Motion Carried

A woman stands before the ensemble. She has any height, weight, or frame you desire. Her hair is a color you hate or a color you love. Maybe she wears makeup; maybe she doesn’t. Perhaps because she knows we’ll be moving a lot, she has her hair pulled away from her face. Because she anticipates a workout, she doesn’t bother with makeup. If she wears dark colors, I perceive her as an energetic silhouette. If she wears light colors, I try to create a picture from the parts I can discern.

She moves her body silently, and I have a vague visual impression of her limbs in motion. She addresses the group:

“Okay everyone, mirror my movements—do what I do. Put your hand here,”—she moves one arm—”and do this with your other arm. There, some of you have it!”

Sighs of relief and grumbles of frustration surround me as the ensemble tries to accomplish what she has modeled. I have two options here: I can stand motionless until I understand what to do, or I can attempt to move as she does, knowing that my gesture will be a shady estimate. I can also wait and see if our instructor gives a general scolding remark:

“Come on, ladies, move your bodies more. Put your body into it. Watch me.”

Again, the risers will creak. I will hear and feel movement around me. Some will adopt her movement successfully, which will elicit a compliment:

“There you go—now you are really getting it!”

What is it? What is the gesture she wants us to make? How do I hold my body?

If I am lucky, some quick learner behind me will reach around and move me. Someone will lean to the side and hiss a clarifying instruction. Though they help, these hasty explanations aren’t reliable. I never know if someone will notice that I’m not keeping up. If someone does notice, her instructions will be rushed, crammed into the few seconds between new movements.

When the teacher says, “Move your arm in a circle,” I think, Which arm? A circle in front of me or behind me? Do you want my entire arm to swivel at my shoulder joint? Do you want my elbow to bend so that I trace the circle with my forearm?

Since the rest of the group can watch her, she does not have to address these questions. She can get excited when they do it right—and frustrated when they do it wrong. After all, she has told them to watch her. If they don’t understand how to move, then they aren’t paying attention.

This woman has filled many roles across my life. She has been a dance instructor, a aerobics whiz, a chorus conductor, a photographer. She has been anyone who told me how to hold myself using her own body and few words—never once touching me.

She has failed me and, naturally, I have failed her. I’ve never known what she wanted, and, when I’ve asked for explanations, I’ve met her confused and flustered elaborations.

“Here, just hold your arm like this.”

“Which one?”

“Your right arm. I’ll show you.” This declaration brings her close to me, modeling the movement with exaggeration.

“I can’t see you—can you move my arm?”

“Oh…sure.” And she begins to move me, her hands clawing and grabbing, thrusting my limb into the action. “Like that, see?” The grace with which she moves herself is lost when she touches me—her tactile guidance feels unnatural.

I want to leave the studio of the Convenient Composite Choreographer and find a more pleasant place.

It’s 7PM on a Tuesday night. My loyal readers know where I am: chorus rehearsal. I’m standing in my place on the risers, dead center on the second row; a small piece of contrasting tape marks my spot. The risers creak as women find their places. I can feel the air around me growing thick with bodies. My fellow singers exchange quips and greetings, and I recognize familiar laughs and voices.

Anne stands before us and leads our aerobic warmup. She turns on some soothing music, and begins to give instruction.

“Okay everyone, let’s start at the head. Massage your scalp with your two hands.”

I place my hands on the crown of my head.

“Work your way down, using your thumbs to massage the large muscles on the back of your head, connecting your head to your neck.”

With a growing sense of calm, I follow her instructions. She guides us through jaw, neck, and shoulder massage, then tells us to roll our shoulders. She tells us to bend our knees and bring our elbows up. She says, “Plant your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your weight over your feet as your reach to the left—and to the right.” As my weight starts to shift to my arms, she reminds the group, “Keep your weight over your feet.” I correct the movement and discover a profound level of balance. I lean into the stretch.

Anne tells us to draw circles and figure eights with our hips. She tells us to reach up above our heads. When she wants us to bring our arms down, she says, “Act like you’re pushing down through wet sand.” My arms come down slowly, and I feel self-imposed resistance as I imagine the feeling of working through wet sand. Anne’s words reformat these simple exercises, helping me understand the level of control I must exert in each one.

Thirty minutes pass and I don’t need to ask for clarification. This is the first time I’ve learned movements in a group setting, without feeling remedial. Able to understand each new movement, I feel that I am keeping up—learning as fast as the others around me.

Later, Anne helps me through the remaining few movements in one of our choreography routines. “Act like you’re grabbing your skirt with both hands,” she says. Immediately, I picture a wide ball gown; I take either side of my imaginary skirt (complete with crinoline), preparing for a curtsy. “No, in front of you,” Anne clarifies, adjusting my hands without hesitation. “Like you’re lifting a skirt—your hands come in front of your knees.”

“Oh, like a can-can skirt?” In my mind, I wave a sad goodbye to my floor-length burgundy ball dress. I create a flirtatious, black and red knee-length can-can frock with silk and ruffles.

Again, Anne adjusts my movement. When neither of us can think of an explanation, she skips words and moves me directly. Without awkwardness or reticence, she takes my hands, turns my hips, or places a guiding hand on my shoulder. Like other instructors, she uses her body to model movements for me, but, unlike other instructors, she lets me feel her movements, putting my hands over hers so I can understand each gesture.

Though choreography is visual, movement is emotional. Until recently, most people have taught me movement in translation—trying (and failing) to use vision to help me understand what to do with my body. Willing to move me and move with me, teachers like Anne demonstrate movement as a collaboration between the mover and the moving world, between your body and what you want your body to do.

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On the Floor: Blindness & Ballroom Dancing

Dance lessons always begin the same way. I enter the room, walking confidently with my cane and possibly holding the arm of a girlfriend, and we laughingly find our way to a chair or bench, depending on the room’s amenities. We take off our everyday shoes and strap ourselves into Dancing Shoes –  high heels with very secure ankle straps. Our dancing instructors tell us that the heels help you move your hips, especially for the Latin (or rhythm) dances. If you’re a real dancing pro, your heels will have suede on the soles so that you can glide across the smooth dance floor with ease. I’m not that advanced yet, and frankly, I don’t want to slip around more than I have to. So I always pack a sturdy pair of black or silver high heels and fasten the secure ankle strap as tightly as I can bear.

Once the shoes are on, I most assuredly take my gal pal’s arm and we toddle over to the dance floor. Here’s where I am glad I brought a female friend, as a dance instructor will usually shepherd the guys to one side of the floor and the girls to the other. My friend will be able to give me helpful tips that supplement the teacher’s verbal instructions. So much of ballroom dancing instruction is delightfully verbal – “Slow, slow, quick quick…ladies, you start with a back step on the right foot and remember to stay in frame!” –  but there are occasional moments when the verbiage leaves me wanting more. For example, when finessing a graceful turn, I need either a hands-on demonstration with a capable partner or the descriptive whispering of my adjacent companion.

Luckily when I go dancing, I don’t participate in the preliminary lesson to learn the steps. I was fortunate to be an active member of the ballroom dancing club at UNF during its short duration and I’ve learned the basic steps for most of the dances. I participate in the lesson so that those who see me walk in with my white cane will know I can actually dance. The lesson usually begins with the men and women learning across the floor from one another, but at some point, we all partner up and form a huge circle. As the instructor guides you through a small routine, you’ll move around the circle, trying the moves you’ve learned with a new partner every few minutes. This is the time when I get to show the guys that I’m a capable dancer. Bottom line: I know the moves so please, when the lights dim, Ask Me To Dance!

However, since the emblem of my blindness is now neatly folded and tucked into a corner with my purse and everyday shoes, this is also the time when I must try to subtly impart to them my visual impairment. It’s very unfortunate to have a partner lead you onto the dance floor, NOT knowing that you have low vision, because he might try something called a “free spin” – where he lets go of you and you both twirl away from one another – and, when you turn dizzily back around to face where you think he is and you’re wobbling a bit in your high high heels, he’ll wonder why you didn’t execute the move with perfect finesse. It’s much easier for a partner to know ahead of time that free spins are a dangerous, if not ungainly, choice.

But how do you impart this information in the 10 seconds of introduction you share while he’s offering you his hand and saying, “Would you like to dance?” It’s hard to reply, “Oh sure, but hey, I don’t see well so don’t let go of me!” You don’t want him to shake his head and walk away or to tense up and be uncomfortable. So what you do is…you get in the circle in the beginning, and you hope that the guys in the room notice how your first partner guides you across the short distance to the next partner. If they notice that this particular girl needs a little assistance traveling from partner to partner, maybe, just maybe, they’ll connect that with her glasses and the cane she came in with.

Even if they don’t make The Big Connection, if my potential partners see me in the circle and one or two of them helps me establish the precedent of guiding me around a bit, I can work with that. It’s enough for them to know I need to maintain the constant contact – no free spins please! – and that I’d appreciate it if, when our dance is done, they guide me back to my original seat.

This is why it’s helpful for me to have friends on the men’s side as well. I’m very comfortable when I dance with people I already know, because they’re familiar with my abilities. And what’s wonderful about ballroom dancing is that visual observers can learn so quickly.

So…back to the actual dancing. Let’s pick my favorite – swing! I was once dancing swing with a friend of mine so fast that his glasses flew off! Talk about a disaster! Neither of us had a clue where they were, and everyone was dancing so fast around us, I’m surprised the glasses were unbroken when we found them.

Swing is the best! It’s fast, energetic, a real outlet for passion. I hear swing music and I immediately start tapping my feet and choreographing in my head. One of my favorite moves, The Pretzel, involves a series of exhilarating steps where your arms are flying, hands joined, over your head and your partner’s. It ends in something called The Sweetheart, where your partner’s hands are crossed in front of you, gripping yours, and it’s the perfect setup for a big, dramatic dip.

Provided that my partner is skilled and courteous (well-acquainted with my visual limitations and not spinning me 7 times in a row), ballroom dancing is a space of unique freedom and trust. I never take my cane on the floor and I give myself entirely into the embrace of my partner – which means it’s his job to make sure we don’t go careening into anyone. The trust I place in my partner is so great that I don’t even think about the possibility of crashing into someone else while I’m dancing.

Whether it’s swing, fox trot, or hustle, the experience of dancing with a partner is a rewarding collaborative effort. It is incredible to think that, on the floor, you take all the cues you’ll ever need from the press of someone’s fingers, wrapped around your own. You don’t have to meet their eyes or worry about facial expressions that you can’t perceive – your whole world comes to you through the right hand, clasped in his left, your left hand, resting on his upper arm, and his right hand, pressed against your left shoulder blade. Every turn, dip, abrupt change in direction, or surprising new move comes to you by some tactile signal at one of these three points of access.

I find it incredible that you can get to know the partner and the dance so well that the slightest pressure against your back or a minute angling of the wrist lets you predict what’s coming next. Yet, a talented partner can still surprise you by leading you into a move you haven’t even learned or a turn you didn’t expect. (An untalented partner can surprise you as well, but it’s not as pleasant to blog about.)