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.
Krishna Washburn (above) is a blind dancer in New York City who teaches a free online ballet class at Dark Room Balletfor adults who are visually impaired. Her students come from around the world. They can’t see her, but they rely on her verbal descriptions of exercises and how to move their body into different shapes. Instead of a mirror, students use a strip of tape on the floor to orient them in space. Krishna is a professional dancer who has performed with many companies. She holds a Master’s of Education from Hunter College and a special certification through the American College of Sports Medicine. No experience is necessary for her introductory class, which runs every Monday night. We spoke about her non-visual style of instruction which is grounded in a deep understanding of the body.
BLOOM: What is dark room ballet?
Krishna Washburn: The concept is a system of teaching ballet that does not privilege sight. It’s based on several different techniques that I’ve absorbed over the years. I was taught ballet through the Royal Academy of Dance, so that is the ballet style we use. I don’t give my students a mirror as a tool. Instead, I give them a strip of tape on the floor, so we have to learn with a different mindset but with the same, shared vocabulary that all ballet dancers use. It’s very anatomy-based. I take a lot of inspiration from Feldenkrais techniques about coming to understand how your anatomy interacts internally, and from the great tradition of Japanese Butoh, which is also a dance style that is non-visual and very much about knowing how your nervous system works.
I have a Monday night group class at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and I have students who come from every part of the world and every time zone. My students mean so much to me. Monday class is open level so it’s suitable for people with an introductory level understanding of ballet positions. We typically do six exercises, including centre, and I use very fun music. I speak and describe continuously through the music. Some of my students have some sight, but most of my students don’t see me at all. The first hour is focusing on being in your body and ballet technique. The last half hour is the most important part, because it’s question and answer time. Students can ask me to explain something we did in more detail so they’re clear on it. It’s also a time for the blind and visually impaired community to get to know and support each other in their dance journey.
BLOOM: Why do you call it dark room?
Krishna Washburn: For many reasons. A dark room in photography is where images develop, so the dark room is also a theoretical place where you as an artist take time to develop and allow yourself to change chemically.
BLOOM: I love that analogy. How is blind dancing different from sighted dancing? I read this on your website in a piece called Breaking down stereotypes about blind dancers: 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.
Krishna Washburn: That essay is about breaking down stereotypes about blind dancers and taking the fear away from talking about ableism. When we talk about the difference between how a sighted and blind dancer moves, it’s really very different, because we need to think about our bodies and our movement choices very differently. We have to use our ears, use our feet, use our sense of internal orientation, and we need a much greater awareness of our own anatomy.
The study tool of the sighted dancer is the mirror. You watch your teacher in the mirror and copy your teacher. The blind dancer can’t do that. The blind dancer has to understand the floor, that is our tool. We use a tape strip. The orientation tape on the floor is a very old tradition. It’s how blind teachers teach blind students how to keep their spot as they’re studying, how to keep their sensitivity in their feet, how to understand where they are, and how to feel confident where they are. I need to understand where all of my bones are in my body. Maybe a sighted dancer doesn’t have to do that. I need to know exactly how much space I have before I begin a choreography. A sighted dancer doesn’t have to think twice about that. That doesn’t mean that the quality of my artistry is in any way secondary to what a sighted dancer does. I’m not compensating. I’m using technique that is appropriate to me. I’m a master of my art in the same way sighted dancers are a master of theirs.
I feel there’s a very unhealthy narrative we teach to kids that you have a disability so you’re going to have to overcome that disability and compensate in order to achieve what you want to achieve. That’s a terrible thing we teach our kids. It doesn’t reflect reality. The reality is we live in an ableist world. I’ve mentored younger, pre-professional dancers who’ve told me ‘I thought I needed to compensate or work harder or do something to overcome.’ We need to be frank. There is a problem in our culture called ableism. People think what you do is less valuable and less important than what non-disabled people do. And that isn’t true. When people discriminate against you and use stereotypes about your disability, instead of interacting with you as a unique person, we need to point it out, or get an older person to help.
BLOOM: What’s the greatest challenge of doing your class online?
Krishna Washburn: The hardest part is making sure my technology is not going to break, because that has actually happened. The compressor in my extremely expensive microphone did break and we had to do old school and use the internal microphone in my laptop. But I got a new one right away. So you have to make sure the technology is your friend.
I love teaching online because I don’t have the commute. I didn’t even realize this but prior to quarantine, I spent an easy four hours a day in the subway in New York City, getting to studios. I have so much more time now and I work so much harder. I’m doing many private classes as well as group classes, and I’m rehearsing in arts projects and creating art on my own.
BLOOM: What’s the great joy of your online class?
Krishna Washburn: There’s so much joy. Having conversations with my students in Q and A time, when you can hear in their voice that something clicks. Ballet is fundamentally a dance form that prioritizes balance. You stabilize one part of your body so you can have freedom elsewhere. Most of the time you stabilize your torso, so your arms and legs can move freely. Once that clicks, and the student says I know how to find the back of my heels, to transfer my weight from foot to foot and keep my torso stable so my legs can move as I want, and I can feel balanced and not feel scared, then every movement from then on is like the first domino falling on the floor and the rest fall into place.
BLOOM: What do people, especially beginners, say they get out of the class?
Krishna Washburn: A lot of blind folks have been deprived of information about their own bodies because somebody decided that because they’re blind or visually impaired, they don’t need to know about their own skeleton, about their own nervous system, and about the names of the parts of their body. I’ve had conversations with adaptive physical education teachers who work with young people, and I always encourage them not only to always use their voice and describe movements, but to explicitly teach anatomy, even to little kids. A lot of blind dance beginners who are adults need this education, and there aren’t people offering it to adults.
If I’m starting with someone who has been prevented from knowing the basic facts about their body and their body’s capability, I’m giving them the opportunity to truly take ownership of their body and to know what it is and what it does and what it can do, and to not feel anxious about movement. I want them to feel happiness in movement and to feel freedom in movement and to not feel the weight of judgment of sighted people watching.
BLOOM: How did you get interested in dance?
Krishna Washburn: I started out as a sighted person who was scouted by the Royal Academy of Dance when I was three. I went through the entire curriculum and it wasn’t until I was a young adult in a pre-professional stage of my training that I experienced vision loss. All of my paid work has been as a blind performer.
BLOOM: I know you perform with a number of dance companies. What pulls you to teaching?
Krishna Washburn: I was born to be a teacher. That’s always mattered to me. And I don’t want what I’ve learned in life as a dancer to die with me. I want to grow this as a field and gain legitimacy and not become a separate group that no one has heard of. If you’re American, it’s very normal for you to have dance lessons as a kid. Unless you’re disabled. I would like dance to be a normal part of growing up, whether you’re disabled or not. Every child should have a chance to learn about the body and take time to understand these are how my bones feel together, and I can feel the nerves in my fingers and feet, I know they’re there. It’s not theoretical stuff from science class, it’s real.
BLOOM: What is the best way for someone to contact you if they’d like to consider joining your Monday class?
Krishna Washburn: Just e-mail me at info @ darkroomballet.com.
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.