Original article published at NorthJersey.com, December 15, 2020
The pandemic cut off George Stern from his go-to physical activities. No more jiujitsu. Goodbye running group.
Stern, who is deafblind, needed something safe and accessible that could keep him healthy. He stumbled upon a post in a social media group where people with disabilities talk about fitness and discovered Dark Room Ballet, a virtual class run out of a New York City apartment and designed for people with impaired vision.
Stern was inspired by Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to become a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, to sign up for private lessons.
“Uppermost in my head as I went into this was the memory of an NPR feature on … Copeland, and her words to the effect that ballet was for all body types, not just tall, skinny ones,” Stern said.
And not just sighted ones.
Dark Room Ballet founder and instructor Krishna Washburn, a blind dancer based in New York, taught Stern that people with disabilities can also practice ballet. And during the pandemic, offering the classes virtually made her lessons accessible in a way they weren’t before.
With two laptops, a microphone and a chair used as a ballet barre, Washburn guides students through the technique of a highly visual art form using detailed descriptions of how they should move their bodies. She teaches virtually on Zoom from her Hamilton Heights apartment every Monday evening.
Sighted ballet dancers scrutinize their movements in large mirrors until they perfect a sequence, but perfection isn’t what matters in Washburn’s classes.
She believes it’s immaterial to talk about how dancers should look. Instead, she explains how her students’ bodies should feel in order to build their confidence to dance.
Washburn launched Dark Room Ballet in April, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her teaching philosophy works well, she says, in an environment where it isn’t safe to be close to other people.
“Pretty much every person who I teach all have a history of being touched in unwanted ways … a lot of the available [dance] curriculums are predominantly about that because they assume people cannot think and interpret for themselves,” Washburn said. “Blind people really learn by having a conversation and through repeated experimentation.”
Through this experimentation, Washburn aims to introduce her students to new ways of movement and self-expression. One student, Len Burns, had practiced jiujitsu and yoga, but never took a ballet class before the pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns in March.
A blind man in his 60s, Burns believed he did not “quite fit the stereotype of a beginning ballet student,” but a friend encouraged him to give Washburn’s class a try.
“Little could I have known on that quiet Sunday afternoon that I had begun a journey that has already transformed me in ways I could never have imagined,” Burns said.
Washburn’s classes also thrived during the pandemic, allowing people from around the globe to join. Burns practices in the central coast area of California. Washburn said another student wakes up at 5 a.m. just to dance with Dark Room Ballet.
Washburn believes she’s the only person teaching the way she does. Some companies have offered special classes or programs for visually impaired dancers, and the Fernanda Bianchini Ballet Association in Brazil says on its website that it is the only dance school and company in the world made up entirely of visually impaired people.
Washburn considers herself a “ballet folk artist” because she is largely self-taught, but she takes dance classes every day and follows the guidance of her blind dance mentor, Mana Hashimoto.
Hashimoto studied dance at the New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She performed dance around the world, including at the world-renowned dance space Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. In 2009, Hashimoto founded Dance Without Sight, a workshop series that teaches movement through touch, sound and smell.https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/pnjm/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html
Washburn performed with several companies, including Infinity Dance Theater in New York City, where she climbed the ranks to principal dancer. Along with her extensive dance background, Washburn holds a master’s degree in education and certification from the Indiana-based American College of Sports Medicine.
Still, Washburn said ableism in the dance industry is “almost inexplicable,” and it held her back as a teacher and performer.
She’s been barred from classes with sighted dancers by instructors who fear she could injure herself or others. People have underestimated her intellect, and a lot of work placed Washburn in “unsafe and disrespectful environments,” but she took it anyway because she thought she wouldn’t land any other jobs.
To help break down barriers for visually impaired dancers, Washburn offers her group class and private lessons for free.
“My true mission is to fight against educational denial,” Washburn said. “If someone wants to learn something from me, I never, ever say no, because they deserve to learn.”
Washburn delves deeper than typical ballet technique instruction by explaining skeletal awareness and biomechanics. She coaches dancers to tune in to their bodies and feel how each muscle moves in order to place them in a prescribed form.
On the first day of class, Washburn instructs her students to place a line of tape on the ground and get used to the feeling of it. That helps dancers feel “confident and oriented in their dance space,” Washburn said. People move more freely about their space knowing there’s a home base to return to.
Stern said his private lessons with Washburn provided insight into his identity as well as his physical body.
“Ballet provided a welcome chance to reconnect with and recommit to my body, and in a not stereotypically ‘manly’ way that appealed to my queer identity,” Stern said.
He was drawn to Dark Room Ballet because it suited every type of body. Stern could learn the moves as a 30-year-old who was deaf and blind. So could Burns, who is 30 years his senior.
Dark Room Ballet welcomes people with any amount of dance experience and all abilities, though most people who attend have some visual impairment. Although virtual classes started during the pandemic, Washburn said she plans to continue teaching the class for the rest of her life.
“The person I get to be today, I get to be a teacher,” Washburn said. “I get to work only with people that I respect and I get to be treated with respect. But this is a recent development, and I had to wait for the world to fall apart for it to happen.”