Ballet is a very visual art form, but is appreciated by many people who are blind or visually impaired. I’d like to share with you why I think ballet can be and should be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of how little or how much they can see.
I developed a love for ballet at an early age. As a three year old, I happily pranced around the local community centre, learning the most basic of steps. It really didn’t matter that I couldn’t see very well. It mattered more as I got older, the steps became more advanced and I began to see less, but by then, I was in love and sight loss wasn’t going to stop me. Fast forward 30 years and I still attend a weekly ballet class and even with far less vision, ballet still brings me so much joy.
Freedom of movement
There is nothing comparable to the feeling I get when I dance. In real life, my visual impairment means that I am incredibly aware of how and when I move, to the point where I consciously restrict my movements in case I knock into something or injure someone or myself. I feel like I have to be on high alert all the time, just to avoid disaster! Ballet is different. Yes, the movements are deliberate, choreographed and well-rehearsed, which doesn’t sound very liberating on the surface, but once we run through a sequence of steps a couple of times, I can move freely, with confidence. I can stretch further, jump higher and turn faster than I would ever dare to in real life. In a studio I feel more orientated than in the outside world. There are no unexpected obstacles to bump into and I have the freedom to move fluidly and confidently, in a way that the outside world rarely allows. If you’ve never danced before, you can still experience that freedom of movement. With access to a class, in a safe space where the teacher is aware of techniques to make dance accessible to blind and visually impaired people, there is no reason why visually impaired people can’t enjoy dance as much as their sighted peers.
In a ballet class everyone moves together, in time with each other and the music (well, mostly!). There’s a feeling of synchronicity. When you don’t see the world as most people do, you can feel less ‘in-sync’ with your surroundings and peers as you would like. For me, ballet allows me to feel that connection. I often get the steps wrong – my understanding of the teacher’s instructions is not always accurate as I can’t see her demonstrating the steps, but it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the teacher and girls in the class are kind enough to correct me, other times they see I’m having fun and leave me to it. I’m not trying to be a prima ballerina – I’m just enjoying the art of ballet. When I do make mistakes, it doesn’t feel like they are necessarily due to my vision, but they may be due to the fact that ballet is difficult regardless of how much you see. It’s refreshing to be able to make mistakes and people don’t immediately attribute them to my sight loss, as frustratingly, is often the case when you have a visual impairment. In real life, not seeing visual social cues sometimes means missing out on jokes or the entirety of a conversation or social experience. At a ballet class, I never feel like I’m on the side lines. I feel ordinary, equal and included. Importantly, I don’t feel like I need to follow or qualify that statement with ‘despite my visual impairment’.
When the music begins to play, the worries of the outside world fade away, just a little. It really is like a kind of therapy. You concentrate on the steps, the music and the expression. The focus required to execute each step as it was intended, empties the mind of other thoughts.
Why is ballet good for the blind?
I believe that in the right circumstances, ballet can provide an environment where self expression through movement is possible and safe for someone who is blind or visually impaired. It connects people and promotes social inclusion, which is incredibly important for a person with sight loss, who may find their disability is a barrier to many social situations. When sight loss becomes part of your life, it’s easy to focus on things you can’t do. A ballet class forces me to concentrate on what I can do. It’s good for the mind as well as the body.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful for anyone who wanted to experience this, to have the opportunity? For more people to feel the liberation and sense of accomplishment that comes with enjoying dance? But how many people who are blind or partially sighted get to experience this? I don’t know, but I would guess not every blind person who is interested in dance, believes it’s an option for them. The question is, how do we change this perception? I don’t pretend to have the answer but I think there are ways the industry could work with the visually impaired community to improve the accessibility of dance, and I’m delighted to say, they already are. I believe the industry leaders, the ballet companies themselves, truly believe in making their work more accessible. There is evidence of this, as some companies offer touch tours and audio described performances, as well as accessible workshops and even classes specifically for people with sight loss. The hope is that as their work continues, interest will grow. Demand will increase, as will supply. Then accessible ballet will eventually trickle down through through the system, to local ballet schools and community ballet classes, making it truly accessible to all who want it. That is why it’s so important that these leading organisations keep promoting the good work they do in this area. They should also consult and work in partnership with the visually impaired community, as the aim is not only to make the world of ballet accessible, but to send the message that the industry considers visually impaired patrons, dancers and participants not only welcome, but truly valued.