On July 3, dancers in multiple locations and multiple countries will be taking time to use movement to express gratitude and connection through movement and orientation in space. jill sigman/thinkdance will be hosting a live outdoor event in Riverside Park in New York City simultaneously with this online workshop.
No experience in improvisational dance is needed to participate. The whole event is designed for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people, and participants are encouraged to unmute, ask questions, and self-describe throughout the event.
Infinite gratitude for our collective wisdom, our collective knowledge!
CREATIVE CONVERSATIONS: DISABILITY, AGING AND ACCESSIBILITY
Thursday June 24, 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM (Eastern Time)
sponsored by the Queens Council on the Arts
This session invites local artists and community members of all abilities to discuss issues pertaining to creative aging and disability. Worldwide, persons with disabilities represent 15% of the population; in the five boroughs, there are almost 1 million people with disabilities. Additionally, in Queens, the number of older adults has grown significantly in the last 5 years – many with limited access to cultural services.
This session will feature the work of local artists with disabilities, including Krishna Washburn and Alejandra Ospina of Dark Room Ballet as well as representatives from Queens senior centers and the AHRC. The group will then be invited to discuss the intersectionality of aging and accessibility by exploring the following questions:
In what ways do the needs of persons with disabilities and seniors overlap, and in what ways do they differ?
What are some examples of accessible design that can benefit everyone?
As creators and artists, how can we be more inclusive to all communities including people with disabilities and older adults?
This event is held in partnership with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. The conversation will be moderated by Walei Sabry, Digital Accessibility Coordinator at the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
You can listen to an audio version of the essay below (as read for Krishna by Dark Room Ballet Program Coordinator, Alejandra Ospina) via SoundCloud
What Sounds Feel Like: Ways of Exploring Audio Description
By Krishna Washburn
During these strange quarantine days, I find myself in the most unexpected circumstances: confined completely to my Harlem apartment, mostly the tiny dance floor in my kitchen, unable to make any kind of physical contact with anyone, and yet, suddenly quite famous. I think it was the USA Today article that really changed things: suddenly, I was being approached by radio podcasts, magazines, news programs, all sorts of media outlets, and my email inbox was spilling over with messages from people who wanted to study with me.
And who am I?
I like to characterize myself as a crazy blind lady dancing by herself in her kitchen. While this description is accurate, I ought to think about the reasons why I choose to use these words, which reveal a desire not to take myself too seriously, but also might reveal the scars of trying to be taken seriously as an artist in an ableist world.
The last few months aside, I have spent most of my career as an artist fighting for any and all kinds of scraps: opportunities to perform, maybe in exploitative work, maybe in respectful work; opportunities to make professional connections, maybe with people who share my philosophies, maybe with people who think of me in ways that I find degrading; opportunities to make a little bit of money here and there, never enough, just anything; opportunities to teach, to use my hard-earned Masters of Education degree, my extensive study of biomechanics, and thirty-six years of classical ballet training. If I managed to grab hold of any of these things in any quantity, I knew that I needed to feel grateful, because chances like these for artists like me were few and far between, chances for blind artists. I learned to not ask for too much, I learned to swallow my pride, especially when all I really wanted was to beg for someone, anyone, to just talk to me.
At its most basic form, audio description is someone talking to you, using a voice and some words, to tell you what your eyes cannot. As performing arts venues have started to consider accessibility for disabled audiences, audio description has become a topic of some interest in the arts. The question sometimes arises: what is the best practice for audio description? Panels of intelligent people with extensive knowledge of performing arts theory discuss this question. Whether they come to any resolution, I could not say, considering that I have never been invited to be part of a panel like that.
What I do know, though, is what the audio description services are like when I attend a performance, whether live or digital. Usually, I find much to be desired, but I have been trained to smile and feel grateful that anyone offered me a headset at all.
Quite a few years ago, a friend had a ticket for a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center and couldn’t make it. So, I got to go in her place. I got my little headset and sat myself down in what I knew to be a very expensive seat (grand tier), but I was really very far away from the stage itself and would not be able to feel air resistance from the dancers’ movements or hear their footfalls. This program included Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a piece I had always wanted to experience. I sat there, listening to the little voice in my ear describing diagonal pathways of movement, whether right and left arms were straight or bent, how many dancers were on stage, the colors of their costumes, in the most neutral tone of voice that a human can produce. The people sitting around me, however, were, for the most part, in tears.
I heard people crying, laughing, crying and laughing at the same time, gasping in joy and surprise. Now, I’m not a detective, but I could tell that I was not experiencing the same performance that they were. I was getting my audio description, I was having my access need met, and I should have been grateful for that, but I didn’t feel grateful in that moment. I felt the deepest, most powerful FOMO* that any blind person could ever feel. (Note: FOMO is an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. It describes a certain kind of social anxiety that stems from the fear of being excluded from important events and activities. I believe that FOMO is in general popular use, but I know that it is heard frequently in disability community to describe the desire to participate in life, but being afraid or unsure that our access needs will be met, and that we will be left out.)
I wanted to experience a performance that would make me respond like everyone else in the audience. I considered to myself that these folks would be remembering this performance for years, maybe the rest of their lives, and that they would remember crying in the grand tier at City Center. I also considered that they would not remember everything about the performance. I suspected that whether the dancers’ right or left arm was bent or straight was not going to be the most permanent part of their memories.
Audio description is still a rather new field. Most of what is considered “best practice” for audio description is meant for television or film, media where the performers typically speak; actors act and emote with their voices. The neutral voice in that context sometimes makes sense: it is better to interpret the emotions of the performers based on their performances rather than through explicit description. However, in dance, performers only very rarely speak. The emotional content of their art is conveyed through movement. Is the neutral voice really the best choice in this circumstance?
Quarantine, in its strangeness and its totality for me, an immunocompromised disabled person, has encouraged me to start asking many questions about audio description. I have spent most of my quarantine trying to establish myself as a ballet teacher. My class, Dark Room Ballet, is designed specifically for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired dance students, particularly those who have never gotten to study dance before, but who want to learn the real skill. I speak continuously and constantly through class; a Dark Room Ballet class requires me to develop a rhythmic script which requires about six or seven hours of preparation before I teach. I have this style of teaching coursing through my blood at this point: I dig my heels in before every class and I think about how every movement feels and how to express it in the most musical but most complete way possible. What I have ended up doing, interestingly, is teaching a ballet class where I never talk about what anything looks like. My students learn quickly and learn a lot, they ask me exceptionally well-formulated questions about movement, and I know that some of them are considering professional dance careers. We accomplish this as a group without ever talking about what anything looks like.
Maybe that is the real flaw of audio description for dance, I started to wonder: the language chosen in most audio description is focused on what movement looks like, rather than what it feels like.
Some of my students have never had sight. They don’t have a list of visual shorthand in their memories that can tell them what a bent arm symbolizes as opposed to a straight arm. Honestly, at this point, neither do I. Perhaps only the most visceral type of audio description, the type that can activate the motor neurons in their own bodies, would be interesting to them.
What sorts of words could do that? What tone of voice? I think it is the tone of voice that those audience members who shared the grand tier with me at City Center would have had when they shared their experience with a friend the next day: intense, passionate, deeply connected to the emotional content of the artistry. Was it an accident that two of my closest friends are audio describers of this kind? For those of you lucky enough to remember life at Gibney in the Before Times, they might have noticed that I came to many performances there, usually with either Michelle Mantione or Alejandra Ospina, or both of them, sitting next to me, whispering to me while I can barely keep my body still in my seat.
Maybe describing the visual component of dance is less important than the visceral when developing audio description for dance. Maybe, when we develop performances, we have trained audio describers working alongside us during our rehearsal process. Maybe–and this might be my most radical suggestion yet–artists might consider their blind audience as they develop work from the outset. Maybe dancers should be allowed to talk, to self-describe, to emote what it feels like to jump three feet into the air while they’re doing it.
I, myself, have been creating art for blind audiences for quite some time, both in collaboration with visually impaired artists like iele paloumpis and Kayla Hamilton, but also on my own, just creating art that I think my blind and visually impaired colleagues and students will find interesting and exciting and memorable. I never say what I look like as I dance because, truthfully, I neither know nor even really care. I say what it feels like.
Almost as a lark, I started to work on a screen dance project with a choreographer in California named Heather Shaw. She was a rare choreographer who thought interesting audio description could actually make a dance performance better for the whole audience. I came up with an idea based on the children’s game of telephone, where dancers would film themselves while listening to an audio description track, and audio describers would describe said dance videos, and the chain could go on and on, perhaps evolving along the way, each artist taking their own spin on the expressions, different styles of movement, different styles of speaking, but all having lots of fun. The Telephone Dance and Audio Description Game, which might remain an eternal work in progress, a film that never stops collecting video and audio, is meant to welcome artists from both within and without the disability arts community into the experience of audio description, demystifying it, and legitimizing it as an art form in its own right.
Before I wrap up my thoughts, I want to clarify that I know that my ideas about audio description are unpopular, not only with arts institutions and dance companies, but also with members of the disability arts community. I don’t speak for every blind artist, and I don’t pretend to be able to do such a thing. I do, however, think it’s worthwhile for me to use my time to create dance performance and dance education for my fellow blind and visually impaired folks, and for me to try every possible way to change the script for audio description, to help it develop into a truly extraordinary art form, to actualize its true potential to help everyone in the audience laugh and cry at the same time together. What better way for a crazy blind lady dancing by herself in her kitchen to spend her time?
Beginning Saturday, May 8 from 4:00 PM – 5:30 PM (Eastern Time)
NOTE: This class is designed specifically for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people.
This is a FREE class!
Hosted by Movement Research, Dark Room Ballet is designed specifically for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people.
About Saturday Introductory Level Class:
This class is suitable for people with no prior knowledge of ballet. This repeating series of eight classes introduces students to the most common ballet vocabulary that they would need to know in order to participate in Open Level Dark Room Ballet Class. The class introduces students to necessary anatomical concepts like turnout, torso stability, foot sensitivity and mobility, sightless balancing, and the use of a taped floor for orientation.
Classes take place each Saturday online via the Zoom platform; there is also the option to call in via phone.
Register: To register, email: firstname.lastname@example.org You can also reach Dark Room Ballet by phone at (929) 367-0025
If you are a blind or visually impaired individual interested in learning ballet remotely, please get in touch before May 8th so you can be registered for this class. If you have some ballet experience, you may also qualify to join the ongoing Dark Room Ballet: Open Level Class on Monday nights; please get in touch with us if you are interested.
If you work with an organization that serves blind or visually impaired people, please distribute this information to people who may be interested in registering for this class.
If you are NOT a blind or visually impaired student, you may qualify to join the ongoing Dark Room Ballet: Open Level Class on Monday nights on a select basis; please get in touch with us if you are interested.
Many of you probably already know that choreographer Heather Shaw and I have been working on a really fun, joyful disability community film project called The Telephone Dance and Audio Description Game. We are proud to announce that our trailer for the film was recently released to the public! Hooray!
We are continuing to collect submissions from dancers and audio describers to include in the film throughout the year, building a portfolio of work from artists dedicated to creating beautiful accessible art. I’m really thinking of the film as a document to capture this special moment in art history, the moment that audio description came into its own as a truly powerful art form. This is going to be a very large cast of artists!
Please let us know if you know of any organizations who might be interested in screening Telephone down the line (universities, galleries, museums etc). We are in conversation with a few already and hope to share this message far and wide.
If you want to support the artists of Telephone, there’s ways for you to do that!
Some of our community knows me best as a dance educator who is passionate about developing dance curriculum that suits the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people. Other folks might know me best as an artist and performer who is passionate about creating art developed with blind and visually impaired audiences in mind and cultivating the beautiful art form of audio description. Over the past several months I have been able to combine my two great passions, education and art making, in an ongoing film project in collaboration with choreographer Heather Dayah Shaw called the The Telephone Dance and Audio Description Game.
Telephone is everything I love: amazing dancers, amazing audio describers, people pushing the limits of their creativity, friendship and community, and dance art that is truly accessible to the blind and visually impaired community. Heather and I have been working on this as a project for a while, and we’ve started to drum up some interest from arts organizations, which means that we need to start thinking about funding for help with editing, promotion, and supporting the huge roster of Telephone artists.
For more information about how you can support this project, please visit our Patreon page! We have sneak peeks of the film, interviews and information about the Telephone team, and an accessible anatomy class that I’m teaching, Anatomy from the Inside Out.
Feel free to share information about our Patreon within and beyond the Disability Arts community. Much love, everybody!
Eyes On Success is half-hour weekly radio program and podcast discusses products, services and daily living tips for people with vision loss. Eyes On Success is hosted and produced by Peter Torpey and Nancy Goodman Torpey and distributed by WXXI Reachout Radio in Rochester, NY through the International Association of Audio Information Services (IAAIS).
On Episode 2113: Understanding Your Body (Mar. 24, 2021):
Krishna Washburn is a professional ballet dancer and instructor who runs Dark Room Ballet. She believes that visually impaired people could benefit from having a better understanding of how their bodies and body parts work. Hosts Nancy and Peter Torpey talk with her about her instructional methods as well as how her on-line classes work.
What role does social justice play in arts education? What does it mean to be a culturally responsible teacher? This webinar panel discussion, moderated by Kate Fitzpatrick, will give participants a broad view of what representation looks like in various fields of artistic study. If you are an artist interested in inclusive teaching, accommodations, and examining positionality within the classroom, this session is for you.
For the past four years, I have been fortunate enough to be in constant collaboration with fellow visually impaired choreographer, iele paloumpis, and their magnum opus In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky, which would have premiered as a live performance at Danspace here in New York City in May of 2020. IPOCACNS, as we cast members often call it, was always meant to be a performance that centered the interests, needs, and desires of blind and visually impaired audience members, so it will come as no surprise that we have continued our artistic collaboration during these pandemic days as a podcast series! Please listen to our first episode here:
I’m so happy to announce that I am going to be teaching Dark Room Ballet Intro Classes again, hosted by the wonderful folks at Movement Research!
The first class is Saturday, March 13, at 4 PM Eastern Time, 3 PM Central Time, 2 PM Mountain Time, 1 PM Pacific Time, and 12 pm Alaska Standard Time!
Hosted by Movement Research, Dark Room Ballet is designed specifically for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people.
About Saturday Introductory Level Class:
This class is suitable for people with no prior knowledge of ballet. This repeating series of six classes introduces students to the most common ballet vocabulary that they would need to know in order to participate in Open Level Dark Room Ballet Class. The class introduces students to necessary anatomical concepts like turnout, torso stability, foot sensitivity and mobility, sightless balancing, and the use of a taped floor for orientation.
If there is anyone you know who has never studied dance before, in particular anyone who has been unable to study because they were unable to find a class designed specifically for the educational needs of blind and visually impaired people, please share this information!
Movement Research is contacting other organizations on my behalf, but only at my request. If there is an organization that you would like Movement Research to contact to inform the folks there that Dark Room Ballet Intro Class is starting, please include that in your message.