance. You stabilize one part of your body so you can have freedom elsewhere. Most of the time you stabilize your torso, so your arms and legs can move freely. Once that clicks, and the student says I know how to find the back of my heels, to transfer my weight from foot to foot and keep my torso stable so my legs can move as I want, and I can feel balanced and not feel scared, then every movement from then on is like the first domino falling on the floor and the rest fall into place.

BLOOM: What do people, especially beginners, say they get out of the class?

Krishna Washburn: A lot of blind folks have been deprived of information about their own bodies because somebody decided that because they’re blind or visually impaired, they don’t need to know about their own skeleton, about their own nervous system, and about the names of the parts of their body. I’ve had conversations with adaptive physical education teachers who work with young people, and I always encourage them not only to always use their voice and describe movements, but to explicitly teach anatomy, even to little kids.  A lot of blind dance beginners who are adults need this education, and there aren’t people offering it to adults. 

If I’m starting with someone who has been prevented from knowing the basic facts about their body and their body’s capability, I’m giving them the opportunity to truly take ownership of their body and to know what it is and what it does and what it can do, and to not feel anxious about movement. I want them to feel happiness in movement and to feel freedom in movement and to not feel the weight of judgment of sighted people watching.

BLOOM: How did you get interested in dance?

Krishna Washburn: I started out as a sighted person who was scouted by the Royal Academy of Dance when I was three. I went through the entire curriculum and it wasn’t until I was a young adult in a pre-professional stage of my training that I experienced vision loss. All of my paid work has been as a blind performer.

BLOOM: I know you perform with a number of dance companies. What pulls you to teaching?

Krishna Washburn: I was born to be a teacher. That’s always mattered to me. And I don’t want what I’ve learned in life as a dancer to die with me. I want to grow this as a field and gain legitimacy and not become a separate group that no one has heard of. If you’re American, it’s very normal for you to have dance lessons as a kid. Unless you’re disabled. I would like dance to be a normal part of growing up, whether you’re disabled or not.  Every child should have a chance to learn about the body and take time to understand these are how my bones feel together, and I can feel the nerves in my fingers and feet, I know they’re there. It’s not theoretical stuff from science class, it’s real.

BLOOM: What is the best way for someone to contact you if they’d like to consider joining your Monday class?

Krishna Washburn: Just e-mail me at info @ darkroomballet.com.

You can learn all about Krishna and her classes by visiting Dark Room Ballet.

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News / Announcements

Virtual ballet class for blind dancers thrives during the pandemic

Original article published at NorthJersey.com, December 15, 2020

The pandemic cut off George Stern from his go-to physical activities. No more jiujitsu. Goodbye running group. 

Stern, who is deafblind, needed something safe and accessible that could keep him healthy. He stumbled upon a post in a social media group where people with disabilities talk about fitness and discovered Dark Room Ballet, a virtual class run out of a New York City apartment and designed for people with impaired vision. 

Stern was inspired by Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, to sign up for private lessons. 

“Uppermost in my head as I went into this was the memory of an NPR feature on … Copeland, and her words to the effect that ballet was for all body types, not just tall, skinny ones,” Stern said.

Krishna Washburn teaches her 'Dark Room Ballet' class, a virtual ballet class for blind and visually impaired people, from her kitchen in New York on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.
Krishna Washburn teaches her ‘Dark Room Ballet’ class, a virtual ballet class for blind and visually impaired people, from her kitchen in New York on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com

And not just sighted ones.

Dark Room Ballet founder and instructor Krishna Washburn, a blind dancer based in New York, taught Stern that people with disabilities can also practice ballet. And during the pandemic, offering the classes virtually made her lessons accessible in a way they weren’t before. 

With two laptops, a microphone and a chair used as a ballet barre, Washburn guides students through the technique of a highly visual art form using detailed descriptions of how they should move their bodies. She teaches virtually on Zoom from her Hamilton Heights apartment every Monday evening.

Sighted ballet dancers scrutinize their movements in large mirrors until they perfect a sequence, but perfection isn’t what matters in Washburn’s classes.

She believes it’s immaterial to talk about how dancers should look. Instead, she explains how her students’ bodies should feel in order to build their confidence to dance.

Washburn launched Dark Room Ballet in April, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her teaching philosophy works well, she says, in an environment where it isn’t safe to be close to other people. 

“Pretty much every person who I teach all have a history of being touched in unwanted ways … a lot of the available [dance] curriculums are predominantly about that because they assume people cannot think and interpret for themselves,” Washburn said. “Blind people really learn by having a conversation and through repeated experimentation.”

Through this experimentation, Washburn aims to introduce her students to new ways of movement and self-expression. One student, Len Burns, had practiced jiujitsu and yoga, but never took a ballet class before the pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns in March.

A blind man in his 60s, Burns believed he did not “quite fit the stereotype of a beginning ballet student,” but a friend encouraged him to give Washburn’s class a try.

“Little could I have known on that quiet Sunday afternoon that I had begun a journey that has already transformed me in ways I could never have imagined,” Burns said.

Washburn’s classes also thrived during the pandemic, allowing people from around the globe to join. Burns practices in the central coast area of California. Washburn said another student wakes up at 5 a.m. just to dance with Dark Room Ballet.

Washburn believes she’s the only person teaching the way she does. Some companies have offered special classes or programs for visually impaired dancers, and the Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association in Brazil says on its website that it is the only dance school and company in the world made up entirely of visually impaired people.

Washburn considers herself a “ballet folk artist” because she is largely self-taught, but she takes dance classes every day and follows the guidance of her blind dance mentor, Mana Hashimoto.

Hashimoto studied dance at the New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She performed dance around the world, including at the world-renowned dance space Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. In 2009, Hashimoto founded Dance Without Sight, a workshop series that teaches movement through touch, sound and smell.https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/pnjm/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html

Washburn performed with several companies, including Infinity Dance Theater in New York City, where she climbed the ranks to principal dancer. Along with her extensive dance background, Washburn holds a master’s degree in education and certification from the Indiana-based American College of Sports Medicine.

Still, Washburn said ableism in the dance industry is “almost inexplicable,” and it held her back as a teacher and performer.

She’s been barred from classes with sighted dancers by instructors who fear she could injure herself or others. People have underestimated her intellect, and a lot of work placed Washburn in “unsafe and disrespectful environments,” but she took it anyway because she thought she wouldn’t land any other jobs.  

To help break down barriers for visually impaired dancers, Washburn offers her group class and private lessons for free. 

“My true mission is to fight against educational denial,” Washburn said. “If someone wants to learn something from me, I never, ever say no, because they deserve to learn.”

Krishna Washburn talks with students before her virtual "Dark Room Ballet" class begins in her New York City home on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.
Krishna Washburn talks with students before her virtual “Dark Room Ballet” class begins in her New York City home on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com

Washburn delves deeper than typical ballet technique instruction by explaining skeletal awareness and biomechanics. She coaches dancers to tune in to their bodies and feel how each muscle moves in order to place them in a prescribed form.

On the first day of class, Washburn instructs her students to place a line of tape on the ground and get used to the feeling of it. That helps dancers feel “confident and oriented in their dance space,” Washburn said. People move more freely about their space knowing there’s a home base to return to. 

Stern said his private lessons with Washburn provided insight into his identity as well as his physical body. 

“Ballet provided a welcome chance to reconnect with and recommit to my body, and in a not stereotypically ‘manly’ way that appealed to my queer identity,” Stern said.

He was drawn to Dark Room Ballet because it suited every type of body. Stern could learn the moves as a 30-year-old who was deaf and blind. So could Burns, who is 30 years his senior. 

Dark Room Ballet welcomes people with any amount of dance experience and all abilities, though most people who attend have some visual impairment. Although virtual classes started during the pandemic, Washburn said she plans to continue teaching the class for the rest of her life. 

“The person I get to be today, I get to be a teacher,” Washburn said. “I get to work only with people that I respect and I get to be treated with respect. But this is a recent development, and I had to wait for the world to fall apart for it to happen.”

Categories
News / Announcements

Dark Room Ballet Introductory Classes Come to FMDG Music School!

I am so happy to announce that the world famous FMDG Music School is going to be hosting a series of Dark Room Ballet classes on Tuesdays starting in October! These classes will be starting Dark Room Ballet curriculum from Day Zero, the very beginning of understanding anatomy and dance technique for blind and visually impaired dancers. Monday night dancers: Monday night open level class is not going to change!

This information has also been added to the Class Information section of this site.

Here is the link to the registration page on the FMDG Music School Website; my class is the last class listed:
Music Classes | Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School

Here is the text from the FMDG website:


Dark Room Ballet – Introduction to Ballet
Teacher: Krishna Washburn
Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 pm,
October 6 to November 10

This special six-week class, taught by Krishna Washburn, will introduce the participants to the basic steps and vocabulary of a traditional ballet class. Krishna has danced with Jill Sigman’s thinkdance, Infinity Dance Theater, Heidi Latsky Dance, Marked Dance Project, and LEIMAY. She has extensive experience working with student dancers who are blind or visually impaired. While “ballet” is in the name and the classes are concert dance-based, Dark Room Ballet participants will develop a broad toolbox of critical skills that prepare them to sign up for an intro dance class in any style elsewhere in the future. Among other benefits, the program builds skills in the areas of directional hearing, internally-based balance, and foot sensitivity. No prior dance experience is required. 

Tuition is $60 for six sessions. 
Please call us at (315) 842-4489 for more information.

FMDG charges students for class, but Monday night open level class remains free of charge. This addition to the Dark Room Ballet teaching schedule has no effect on Monday night open level class. Students who want to take both Monday’s progressed class and Tuesday’s introductory class are more than welcome (and will receive two vocabulary emails every week!). Also, all private classes for any students who want them are always, always free. If you have any friends or colleagues who you think would want to take Dark Room Ballet from Day Zero, please share this message with them and tell them to email me directly or call me if they have questions. I believe that there is no limit to how many students can register at FMDG, so do not worry about missing out on a registration slot. Tuesday night introductory class will be similar in format to Monday night: an hour of technique class and a half hour of question and answer time.

Thank you all with all my heart!

Yours always,
Krishna

Categories
Krishna's Thoughts

Breaking Down Stereotypes About Blind Dancers

Video: Krishna Dances Te’s Combo (undescribed version, audio described version pending)

This is a video that I made for a dance teacher friend of mine. She was teaching jazz dance class, but she had to cut it short because a hurricane knocked over a huge tree onto the roof of her house. She and her house were mostly OK, but I wanted to do something to cheer her up, so I made a video of myself practicing the jazz combo that she had taught me the previous class. It’s probably not the best dancing I’ve ever done, but I tell you, I had a blast and I made someone I love happy. One minute of my life well spent.

I am a professional dancer, and I take dance classes in ballet, jazz, and contemporary styles, about nine or ten a week, and this has been my regular for years, both before and after quarantine started. There are a few teachers to whom I am particularly loyal, teachers that really help me learn and master the things that I really want to learn and do it in a way that suits my learning style. This should be a surprise to nobody, whether they are a disabled dancer or a non-disabled dancer. All dancers have their favorite teachers that help them do their best. However, for me, what can separate a teacher whose advice I appreciate from a teacher that I will study from for years and years is whether they can come to understand the special movement aesthetic of the blind dancer.

Some people, even other disabled people, think that the aesthetic of the blind dancer is basically what a sighted dancer would do, just not as good. This is a mistake that people make because of ableism. A highly skilled blind dancer is absolutely not lesser than a highly skilled sighted dancer, but is, indeed, different.

In this video, I am dancing on my kitchen dance floor, which is a foam subfloor covered in medium textured Marley. It is six feet by six feet square, and the Marley is about four inches smaller than the subfloor. The Marley is taped to the subfloor on the front and left sides and is untaped on the back and right sides. There is a diagonal strip of gaffer tape that is about four feet long and lies along the diagonal from the right front corner to the left back corner. These textural markings are what I use instead of a mirror to know where I am going and my special orientation when I dance. At one point in the dance, I am moving backward on a shallow diagonal; I know my end point because the edge of my foot touched a piece of tape. That’s also how I performed that arabesque turn, and the back jazz soutenou. The ableist stereotype of the blind dancer is of someone whose directions are not precise. My directions are extremely precise, in fact, probably more precise than those of a sighted dancer because lots of directions “look” like each other. My feet don’t lie to me when they feel my textural markers. I’m not making a best guess, I know.

There are several movements in this combination that share similarities. For example, at the beginning of the dance, I drop my upper body closer to the floor twice, but these movements are very different and have different purposes and use my anatomy differently. In the first drop, I drop all the way from my lumbar spine, to make a counterbalance with my legs as I draw my body from a wide-legged stance to a narrow-legged stance, and also to make a contrast between a very low shape that rises into a very high shape. In the second drop, I only bring my upper spine just over the structure of my leg, which creates a forward direction, so that I can slingshot into the next shape, which has a backwards direction along the diagonal that I am using. The ableist stereotype of the blind dancer is someone who has weak body awareness. A sighted dancer might just choose to copy what the teacher is doing visually. I have to make my movements with a deeper understanding of my skeletal anatomy, my neurological pulls, and my body’s physics.

I hold a very high balance on one leg in this combination. I can hold a high balance for a long time because I know how to feel my bones line up with each other. The ableist stereotype of the blind dancer is someone who has poor balance. A sighted dancer might be able to balance quite well just using sight, but on a dark stage or in a dark room, will fall and falter. It does not matter whether there are lights or not when I am balancing.

Some people have pointed out that blind dancers use their heads and faces differently than what is typically encouraged in standard dance training. Different means different, not worse. For example, I know that at multiple points during this jazz combination, I am moving my head to find the speakers. I might dip my head somewhat differently than expected during the gestural phrase at the top right corner of my dance floor, and it’s because I’m listening to the speakers, so that when I pop up into my high balance, I know I will be facing the right direction and I’ll be able to land out of the balance safely. Sighted dancers are taught to spot, and using the head in that way is considered good technique. It is ableist to say that a blind dancer moving the head to locate a sound source is not equally good technique.

Some people have pointed out that blind dancers use their hands differently than what is typically encouraged in standard dance training. Once again, different is not worse. My hands are much stronger and more sensitive than the average sighted dancer. So are my feet. My hands tell me about speed of movement. When I make the large frontal circle with my arm in this jazz combination, a sighted person might wonder why my hand moves so dramatically. It’s because I have to keep track of my speed, so I pass the floor and the different regions of my body at the right points in the music. The nerves in my hands are giving me important information. It is ableist to say that a blind dancer shouldn’t take advantage of the powerful, highly trained nerves in the hands just because the movements might be somewhat unexpected. If I sacrificed those more dramatic hand movements, I would probably have to sacrifice the more dramatic body movements as well, because they would not be safe anymore.

I love jazz music, and I have loved it all my life. I love all kinds of music, truth be told, and I hunt for new music all the time. Many, many blind people have found lots of joy and inspiration from music. Some sighted dancers struggle with music their whole lives, struggling with counting, finding grooves and rhythm. I’m not going to say that blind dancers don’t also face these challenges, but I think we have more fun when we’re doing it. Music is just more fun for us, I think. I know that’s not a scientific statement by any means, because really, how do you measure fun? But there’s a reason why some teachers love to teach me combinations that use their favorite music: it’s fun! They know I’m in the music, too. Audiences know if you’re having fun. A hotshot sighted dancer who doesn’t feel the music will never connect to the audience in the same way that a blind dancer who is drowning in the music can.

I tried not to be a dancer for a very long time, and it was because I believed every single ableist message that I wrote about here. I would not have good direction sense, I would not have good body awareness, I would not have good balance, I would not use my head correctly, I would not use my hands correctly, and audiences would not appreciate my art. It took a long time and a lot of thinking and a lot of support from other disabled artists and a lot of teachers who cared about me for me to unlearn all of these unhelpful messages. I have been studying dance here in my dark room for nearly twenty years, and I have had to learn how to do a lot of difficult things: find my directions, feel my floor, feel my bones, feel my nerves. None of those things were as hard as learning that my unique form of artistic expression is valid.

Repeat after me: blind dance is a thing. Blind dancers are artists. All dancers deserve teachers who respect and care about them, especially blind dancers. There is a blind dance aesthetic, and it is art, pure and simple.

Categories
Krishna's Thoughts

Krishna’s Thoughts On Ballet Posture

Audio:

Krishna’s Thoughts on Ballet Posture (captioned on YouTube)