And all of these learning opportunities were tuition-free.
I have so much planned for 2024, including developing a brand new teacher training module for the summer, which will be the first of its kind: a formal series of workshops to help others teach traditional blind dance techniques and pedagogical audio description.
The kind of curriculum that I choose develop and teach is what I feel will serve blind and visually impaired arts community the most, and very often, I’m the first or the only teacher teaching on these topics. It’s for this reason that I have a commitment to tuition-free education in the Dark Room, because it’s how I believe I can help my community the most.
Krishna stands in the Dark Room Ballet dance studio on the taped marley floor in front of the brick wall. She’s wearing her favorite bright red wool skirt with matching sash and black blouse with eyelet design down the sleeves, and her half-sole ballet technique shoes that she wears to teach class. She is wearing her hair in the seventeenth century style she wears every day: braids wrapped around the head and sewn in a crown with a white ribbon.
This is a one minute video of a ballet partnering class at a pre-professional ballet school. The students are teenagers who are on their way to professional careers in the major international ballet companies. Here’s a brief summary of what happens in this video.
The teacher, Slawek, is a professional danseur and the instruction he is giving is primarily directed to the boys in class. He invites one of the girls, Tessa, to help him demonstrate a complex partnering exercise to the pairs of students. He crouches down and Tessa takes a seat on his shoulders, her bent legs draped over his chest. His verbal instructions are, while he is partnering with Tessa, “You go like this: one, two, three, and out.” He turns to the boys and says, “Does that make sense?” He doesn’t wait for the boys to say anything to him, and continues: “So hug this leg, help her a little bit at the start with that one.” Immediately, each of the three pairs of students try to replicate what Slawek and Tessa did together, but none of them succeed. They all get confused and something goes wrong. The third boy gets particularly confused, so Slawek calls for Tessa to partner with him, but that doesn’t help. Slawek’s voice sounds frustrated. The title of this video is “The chaos of teaching a duet,” and the video does not disappoint. How exasperating for this teacher to have students that are so clueless and chaotic, the video seems to imply. I’m here to say, as a fellow ballet teacher, that these are actually great students, focused and trying very hard, and this teacher needs to think about the descriptions he uses when teaching.
Let’s analyze what Slawek and Tessa do in their single demonstration to the class. Tessa is seated up on Slawek’s shoulders. They are both facing the mirror (and the photographer). The first thing that Slawek does is hug her right leg with his right arm while pushing her left leg off of his left shoulder. Pushing Tessa’s left leg off his shoulder makes Tessa rotate ninety degrees around Slawek’s upper body, until she is seated just on his right shoulder with her torso facing his head. This movement is what Slawek calls “One.” Once Tessa is seated on Slawek’s right shoulder, he wraps his left arm around the back of her waist and rolls her over the front of his chest, so her torso is pressed against his left side. He is still lightly supporting her on her right leg, but is mostly holding her up at her waist now. This step is what Slawek calls “Two.” Finally, Slawek places both of Tessa’s feet on the floor while rotating her torso to face the front of the room and lets go of her right leg completely. This step is what Slawek calls “Three.” Finally, Tessa rotates both of her heels (fouette chasse) so she and Slawek are both facing the right side of the room, and with his hand still lightly on her waist, they chasse forward together simultaneously. This is what Slawek called “And out.”
Now, let’s analyze what the boys do with their partners. All three boys start out correctly, pushing the left leg of their partners off their shoulders, but they all go awry in the same way. They all get stuck holding their partner’s right leg off the floor, so they can’t finish the sequence with the chasse together. The third boy gets so stuck, his partner can’t even roll over his chest, and even when Tessa is called to help him, he’s still stuck holding her right leg and doesn’t know what to do. All three boys made the same mistake. Why did that happen?
The title of the video and Slawek’s tone of voice implies that it’s because the students don’t know what they are doing and are at fault. I’m here to say: If three of your students make an identical misunderstanding, it is certainly the fault of the teacher. Let’s analyze how Slawek chose to explain this complex sequence to his students. If you analyze what he does and what he says, there’s really only one truly unambiguous instruction that he gives to the boys: hug this leg. All three boys did exactly that: they all hugged their partner’s right leg. However, at no point did Slawek say when the boys should let go of their partner’s leg, or even explain that it is a gradual release. They all did as they were told and hugged those legs! The third boy, with whom Slawek demonstrates the most frustration, took this instruction so seriously, that he was hugging his partner’s leg so tightly, she got stuck on the front of his chest! The third boy was actually the best student and took his teacher’s instruction the most literally, and he ended up having the hardest time!
The people who study Intro are adults that are visually impaired or blind, and many of them don’t have prior knowledge of the basic movement principles of ballet. I remember my question and answer times during my early cycles of Intro, and very often, there would be one or more students with a major misunderstanding from the lesson. I recall in particular an early Intro question and answer time in which one student got the impression that in ballet, the foot always needed to be in the pointed shape, even when standing on the foot. I remember being really concerned about this misunderstanding, but then I reflected on what I’d said in class: “In ballet, we are always pointing our feet.” I neglected to say that actually, in ballet, we are always pointing and unpointing our feet, our feet are always changing shape, pointing and relaxing, as we do our footwork in class. Now, I always explain both pointing and unpointing, and no other student has had the same misunderstanding. I knew immediately that my student’s misunderstanding was my failure to explain adequately. We point and unpoint our feet, we hug this leg and gradually release it. Maybe the reason why I knew to reflect on the language I had chosen is because I have a Master’s of Education, which is something very uncommon in dance instruction in the United States. Something that I know for sure is that question and answer times for Intro these days are mostly about checking comprehension, or exploring detail, or considering applying ballet logic to our unique physical experiences, and I almost never have major misunderstandings anymore. Why is that? Because I reflect after every class, every conversation with a student, every cycle, and think about ways to be more precise. I’m sure that after teaching another eleven cycles of Intro, my language will be even more precise!
Many of my students have had educational experiences in which teachers have blamed their misunderstandings on their own failures as educators. In particular, disabled people studying with teachers who don’t want to reflect on their teaching style have this experience a lot. I’m here to say that I’m of the opinion that if teachers, especially movement teachers, take the work that they do seriously, they must reflect on their work and take responsibility when their students misunderstand.
If you misunderstand your dance teacher, and you don’t get clarification when you ask for help, and you feel inadequate or clueless after a lesson, that is not your fault! Your dance teacher owes you reflection, owes you consideration, owes you precision and explanations, no matter if you’re a teenager on track to becoming the next big star with American Ballet Theater or a blind adult on a path to self-actualization as an artist. That is what dance teachers owe to their students.
Some of Krishna’s thoughts from recent workshops that social media doesn’t have:
Describing from physical sensation: Whether you start from the inside, or need to start from the mirror with the goal of finding what’s inside, remember that being able to identify and describe physical sensation is a learned skill that comes with practice, just like dancing, just like describing. Personally, I think that spending time thinking about how movements feel in our bodies has intrinsic value, a way of learning about ourselves and learning to trust our bodies and our perceptions. Even if you’re an audio describer exclusively, having understanding, knowledge, and empathy for physical sensations in your own body will only help you in cultivating your skills of describing other people’s movements.
Describing who is dancing: All dances are different and all dancers are different! Always know the names and pronouns of the dancers in the performance you are describing, and it is a common thing in dance performance for performers to portray characters whose names and pronouns are not their own! When a performer is in character, use the character’s name and pronouns, but if someone is dancing as themself, using the dancer’s real name and pronouns is a simple and incredibly helpful addition for your audience. And for dancers: when you are performing, think about your role in the performance, what you contribute to the piece as a whole, and think about how to explain it in words.
Describing emotion: Remember that emotion is why dance exists! Emotion is the birthplace of dance, and everyone deserves to share in that experience. Conversations between audio describers and dancers, choreographers, and the entire creative team can be incredibly fruitful when it comes to emotional communication. Emotional expression is a wonderful and fascinating thing, because all humans experience it, but each one of us expresses it outwardly in our own, unique, authentic way; dance combined with strong audio description can be an incredibly powerful tool for empathy.
Describing within a structure: I know that it is common for audio describers to have very limited access to dance rehearsals, maybe just dress rehearsal at best, but just because it’s common, that doesn’t mean that it’s good. If you are an audio describer who can ask for more time and more access, please do it! You deserve it and your audience deserves it. If you create dance performances, start thinking about audio description at the start of your rehearsal process, not the end! Some of the most wonderful art created for blind audiences today had an audio describer in the rehearsal studio on day one (shout out to Kayla Hamilton!). Having an audio describer as a part of the creative team is something I advocate for.
These thoughts were recorded a while ago, but they are on a topic re-visited during a recent Monday night Open Level Class…
Listen to Krishna discuss her feelings on the Flow State in this audio recording (transcript available):
Hello, everybody. It’s time for another edition of Krishna’s Mailbag. So this is the lovely little occasional program where I check in the mailbag for Dark Room Ballet and I answer interesting questions. So let’s check in the mailbag and find out what I have to talk about today. Let’s see what we’ve got. Oh, this question is really great. It asks, “Hey Krishna, what is the flow state? I’m a new dancer and I’ve heard about this, but I have no idea what they’re talking about.” Well, let me tell you about something. People who study education and who study learning about 10, 15 years ago, started to really pay a lot of attention to this special moment in a person’s life which is called the flow state.
The flow state is a moment of activity in which a person is just on the edge of the maximum difficulty that they can execute without losing confidence. They’re just on the edge. Oftentimes these moments require great focus, but also create great focus in the person. I find that the best way to explain a flow state is to describe moments of flow state that I myself have had. Flow state in dance for me happens a lot, a lot when I’m studying with other teachers, when I am developing work for my students. Flow state happens a lot for me. In fact, it happens while I’m teaching class a lot. It is a really intense experience. Pretty much every brain cell feels like it’s firing and nothing in the world could distract me from what I’m doing at that moment.
I’ve had moments working with particular dance teachers where I’m really on the edge of my capacity to learn something new and something becomes apparent to me while I’m learning it. And I understand how I’m going to work through the movements that I’m studying. Something becomes more clear, something becomes more obvious, but it’s brand new for me still. So I have to put every ounce of focus into what I am doing. I think oftentimes about work that I have done with a dance teacher here in New York City. A contemporary teacher, her name is Bethany Perry and I would oftentimes experience flow state in Bethany’s class because I’m ballet dancer. I stay up upstanding, I stay up tall, but in contemporary always changing levels, always changing direction.
And Bethany like many contemporary choreographers did not work with an eight point compass, but with a 12 point compass like a clock. So I was always changing direction and the precision of my direction had to really be taken into account. For a blind dancer that’s really, really hard, but what it was for me was really finding the memory capacity almost a preliterate like hunter gatherer kind of memory capacity. Remembering where I was, remembering where I’m going, rotating, keeping my body in space, keeping aware of it. And I always know that I’m in the flow state because my breathing changes a lot. I become very aware of it, I breathe really, really deep and really, really slow.
My heart is beating like a butterfly’s swings so fast, but my breathing is really deep and it’s really slow. And I almost feel my skin vibrating, I feel like every nerve in my peripheral nervous system is just on fire, [inaudible 00:05:28], vibrating. It is such a special experience. Now, that might sound like something you might want to experience yourself as someone on their dance education journey. Here’s some tips for me if you really want to allow yourself to enter the flow state. Here’s some things that you can do. You can make it really more accessible for yourself, you can’t force it to happen, but there’s things you can do to make it more accessible for yourself.
Number one, number one, remember that you have the capacity to learn the thing that you are studying. Do not psych yourself out. If you psych yourself out, no flow state for you. You have to go into it with the understanding, okay, I am here learning this thing and I have the ability to learn it. That’s number one. Number two, feel good and comfortable about the space where you are dancing. Before you start dancing, check everything, feel comforted that you know how much space you have, that you know all of the textures on the floor, that you know where your sound sources are, that you know where other sources of sound might be coming from. Take the time before you start dancing to really get to know where you are dancing. So you’re not going to get surprises from your space, you’re going to feel comfortable where you are.
Number three, allow yourself to enjoy dancing. I know that, that sounds like really ridiculous, but some people, they have this internal critic which is like, “Oh, I’m not doing it right, I’m not going to get it as the way that I want it to be.” If you have that little voice going on, that’s like, “Oh, I know that I didn’t point my foot as hard as I could have, oh, I lost my balance for a split second there, oh, I’m not moving my hand in the way that I know that I should.” Those things, those little critical voices in your mind might be preventing you from learning something much more exciting and allowing yourself to be excited in the moment. Those small things that we work on in technique class, sometimes you need to let it go and go towards a bigger goal of being fully immersed in what you’re doing.
Sometimes the most impressive things that come to us being able to hold big balances, being able to really change direction and not get lost, not forget, being able to access core muscles that we’ve found difficult to access. Having those feet alive with electricity, those hands alive with electricity, maybe it’s overcoming vertigo which plagues a lot of us blind dancers. Sometimes you need to let go of the small little critics voice and let yourself be in the bigger moment of what you’re doing. There’s always time to perfect the little things, but if you sense something is changing inside you that day, that you might be moving into somewhere new, somewhere important, let it go, let the excitement take you.
Go for it and trust that you can learn and that you can be in the thing that you are doing and the world will change, and you will change. When I think about what I’ve just shared right now, it is such a marvel to me that there have been people in my life who’ve discouraged me from following my path as an artist, following my path as a dancer, because how could I live without this kind of experience? How could I live bereft of this kind of excitement? This kind of joy that I so, so love and I so, so need deep in my heart, deep in my psyche. That’s who you are too, that’s who you are too. Always find joy in your dance practice and if you feel yourself teetering on the edge of something special, something important, dive in. It’s going to be great.
The Scene Change podcast is presented by the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division:
So, you're blind. Can you sing? Can you play an instrument? Can you act? Can you dance? Of course you can!
Join Lizzy Muhammad-Park and her special guests as they pull back the curtain on their successes and struggles as blind people in the performing arts. Be educated, be challenged, be entertained, and be empowered to join us as we work together to make a "Scene Change" for the blind.
On this month’s episode:
Join Lizzy for this month’s riveting episode featuring Krishna Washburn, a professional ballet dancer, and the artistic director and sole teacher of ‘Dark Room Ballet‘, along with The ‘Dark Room Ballet’ program coordinator and lead administrator Alejandra Ospina.
Interested in ballet? This is an online ballet course specifically for blind dancers. She’s got something for everyone. She’s got intro courses, they are eight weeks long, and she also has open courses for experienced blind professionals. They are tuition free.
In this episode, you will hear more about this exciting opportunity and all it entails.
Her summer course is beginning on June 25, and registration closes on June 18, 2022. Sign up here: darkroomballet.com
Listen to the episode
Listen on YouTube:
Listen on SoundCloud:
Visit the podcast on Anchor.fm to listen or link to other platforms:
0:41 – Introducing Krishna 3:10 – How it’s like to be a blind ballet instructor 16:08 – How to sign up and prices for other courses 31:48 – The difference between sighted, blind, and balanced 36:15 – Do students need to purchase ballet shoes before class 37:05 – What tape is used 39:49 – Krishna dancing while teaching 41:59 – Who taught Krishna 47:39 – Misconceptions for teachers to break 54:40 – Advice for anyone advocating for equality in the dance space 1:04:51 – Contact information 1:07:54 – Outro
Hello, everybody. This is Krishna, your Dark Room Ballet teacher, back at it again with another Dark Room Ballet mailbag. It’s Krishna’s Mailbag time! Let’s rustle in that mailbag and find if we have any interesting messages today. Oh, this one is really great.
It is, “Hi, Krishna. I have a question about ballet class levels. What is an open-level class, and what do the other ballet class levels that I sometimes find mean?” Okay. So, this is a really important question, and it’s going to help me explain explicitly what Dark Room Ballet open-level class is in depth because I think that I have never actually really explained what it is exactly. So let’s get into what ballet class levels that you might find at different studios and institutions that you might encounter. What do they mean?
Okay. Let’s start with some of the most common labels that you might encounter. You might encounter a class that is labeled as Beginning Ballet. What does that mean? You might think, “Oh, this is the class that you take if you haven’t taken ballet before.” Au contraire, in New York City and throughout most other major cities in the United States, when a class is labeled as a beginning ballet class, that actually means that you have probably studied either as an adult for about two or three years or that you studied when you were a kid for maybe about five or six years, and maybe you have not studied in a while, and you are returning to class.
A beginning ballet class assumes that you have actually a considerable amount of prior knowledge relating to ballet. The most common kind of person that you will see sign up for a beginning ballet class is someone who studied ballet as a kid, did not dance for a long time, and now wants to refresh and relearn those movement concepts. They’re all kind of in the back files of their memory banks, and they need a place to go bring them back to the front of their minds.
If you don’t have any ballet experience, what are the labels you should be looking for? There are two that exist in New York and most other American cities. One is absolute beginner and the other is intro. That’s why Dark Room Ballet’s intro class exists. It is a class that is designed that assumes no prior knowledge of dance at all. Absolute beginner and intro classes are typically given as multi-week or multi-class workshops. They are generally taught in a sequence, and they are generally not an ongoing class. They tend to be for a limited amount of time. It’s to get people their basic knowledge. Now, another word that you might find describing a ballet class is “basic.” Basic ballet class is actually that in-between class between an intro class and a beginning level class. Sometimes adults who are studying for the first time who have completed an absolute beginner or an intro level class will take a year or so of basic before they move on to beginner.
Now, there are also classes called pro. What is a pro class? A pro class is not really a place for study. It serves a very specific function, which is to prepare people who are working dancers, professional dancers for whatever is that they’re going to be doing for the rest of the day, whether that is a rehearsal day or whether that is a performance day. So you will see pro classes offered at about two times during the day usually in the morning at about 10:00. That’s for people who have a rehearsal day, and also in the afternoon at about 2:00. Those are for performers who are having a performance day and who generally have like 5:00 PM call time at their performance venue. That is across the board for ballet and also probably contemporary and jazz classes as well.
Pro classes, in general, the teacher does not demonstrate. What the teacher does is yell a bunch of vocabulary words at the class, and those folks know how to memorize and interpret those movements without having someone demonstrate for them. They will just know. If the teacher yells out, “Okay. Sissonne failli. Tombe pas de bourrée. Coupé. Pas jeté. Tour jeté. Pique step. Couru. Tours en l’air. Single tours en l’air. Double.” They’ll just know what that means and then what to do, and they won’t forget it because it’s their job to know.
Pro classes are typically very quick tempo. The movement is very, very light. It does not bend into the muscles that much because it’s just there to get those dancers warmed up and ready for other exertion later that day. That’s what happens in pro class. I actually love pro class. I’d take pro class all the time. Sometimes with a Katy Pyle of Ballez. Sometimes with Igal Perry at Peridance. It all depends on my mood. Pro class is great for if you are a professional working dancer and are going to be dancing for the rest of the day, and you just need something to get all the joints working properly.
Now, there’s also classes that are labeled different kinds of intermediate. Like you’ll see intermediate, beginning intermediate, slow intermediate, advanced intermediate, intermediate advanced. All these kinds of things that include the word “intermediate.” What is that all about? I think that that term is really confusing, and it really does not describe what those classes are because there’s really essentially two types of intermediate class. There’s one that I call the pre-professional class. That’s really what most intermediate classes are. They’re pre-professional classes. They are there for people who are planning to have a career as a performer and who need to develop specific performance-based skills. So that means they need to learn how to memorize longer dance combinations. They need to know how to do more challenging and complex transitions between movements that they learned earlier on in their lives. It’s generally not a place where you’re going to be encountering new vocabulary, new concepts, and things like that.
There’s another kind of intermediate class, which is not really that. It is more whatever that teacher feels like teaching. There are some teachers who just slap the label “intermediate” on their class because they don’t know what else to do, and it’s more a class where, “This is the kind of class I enjoy teaching. I don’t think about difficulty. I don’t think about level. I just like teaching this kind of material.” Those types of classes, they tend to have pretty loyal student followings because it tends to be students who really enjoy the particular style of that teacher for whatever reason.
So those are the two types of intermediate classes that you might come across. Then, there are open-level classes. What is that? Now, if you call a dance studio up on the phone and you said, “What does that mean, open-level class?” What you’ll get back from the person answering the phone is, “Well, this class is for everybody.” Now, that’s a very confusing idea to a lot of people. “What do you mean this class is for everybody? What is actually going in on there? There’s people who have a lot of experience. There’s people who have only a little bit of experience. What is that all about? What is an open-level class?”
Let me tell you something. Whether you’re studying ballet, jazz, contemporary, any style, open-level classes are cool. Open-level classes are cool because what those teachers who teach open-level classes, myself included, tend to do in order to create an environment where there is many, many levels of dancers, and everybody is learning new things, and having fun, and experimenting, and trying new stuff is they do what’s called unit-based work. Sometimes a teacher will come up with a unit-based on a movement concept. That movement concept might be a body movement. A simple thing like right now, I am teaching a unit on frappé. That means I start the unit from zero knowledge. “Okay. This is the movement. We start from the very beginning.”
Then, as the weeks progress in the unit, whether that unit goes on for eight weeks, 16 weeks, something like that, we try different permutations, different styles, and increase in difficulty level throughout the unit. Then, when that unit wraps up, we put it on the shelf. A few months later, maybe a year later, the teacher returns to that unit and starts the cycle over again. We start from zero, no prior knowledge and moving through the weeks. Each week, more challenge, a little bit different, a little bit more complicated.
At any given time, a unit-based class might have six concepts that that teacher is rotating through. I’m going to be honest. Dark Room Ballet is generally using about 15 or 18 concepts in unit, and they’re all at different points throughout the class. It is so much fun to program a unit-based class because you’re always moving through these different cycles of concepts, putting stuff on the shelf, coming back to it, moving through different ideas. If your students come regularly, they’ll get to cycle through those things again and again as they study. They will always be continually reminded of their fundamentals, helped through to the next level of their study each time they touch upon it, and you’re never ever bored in open-level class.
So let’s say you’re a relatively new student, and you just went through a unit in an open-level class, and you’re like, “Holy cow, that got fast really quickly. My first day, I was hanging in there, but man, second time, that was hard. That was too much for my brain.” Don’t worry. It’s supposed to be like that. The next time that unit comes around, you’re going to be shocked at, A, how much you remember and B, how much farther along in the unit you go feeling calm and confident before you’re like, “Whoa, this is amazingly challenging.”
That’s what makes open-level classes fun and sustainable environments to help serve students all throughout their dancing careers. I have belonged to certain open-level classes for six years, seven years, eight years. There are some open-level classes that I’m probably going to continue to take as long as that teacher is teaching because there’s always experiments, and fun and interesting things going on. There’s always parts of class that are returned to basic fundamental ideas. There’s always parts of class that are a real stretch for me, that I’m really moving into material that is a real challenge, that’s very new.
It’s always a mix of ideas flowing through in and out. You’re always going to be interested in an open-level class. So if there’s ever an open-level class at a different studio or institution that you’d like to try, don’t be afraid of that label. Don’t feel like, “Well, I don’t know what that means,” because now you do. Open-level classes are great. They are cyclical, and if you hang out there for a long time, you know that you’re going to be reminded, and refreshed, and always moving through material that is designed to help you progress, and learn, and develop over time as a dancer. I hope all of you have a lovely day today, and I hope that this mailbag was interesting to you. Much love to you all. Bye, now!
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?
Hi, everybody. It is time for another one of Krishna’s Mailbag, where I read questions from those folks in the Dark Room Ballet community. Everybody, who’s a part, let’s find out what’s in the bag today. Okay, here’s a message. And it says, “Krishna, what’s the best way for me to practice between classes?” This is an amazing question, and it’s a question that I get all the time. And it’s a question that I love to get, because practicing is all part of learning how to dance, getting used to being in the groove for practicing. I have been practicing dance daily for years and years and years. In fact, if I don’t dance for a day, I feel very, very weird.
Here’s some tips on practicing. Let’s say you remember a little bit of a combination that you did in class. I send out maybe a secret email after the class you’ve taken with the song that I used. You can always try and figure out, from your memory, the movements as it works with the song, because you have the song right there in the email for you to try. Let’s say you don’t quite remember, but you’d like to remember. There are recordings of class. You can always contact Alejandra and say, “Hey, I would really like a recording from class to listen to again.”
Let’s say you remember a little bit, but not a lot. You can also work through movements of your own understanding. Let’s say you’re thinking about your en croix leg pattern or your alternating-legs leg pattern. Think about all the different leg movements you can use in those patterns and just practice. Just get a feel, try to replicate the feelings that you do when you’re in class. You can try those leg patterns with your tendu, with your degage, with your pique, with your developpe, with your frappe. There’s no end. You can also think about using your own music and making your own combinations. This is something that I started to do very early on in my dance learning because I was so inspired by the movement combinations and music that I would experience in class, that I would be to try things on my own, make up my own things for myself to have fun with.
Fun is so key here. Fun is so key. And let me tell you something. For every minute that I spend teaching you folks in class, dancing as a professional in rehearsal, preparing lessons, taking formal classes, for every minute that I am working on formalized technique, I am probably also spending a minute in dance for fun and play. If you just want to feel movement in your body, listening to any music you want, or no music, or just the sounds of the world around you, birds maybe, that’s something that I listened to all the time, and just be in dance play. Be curious about the feelings that you have as you experiment with movement.
There’s something else we do a lot in class, and that is thinking about character or narrative or story or setting. Use those as jumping off points for play. And when I say play, what I mean is take the dancer that you are today, with all of the knowledge you have about balancing, about stabilization and mobilization, about connecting to the floor and staying oriented with it, and just playing in that world, making any kind of movement that you want, whatever feels authentic to you in the moment with the technique knowledge that you have today.
Does that mean you need to limit yourself to ballet movements? Absolutely not. If you want to make a dance where you are laying on the floor, that is a great idea. And it’s something that I really recommend for everyone to try at least once. Play dance is what really can help you grow in your relationship to music, in your relationship to performance, as an art form. Never be afraid to play. And with that, all of you have a wonderful day. Keep practicing your ballet technique. Keep thinking about how movement feels in your body, and never be afraid to play and have fun and have a spirit of curiosity in your study.