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.