From when I was four until I was fourteen, I took dance classes at our local dance studio. My favorite was tap, but I also took classes in jazz, ballet, and hip-hop. This was before people realized how poor my vision really was, but my teachers were wonderful about including me and instilling a strong appreciation of the performing arts. Here are a few tips and tricks for including dancers with visual impairments
Can you dance with glasses?
I was never asked to remove my glasses when dancing, likely because of my already terrible eyesight. I don’t have any memories of them flying off my head or breaking, even when I was doing triple spins in ballet. If I was going to dance again, I would secure them with a sports strap that blended into my hair.
Have a buddy
In each of my classes, I had someone that I would follow or that could help me when I had trouble seeing what the teacher was doing. This was not assigned by the teacher, it happened naturally as the other dancers noticed I bumped into things more often.
Don’t go across the floor alone
When doing traveling/floor routine dances, especially in tap and ballet, the teachers would have us divide into pairs. Looking back, this probably prevented me from spinning into so many walls and crashing into the barres, as I had someone traveling slightly ahead of me.
Know the layout
I took classes in the same room for years, so I became accustomed to where the barres were, where the sound system was, and where the edge of the floor was. When I started dancing in a new studio, I started running into things more often as it was an unfamiliar location. Get to know where obstacles are, and make a note on how to avoid them.
Describe movements as much as possible
Some teachers would simply demonstrate the technique in the mirror and expect students to follow along perfectly. My teachers, after noticing I had trouble mimicking movements, would describe techniques as thoroughly as possible. Often times in ballet, the teacher would actually manipulate my legs so I would be able to understand what she was talking about.
Be careful with props
One year for my tap and ballet classes, we used umbrellas as props for our recital. When we first started learning the choreography, I probably bonked the people standing next to me in the head multiple times, because I had no depth perception. As a result, my teachers had me stand slight further apart than the rest of the dancers to avoid more casualties. This went unnoticed on stage.
One side may be weaker
Low vision frequently coexists with other neurological conditions- in my case, a structural condition called Chiari Malformation (which wasn’t diagnosed until I was 18). As a result, my left side was slightly weaker than my right, something that was more pronounced in tap, since there are more techniques that require use of one foot compared to the other styles of dance. Thankfully, my teacher was very observant and realized my weakness was involuntary and never criticized me for it, or brought it to my attention.
Because I had problems tying my shoes, my dance shoes all featured elastic ties, or I had my mom tie my shoes in several knots before class. I chose to use sneaker-style jazz shoes for better traction, and avoid heeled shoes because of my balance issues. I never went on pointe in ballet either.
If needed, alert the instructor of medical limitations
Because my spine was so rigid, I had to tell my teachers every year that I could not touch my toes, or touch the floor with my stomach during warm up exercises. This was never an issue, as these were never incorporated into dance techniques, and I did other stretches to warm up instead. Another one of my friends informed their teachers of past injuries, such as a torn ACL or broken ankle, so that exercises could be modified if needed, and existing injuries would not be aggravated.
Know when to stop
After I got prisms in my glasses, I started getting intense vertigo from running, spinning, and similar activities. I also was more frequently running into items, and starting to experience more symptoms from Chiari Malformation. I knew I had reached my limit, and it was time to stop dancing, and my teacher agreed. Understand your limits, and listen to what professionals say.
Dance helped me tremendously with my balance issues and also with overcoming sensory integration. I also was able to improve my coordination, develop a strong sense of rhythm, and an intense appreciation of music and the performing arts that continues to this day. For more on how people with low vision go to performing arts events, click here!