What’s Your Ballet? What’s Your Blindness?

Ballet and happiness?

I promised you all I would work on well being and happiness this year. To begin this journey, I wanted to bring something into my life that was about my own enjoyment and was not focused on my vision loss. I need to remind myself that well being and happiness can be cultivated despite what’s happening to my vision. It’s easy to say but harder to believe when you’re living it! With such a brief, it might have been hard to know where to begin, but for me, there was only one answer. Ballet. Ballet is good for my physical and mental well being, it’s always been part of who I am and it makes me happy, so this is where I decided to start.

So, making a start…

I’m in a new city where I know approximately two people (neither of whom share my interest in ballet), so this is something I’m doing alone. I began my search for a ballet class in October last year and found a suitable class relatively quickly, thanks to a recommendation from my daughter’s wonderful ballet teacher. But I didn’t sign up for the class. I looked at the ballet company’s website and I thought it sounded great. Google Maps assured me it wasn’t far from where I lived. But weeks passed, and I still didn’t sign up for the class. I made lots of excuses to myself, “I must make sure the girls are settled here first”, “House hunting needs to be a priority”, “I might as well wait until after Thanksgving now,” and the classic, “I’m so tired”. Christmas came and went, and 2020 rolled in. There really weren’t any excuses left. In reality, I never had any excuses, not valid ones anyway. I knew what was stopping me, and that was my fear. “What if it matters that I can’t see?”
It matters that I can’t see very well in many situations, but as is the case with many of them, blindness is not an insummountable problem in ballet. With the support of teachers and the understanding of other students, I’ve always made it work. But I can see less now than ever before, so what if now, I could no longer find a way to make it work?
I don’t think there was much chance my fears would be realised and deep down, I believed that somehow, I could still do it, but that fear was real enough to make me procrastinate. In all honesty, that fear is real enough to make me doubt myself in a great many scenarios. That’s where I think a renewed sense of well being could help.
Anyway, in January 2020 I finally clicked that ‘Register’ button. I took a deep breath, retrieved a pair of well-loved ballet shoes from the depths of a shipping box in the corner of the living room and opened the Uber app on my phone.

Three questions

As I stood in the entrance to my building, clutching my cane and sending my usual message to the Uber driver asking them to look out for me, my mind is full of questions. “Will I find the studio?”, “Will I be able to keep up with the class?” and “Will they mind that I can’t see?”

Now finding new places is never straightforward for me. It was 7pm and with my night blindness, I could see nothing at all, so that didn’t help. Although I was anxious about it, I think I knew that one way or another, I would find the place, even If I had to ask for help. My Dad always said that places don’t move, but people do, so eventually people can always find places. The second question was more of an unknown. The class I signed up for was called “Beginners Advnaced”. I wanted to find a class appropriate for my ability and to be challenged, but should I have gone for a more basic class so it would be easier to keep up when I can’t see? I would keep up, but how satisfied would I have felt after the class? Not as satisfied, I suspect as if I went for a challenging class but had to work a bit harder to figure out what on earth was going on. I suppose I am advanced for a beginner’s class and would be considered a beginner for an advanced class, so I thought this might be about right. The final question is like a gloomy cloud which follows me around and rears it’s ugly head at the most inconvenient times. Of course no one minds that I can’t see, but I can’t help thinking it. I imagined walking into a studio where the dancers are limbering up, being professional and elegant and then they look up and see me bumble in with my cane and everyone thinks I’m lost and not meant to be there. They might even say unkind things or think it ludicrous that this rather clumsy, cane wielding me should want to join in their ballet class. In reality, this didn’t happen, and I expect it never would happen, but these thoughts continued to niggle at me as the kind Uber driver helped me find the building I was looking for.

Once me and my trusty cane had navigated the path and random step into the building I felt around the wall in front of me until I found what felt like a doorbell. If I was religious I would have been praying that it wasn’t some kind of emergency alarm that automatically dispatched the Jersey City Fire Department, but I saw little other option to further my progress in finding the studio, so I pressed it… It wasn’t a fire alarm (phew!) but nor was it the entrance to the Jersey City Ballet’s premises. A super cheerful guy opened the door and welcomed me to an after school play group. Erm… I guess it could have been worse and he did tell me how to get to the studio. Three flights of stairs later, I find myself in another dark space, so I venture onwards.

The class

A woman’s voice asks if I’m here for the adult ballet class (YES!!!). I meet Judith, Director of the Jersey City Ballet. She welcomed me and we had a chat whilst waiting for the previous class to finish. She was so lovely and I felt more relaxed as well as such relief that I was in the right place!
I could hear other people arriving for the class and soon it was time to go in. My first impression of the studio was that it was bright – another relief! If I was going to stand a chance at seeing anything, this light was going to help. Barres were set up and we were introduced to a new teacher, who I soon found to be brilliant. Judith suggested I stand at the barre nearest the front in case it would help. On some days, when my vision is good, it would help, as perhaps I might see the teacher’s feet or legs. On other days when I have less vision, it wouldn’t make much difference. But I was so grateful for her gesture as it was perfectly sensible and showed acknowledgement of my difficulty without making a fuss. So the class began. I couldn’t see the teacher’s feet that day, but I listened carefully to what he said as he set the exercises. As the music played, I was so glad that I had finally come to the class. I was dancing again, and in that moment, what I could or couldn’t see, didn’t matter.

The class was so enjoyable from beginning to end. There were times when I didn’t know which way I was facing at the barre and I was never quite sure if it was my turn to go when we did sequences across the room. Then there were (many) times when I just got it plain wrong – I can’t blame that on my eyesight! But overall, I was happy. Not with my balletic performance you understand (I’m not good at ballet, just persistent!), but I was happy I went. Happy to know that even with less vision, I can still enjoy the things I love. I’m happy I took a risk and put my fears aside for a little while, because although it was hard for me to pluck up the courage to go to that class, it was worth it. I have been again since that evening, and will continue to go. And each time I go, I will be anxious about finding the building and whether I’m doing completely different steps to everyone else, but it will be worth it. Let me explain why I think that is.

It’s not perfection and it takes work

I’m starting to realise that happiness isn’t a passive phenomenon that lands in your lap and well being isn’t something you can just acquire. They are cultivated, rather than achieved. They need to be consistently worked at and will always be a work in progress. Happiness isn’t the same as perfection, just as perfection doesn’t guarantee happiness. The object of this whole ballet adventure was not necessarily to improve my pirourettes (let’s face it, they’re a lost cause!) but to do something that contributes towards my well being and happiness. Ballet is good for my psychological well being as it provides a little time away from my wonderful family, doing something I enjoy, with additional social and physical benefits. One of my aims this year was to work at being truly at peace with my vision loss and find a way to not only live my life, but to thrive, to truly enjoy it and relish in each of the wonderful things in it, even when I can’t see them.
There’s a lot of things out there we can do to improve our well being, but if you’re like me, you find excuses not to do them. Sometimes, we are scared and think of a thousand reasons why it would be better not to try, but you know, it’s probably not better at all – just easier. Taking the easy route is not condusive to cultivating happiness, not in the long term. Yes, it’s harder, but ask for help, do some research, give it a go and find a way. There usually is a way if you search hard enough. I couldn’t see to walk or drive to the class so I ordered an Uber and told the driver I couldn’t see so he would help me. I couldn’t find the studio so I rang the doorbell to the playgroup. I couldn’t see the teacher demonstrating, so I had to listen really carefully to his instructions. It was far from perfect, but for each obstacle there was a workaround. I know we’d rather not need workarounds, I’d much rather just get up and go to a ballet class like everyone else. But it was worth the struggle as my reward was not only the enjoyment of the dancing, but the confirmation that I could do this, even if it was hard.

So what’s your ballet?

So you may not like ballet and you may not have sight loss. So what’s you ballet? Horseriding, chess or skydiving? And what’s your blindness? A disability, fear of failure or you just haven’t got round to it? What do you want to do that would up your happiness game, and what is stopping you from doing it? I urge you to find a way to work around your version of blindness and do your version of ballet. I’m not at peace with my blindness yet – far from it, but if I can put it aside just sometimes, so I can concentrate on living fully, despite it being there, I think that’s progress. The more I can find enjoyment in life without sight loss being the focus, the more peaceful I can feel about it. Won’t you join me and let me know how it goes? This is a journey I have to take, but it will be sweeter if I had some company along the way.

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