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.)