Let’s dance

A NEW CRE­ATIVE PROJECT IS GIV­ING BLIND PEO­PLE MORE COURAGE TO MOVE, AND HELP­ING OTH­ERS RE­ALLY SEE

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - FRONT PAGE -

IT’S Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon in the Dance The­atre of Ire­land, Dun Laoghaire, and I’m watch­ing a group of 10 peo­ple twist­ing and twirling across the floor. Their move­ments are gen­tle and bal­letic, their faces are soft and re­laxed and — here’s the in­ter­est­ing part — their eyes are shut tight.

“We’re lim­it­ing our vi­sion as much as is com­fort­able for you,” ex­plains fa­cil­i­ta­tor Laura Sarah Dow­dall as the group moves to the dreamy sound­track.

“I want you to re­ally open up the skin and feel the touch of the floor. What tem­per­a­ture is the floor? What part of the body are you work­ing with?”

The group con­tin­ues to move, freely and flu­idly. They can’t see each other but they can feel each other and, af­ter six weeks of this work­shop, they have learnt how to tune into their other senses.

“Now one per­son is go­ing to break away from the group,” an­nounces Laura. “They’re go­ing to make a sound as they move — they be­come a bea­con — and ev­ery­one is go­ing to move around the room to find the per­son.”

The group scat­ters around the floor but it doesn’t take them long to find each other again. “And now we ac­cu­mu­late through touch and sound,” says Laura, “so that we can be­come one big ob­ject.”

With their eyes closed, ev­ery­one in this group is danc­ing in the dark. But when they open their eyes, not all of them can see clearly. This is be­cause some of the group are vis­ually im­paired, and some of them are not.“I try to work with eyes closed a lot of the time so that we’re all work­ing at the same level,” Laura tells me after­wards. “And ev­ery­one has a dif­fer­ent level of vi­sion, even you and me.”

As a dance artist, Laura is al­ways look­ing for con­cepts that she can ex­plore through her work. The idea for her lat­est re­search came about when she started to think about the many analo­gies and metaphors we have around sight and blind­ness. Why, she won­dered, do we use words like short-sighted, far-sighted and blind­sided to de­scribe our per­cep­tion of events? What does vi­sion give to us? Why do we feel that it is more em­pow­er­ing?

At the same time, she started notic­ing com­muters star­ing at the screens of their smart­phones and dis­con­nect­ing them­selves from the world around them.

“I was watch­ing these peo­ple go­ing to work,” she says. “Ev­ery­one was plugged in and it felt like they were miss­ing all these lit­tle de­tails, like the sub­tle touch that hap­pened when some­body passed by.

“We lose a level of en­gage­ment with life when we be­come dis­con­nected from the de­tails of our ex­pe­ri­ence; we be­come dis­em­bod­ied. So I was think­ing, what provo­ca­tion would get peo­ple more em­bod­ied, and it came back to the senses. It’s all about open­ing up your aware­ness to the world around you and also what is hap­pen­ing in­side of you.”

As part of her re­search, Laura spoke to peo­ple with low and no vi­sion. She wanted to find out how they per­ceived the world without sight.

Her first sub­ject was a blind woman she saw on the Luas. She gin­gerly ap­proached her when they both got off at the same stop and the woman agreed to join her for a cup of tea in a lo­cal cafe. “I can re­mem­ber the way she used her fin­ger to check the level of the milk when she poured it into her cup,” she says. “And after­wards she gave me a tour of her area. She knew her way around from the feel of the footpaths and the sound of the restau­rants. She pointed out land­marks that I had never seen be­fore.”

Laura ad­mits that she wasn’t quite sure of her role at first. Was she sup­posed to lead the woman, or maybe even link her? In­stead, she let the woman lead and, af­ter a few min­utes, they set­tled into an easy rap­port, com­mu­ni­cat­ing through sub­tle move­ments and non-vis­ual cues.

It was a light­bulb mo­ment for Laura, whose re­search be­came known as ‘Run­ning Blind’. The on­go­ing project ques­tions the fil­ters through which we ex­pe­ri­ence the world and in­cludes el­e­ments of so­cial-hap­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion — where in­for­ma­tion is con­veyed through the sense of touch.

She de­vel­oped and produced ac­ces­si­ble dance per­for­mances around the theme when she was Artist in Res­i­dence at Rua Red arts cen­tre last sum­mer. This then evolved into in­te­grated work­shops open to the pub­lic along­side the blind com­mu­nity.

“They of­fer new skills to ev­ery par­tic­i­pant as they learn about dance, con­tact im­pro­vi­sa­tion, em­pa­thy and con­nec­tion,” she ex­plains.

It’s a big idea — maybe even a lit­tle too big — but some­how the var­i­ous el­e­ments weave to­gether beau­ti­fully when I visit the work­shop to ex­pe­ri­ence it for my­self.

The par­tic­i­pants agree. An­dree Dor­gan (59) says the course has given her more con­fi­dence. “I wish there were more things like this,” she says. “I did yoga but found it very dif­fi­cult be­cause I was the only vis­ually-im­paired per­son in the class. I al­most had to be sit­ting on the teacher’s knee,” she laughs.

Dorothy Whit­taker (86) says the course has given her a wider range of move­ment and much more en­ergy. Af­ter just six weeks, she is tes­ta­ment to the old adage, motion is lo­tion.

“The first week you couldn’t get down on the floor,” re­mem­bers Laura.

“I couldn’t get off the floor,” quips Dorothy. “Two peo­ple had to lift me up! I was as stiff as a poker.”

Gerda Archer (75) liked the play­ful­ness of it. “Here we can be like lit­tle chil­dren, ex­press­ing our­selves in what­ever way we want to. I re­ally felt that was very ther­a­peu­tic for us,” she adds, “and when we touch that child-like en­ergy within our­selves, we al­most be­come that en­ergy again.”

Most of the par­tic­i­pants com­pleted the full six weeks of the course but He­lena Mol­laghan (21) and her guide dog, Al­fie, joined to­day’s work­shop on a whim.

“I didn’t know what to ex­pect,” she ad­mits. “But I def­i­nitely got a ther­a­peu­tic sense to it — and mind­ful­ness, which is hugely im­por­tant.”

He­lena has al­ways wanted to dance but she was never able to find a course aimed at the vis­ually im­paired.

“I grew up in the coun­try,” she ex­plains, “and there were no re­sources or classes for peo­ple like me. It was only when I moved to Dublin that I re­alised the po­ten­tial that I have and the things that I like to do. I never re­ally got to ex­pe­ri­ence them.

“When you’re blind, vi­sion im­paired or low sight, you are un­be­liev­ably re­stricted in your day-to-day move­ments,” she adds. “You’re cau­tious and tense and anx­ious and ev­ery­thing else.”

Laura nods in agree­ment be­fore comparing He­lena’s ex­pe­ri­ence to an­other par­tic­i­pant who said the work­shop gave him the space to ex­plore his en­tire range of move­ment. It was the first time he could run and move without

We can be like lit­tle chil­dren, ex­press­ing our­selves in what­ever way we want. It’s very ther­a­peu­tic

wor­ry­ing about hit­ting or break­ing some­thing.

At Run­ning Blind, par­tic­i­pants aren’t just given the space to open up their bod­ies. They are given the op­por­tu­nity to open up about their ex­pe­ri­ences too. Par­tic­i­pants on ear­lier work­shops told Laura that they were treated dif­fer­ently when they de­vel­oped vi­sion im­pair­ment. “Some even lost re­la­tion­ships and friends and they be­lieve this is largely to do with a lack of education on how to in­ter­act and sup­port peo­ple with sight-loss.”

John O’Brien (64) lost his sight when he had a stroke 10 years ago. He tells me that he used to work as a so­cial worker and, af­ter the stroke, he strug­gled to ac­cept that he was a per­son in need of care rather than a per­son who pro­vided care.

An­dree says she gets frus­trated when peo­ple use non-di­rec­tional lan­guage when she asks for di­rec­tions in a shop. They point and say, ‘Over there’, without re­al­is­ing that she can’t see where they are point­ing.

He­lena says it’s “ter­ri­fy­ing’ when peo­ple of­fer as­sis­tance without ask­ing first. “You can’t see at all so you don’t know where they are tak­ing you. You don’t know if some­one is try­ing to take your bag. Thank you, but don’t do that.”

An­dree agrees. “They come up be­hind you and just pull you along,” she sighs.

Laura has heard these frus­tra­tions time and time again. This is partly why she has opened up the work­shops to so­cial work­ers, art ther­a­pists, psy­chol­o­gists and, in­deed, any­one in­ter­ested in the work. “They’re in­te­grated work­shops be­cause we are all learn­ing from each other,” she ex­plains. “It’s about mak­ing peo­ple more em­pa­thetic in­di­vid­u­als.

“There is all of this knowl­edge that we are ac­cess­ing through our touch, our move­ment and our en­vi­ron­ment,” she adds. “And if we can learn how to tune into it, just think how it could en­hance our ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences.”

• In­te­grated work­shops and Run­ning Blind per­for­mances are on­go­ing and can be booked for schools, or­gan­i­sa­tions and cul­tural events. Con­tact Laura at laura@run­ning­blind.ie / 087 963 3229, or visit run­ning­blind.ie/work­shops to find out more.

PHOTOS: STEVE HUMPHREYS

The in­te­grated work­shop at the Dance The­atre of Ire­land in Dun Laoghaire in full swing; (far right) dance chore­og­ra­pher Laura Sarah Dow­dall with He­lena Mol­laghan from Sandy­ford and her dog Al­fie

Di­eti­tian Orla Walsh

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