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
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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
The first in a series of three highly detailed workshops analyzing specific anatomical areas in detail. In this workshop, we will use movement and conversation to not only cultivate scientific knowledge related to the gluteus complex (the butt!), but also initiate a higher degree of body awareness and neurological learning in this area. Evolutionary history and the marvels of human variation will also be addressed in this workshop. No prior knowledge of human anatomy, dance, or self-audio description are required to participate, but all students will come away with deep anatomical knowledge, reduced movement anxiety, and tools to start learning how to talk about movement in a visceral way. Yes, we’ll be laughing, too.
Part One: Superficial muscles
Part Two: Intermedial muscles
Part Three: Deep muscles
Part Four: Bone
Part Five: Nerves and patterns of motor neuron response
This self-audio description workshop gives students the framework for thinking of audio description as not a singular process with a singular best practice, but as multiple art forms with multiple purposes. Audio description has, for too long, been considered as an access tool that can be deployed at a moment’s notice with little forethought, but this sort of thinking creates environments of severe inequity. Classrooms, rehearsals, and performances where blind and visually impaired people are given inadequate connection to the art at their center are ableist places.
Part One: Audio Description in Technique Class
Part Two: Audio Description for Narrative Performance (story arc)
Part Three: Audio Description for Non-Linear Performance (emotional quality)
Part Four: Audio Description as Cooperative Creation and Collaboration (two voices)
Part Five: Audio Description for the Ensemble (a thousand voices)
The Complete Lower Body: from the soles of the feet to pelvis — Saturday, March 19 from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM (Eastern / New York Time) The Complete Upper Body: from the fingertips to the crown — Saturday, March 26 from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM (Eastern / New York Time)
You can participate in either or both workshops.
Our instructor Krishna says of the workshops:
These two workshops are meant to help participants cultivate deep levels of body awareness, to get to know and appreciate the unique features of their own anatomy, and to feel movement in a highly specific way that can then be described verbally (self-audio description). These workshops are an invitation to disabled dancers, especially blind and visually impaired dancers, who may have been denied important information about their own bodies, or who have been discouraged from trusting their own physical perceptions, to find certainty, confidence, and joy in movement.
These two workshops are not fine-grain scientific anatomical analysis, but workshops that do deep dives regarding sensing highly specific anatomy on more targeted regions of the body will be coming up later this year (June: Pelvis, August: Foot, November: Neck)
Please let us know which workshop you would like to attend…
If you are not blind or visually impaired, please let us know why you would like to attend these workshops…
If you are a current or returning Dark Room Ballet student who has already registered, you don’t have to write, but you can if you want to!
These workshops are separate from Dark Room Ballet Introductory Level ballet classes for blind and visually impaired adults (which begin again on Saturday, April 9th) and Dark Room Ballet Open Levelclasses, which are ongoing and open for registration; please let us know if you are interested in either class so we can learn more about you as a potential new student.
Krishna Washburn of Dark Room Ballet will be sharing one of her popular anatomy and audio description workshops, this time sponsored by Hook & Loop out of Philadelphia (not Movement Research in NYC).
The Dark Room Ballet community and friends are invited — if you have participated in a version of this workshop before, please feel free to join again!
The workshop is free and will take place online; you must register directly with Hook & Loop to receive the Zoom information and recording after the event.
Description and RSVP link below.
Self Audio-Description and the Motor Neuron: Learning How to Play Your Own Instrument
Wednesday February 16th, 2022
6:00 PM to 7:00 PM, Eastern Time
Facilitated by Krishna Washburn Closed Captioning available
This workshop helps people to begin developing a self-audio description practice, in order to create movement art that connects with others on a visceral level. This workshop de-centers and de-prioritizes sight, and is appropriate for movers and dancers of all levels of experience or inexperience. Learn how to understand how movement feels in your body, and then practice talking about those feelings with others while also learning about the wonders of human anatomy.
By RSVP-ing you will receive the zoom link, full access information and a recording for this workshop. Recordings will be sent out by early March via Hook & Loop.
Hook & Loop is a Philly-based accessible artist collective led by people identifying as Disabled, chronically ill, or on the disabled spectrum which create accessible spaces, creative practices and interdisciplinary events to be experienced by everyone.
As part of the “Fractals” series, Krishna Washburn will be participating in a virtual event…
The first of its kind, Telephone is a work-in-progress short film bringing awareness to the important art form of audio description (AD) for dance. Audio description allows blind and visually impaired people to be included fully in the joy of artistic expression.
Co-directed by Dark Room Ballet founder Krishna Washburn and choreographer Heather Shaw, Telephone is the first screendance film created specifically with a visually impaired audience in mind, while facilitating an immersive sensory experience for audience members of all sight levels.
Created during the global pandemic, the film features diverse disabled and non-disabled artists from across the globe, demystifying and legitimizing AD, not just as an access tool, but as a beautiful, rich art form in its own right.
Telephone is at the forefront of a completely new approach to audio description. Most of what is considered “best practice” for AD is meant for television or film. A neutral AD voice describes the visuals and does not express emotional content. In television and film, the performers’ voices (layered over the AD) inform the audience of the emotional themes. However, in dance, performers rarely speak. Is the neutral AD voice really the best choice for dance? How do those listening to the AD connect with the emotional content of the performance?
The audio describers of Telephone are reshaping the world’s perception of AD, adding emotional context and allowing their words to dance in the same way a dancer’s body moves. The result is a beautiful merge of poetry and movement, proving that:
Dance is visceral – not merely visual.
Telephone Film is in the post-production stage, and is just $600 away from being able to meet a minimum goal to pay for editing and accessibility services.
You can help!
Interested in making a one-time donation? You can do so on Ko-Fi.
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?
Many of you probably already know that choreographer Heather Shaw and I have been working on a really fun, joyful disability community film project called The Telephone Dance and Audio Description Game. We are proud to announce that our trailer for the film was recently released to the public! Hooray!
We are continuing to collect submissions from dancers and audio describers to include in the film throughout the year, building a portfolio of work from artists dedicated to creating beautiful accessible art. I’m really thinking of the film as a document to capture this special moment in art history, the moment that audio description came into its own as a truly powerful art form. This is going to be a very large cast of artists!
Please let us know if you know of any organizations who might be interested in screening Telephone down the line (universities, galleries, museums etc). We are in conversation with a few already and hope to share this message far and wide.
If you want to support the artists of Telephone, there’s ways for you to do that!