Note: there are no direct links to individual essays either in the print or audio versions, so while you may have to read or hear some other works ahead of or after Krishna’s essay, they are also interesting!
As always, Krishna welcomes your feedback on her thoughts!
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.
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.
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:
Hi, everybody! This is Krishna… and the Dark Room Ballet mailbag! Let’s see if there is anything interesting in the mailbag today.
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.
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.
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.