Dancing When You’re Really Blind

blind dancer performing

A blind dancer featured in the film “We Also Dance”


Last week I wrote a post about dancing blind, but it really was about dancing temporarily blind.  This one is about dancers who are always blind.

I’ve written in the past about deaf dancers, dancers in wheel chairs, and dancers with other physical limitations.  I’ve never written about blind dancers but they’re out there!

Many years ago I taught self-defense classes at the Albany Orientation Center for the Blind.  The most striking thing I remember about my students was how varied they were in attitude.  One young woman had lost her sight less than a year before I met her and she was unstoppable.  She accepted her situation and with an upbeat attitude began learning as much as she could to improve the quality of her life.  Another who had been blind since birth had been coddled all of her life and was afraid of everything.

Any kind of dancing is possible if you can’t see.  It’s all about commitment and attitude.  As with sighted people, if you fall in love with it, you’ll practice enough to get good at it.

I’ve only taught dance to one blind person.  He was a large man married to a tiny woman with congestive heart disease.  She was frail, but could see.  He was strong, but couldn’t.  They were an unconventional couple who didn’t care if they looked odd to others, so were happy with my solution of having her learn the lead, and he the follow.

It is possible, however, for a blind leader to learn to lead.  It’s much easier if it’s a performance.  The floor can be mapped out and memorized.  The biggest challenge is sharing the floor with others.  Not everyone can handle this but some have managed to do it.

Mana Hashimoto’s dance troup, like the Axis Dance Company I featured in my post There’s More Than One Meaning for Chair Dancing!, is a mix of blind and sighted dancers.  In the documentary film We Also Dance, she explains how the dancers orient the floor without the use of sight.

Greg Kolichi, featured in the same film, dances Country Western.  He rises to the challenge of leading a partner dance while navigating the floor using his other senses.  If you are interested in this subject, check out the movie.  Here’s a taste!

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By LaurieAnn Lepoff
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Dance is The International Language



a lindy dip

The author dances Lindy with a partner from Switzerland

I heard this statement and I realized that in my experience it’s true.  For 8 years I spent 4 weeks every summer at an international dance camp in Sweden with dancers from over 50 different countries. All we had in common was our love of dance.

Most of the other students spoke enough English to make it through the classes, which were all taught in English. The Russians and the French sometimes relied on a few English speaking friends to translate and I managed to make friends with people who barely spoke English.

When I was suffering from a neck cramp, one of the Russians noticed I was in pain and gave me a tube of some kind of ointment.  I used it and it helped.  After a day or two, I returned it to his tent.  I had asked another Russian friend to write “Thank you!” in Russian for me and I left it with the tube of ointment.

When I saw him later that day, he said in heavily accented English “You’re welcome.”  We were dancers, and we communicated very well through dance.  It felt like a friendship even though we did not speak each other’s language.

It’s the Russians who stick in my mind because the culture difference was so dramatic.  The first year they kept to themselves and were very stand-offish to the point of rudeness, or so it seemed.  It was the first time most of them had been away from their homeland.

On the last day of that first year, they put on a little show for the rest of us.  They taught us silly children’s games and cooked traditional Russian food for us to try.  Afterwards, I approached a woman who had been in my classes who had always been very cold to my attempts at friendliness.  I told her how much I appreciated the evening they had given us and how much fun it was.  She broke into a wide grin and began to chat with me.

We had a lovely conversation just before the bus to the airport arrived and she took off.  But the following year, when she saw me she came over and greeted me by name (!), gave me a big hug and asked me how my year had been.  She’s the friend who wrote the thank you note for me.

Learning about other cultures and bridging cultural gaps has always fascinated me.  Dance is a multi-cultural language, but shared passions are the best way to open hearts.  For unforgettable experiences, I highly recommend dancing in other countries!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff
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More Fusion Dance: Lindy and Balboa

Jeremy Otth & Laura Keat dancing

Jeremy Otth & Laura Keat demontrate Lindy/Balboa fusion

Of all the fusion dances, Bal/Lindy is probably the most natural.  Almost everyone who knows both dances has done them together on occasion if not regularly.  Pure balboa is done in a close hold that never breaks, but almost everyone does Bal-swing and calls it Balboa.

This isn’t fusion, but rather a street dance that evolved and changed.  Bal-swing is not Lindy, but they both  have roots in the same place, come from the same era, and are danced to similar music.  Bal and Bal-swing are usually danced to very fast music.  While mentally difficult to learn, they are not physically tiring to dance.

Lindy Hop is danced to a variety of speeds.  While variety is everywhere, the predominant speed varies by locality.  In my area (San Francisco) a lot of the music is on the slow side.  In L.A. or Seattle, it tends to be mostly fast.  Unlike Balboa, dancing fast Lindy takes a fair amount of physical stamina.  It’s not surprising that Bal is popular in L.A.

If you know how to gracefully segue into Bal from Lindy and back again, you can use Bal as a rest when you need a break.  If you only know a little Bal, it gets boring fast but you can hang out in the basics long enough to catch your breath.

If you are masters of both fast Lindy and Balboa, you can put them together into a stunning fusion dance, like this one from  Jeremy Otth & Laura Keat at the All Balboa Weekend of 2012:

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing blind

blind-folded dancer

Dancing blind opens up all kinds of new insights

When my dance students are learning the skill of following, I often suggest they close their eyes.  Closing your eyes takes away a lot of the urge to back lead, and it brings forward the senses you use to feel the lead.

Even when social dancing, I often close my eyes because it’s relaxing and feels good.  Leaders, however, are in the driver’s seat, so they need to keep their eyes open. 

That’s why I was blown away by this video of a West Coast Swing performance with a blind-folded leader.  OK, this is a rehearsed routine, but it’s STILL pretty impressive even though I doubt they used the blind fold before they had mastered the choreography.

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Even though the lead is in charge, there is a certain degree of sensing what’s happening with your partner, especially with a jazz dance like West Coast Swing or Lindy.  Practicing with your eyes closed is a good exercise for leaders, too.  Just make sure you have plenty of room, and unless you have a LOT of room, not a good idea for you both to be blind-folded at the same time.

Dancer Rebecca Niziol talks about performing  blind when she lost a contact right before a performance.  Although she never would have done so on purpose, she was surprised to find out how tuned in she was and what came out of her when forced to rely on her other senses.  For the full article, see Dancing Blind Taught me to Be Present.

You may find yourself surprised at what you get in touch with when you can’t use your eyes.  Try it just for fun, and if you discover something interesting, let me know!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Why Learn to Dance on Valentine’s Day

What’s the most romantic thing you can do on this day of romance? Well, yeah, go dancing of course! And if you don’t know how to dance?

Well, if you’re a guy who’s with a woman who loves to dance, then take her out for a romantic dinner and give her a gift certificate for dance lessons. No, not for her. For you. Just taking lessons together can be very romantic, but the real gift is your willingness to learn a skill that you can do together for the rest of your lives.

There’s not much that’s more romantic than dancing together, unless it’s taking a risk to leave your comfort zone to give her the gift of yourself. Of yourself recognizing what she gave up to be with you, and wanting to give it back to her.

That’s the romantic part. The transformative part is what it will do for you to find out you can do something that you thought was off limits. Love gave you the willingness to try. Taking on the challenge will give you so much more.

I may have told this story in a previous blog, but it’s a good one so in case you missed it, here it is again! Years ago I took a class in dance lifts with a favorite partner who happened to be a rather soft and sweet natured gay man. Afterwards I said to him, “It’s obvious why this is fun for us. We get to feel like a little girl being tossed into the air by our daddy. But what’s in it for you to be the lifter?”

“Oh,” said Jody. “We get to live out our fantasy of being the big macho hero!”
That was the moment of an epiphany for me. If Jody had a fantasy of being a big macho hero, then every man on the planet must have that fantasy.

So that’s what’s in it for you. Learn to dance and be a big macho hero for the love of your life. When you give this gift, it changes you into someone who loves being a dancer. Don’t you want to find out who that person will be?

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dancing

Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dance

classic painting of 2 women dancing

Same sex dancers were common at the Moulin-Rouge

When both partners know how to lead as well as follow, dancers can switch roles during a dance.  This is truly the ideal solution for people who are worried about sexism in the roles of lead and follow, but not everyone wants to learn both parts.  Yes, it does make you a better dancer, but so does constant practice.  We each do what works for us with whatever commitment we have to the learning process.


That said, switching roles is fun when you both know what you’re doing, but it is definitely not traditional.  You can only do it in a community where it is normal for both people to know both parts, or if you dance with a particular partner who can do it with you. 


It’s most common, not surprisingly, in gay dance communities where the roles are not defined to begin with.  However, it’s also common in the Lindy Hop community in the Bay Area (but not any other dance for some reason) and in the waltz community at Stanford University.


Dance teachers have a lot of power when teaching beginners who not only know nothing about dance but also nothing about dance culture.  Sometimes students ask me if it’s traditional for men to lead and women to follow and it’s always tempting to say “Not at all.  Do whatever you want.”  I can’t do that because when they get out in the real world to go dancing they would find out I lied.  But Richard Powers, who heads the popular vintage dance program at Stanford, does exactly that.  He teaches a lead switch in Cross Step Waltz as if it’s a traditional move.  It flows easily in Waltz because the footwork doesn’t have to change with the switch.  As far as I know, Richard is the only one who does this, but his students don’t know this.  They all are part of the same community and they all learned from the same teacher.  Here’s a clip of Richard and his partner Angela Amarillas demonstrating Cross Step Waltz.  You can hear him call the partner change along with the other steps as if it’s a natural part of the dance.  And of course, since he teaches it that way, it is.

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 It also has something of a history in Lindy Hop, as women often danced together when the men were off at war, and so did the men, while off at war without the women.  I doubt that that has anything to do with the popularity of role switching in today’s Bay Area scene, but it is interesting.  Here’s a wonderful clip from the 1944 movie The Canterville Ghost with Margaret O’Brien.  I don’t know who the dancers are, but they are doing classic Lindy Hop.

If you’re intrigued by the challenge of knowing the lead as well as the follow, give it a go.  I recommend getting solid in one part first, however, before tackling the other. Leading and following are very different skills with their own challenges and it’s not easy to learn them both at the same time.  This is particularly true in Swing dance where the foot work is also different. 

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Have fun, you all, and tell me about your own role switching experiences in partner dance!

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A Brilliant Use of Dance and Technology

dancers with light imagry

Dancers interacting with the light

Before I was a dancer, I was an artist.  When I was in art school, I took a trip to Hollywood to see the Art and Technology show.  Famous artists of the day like Claus Oldenburg and Andy Warhol teamed up with  tech companies like Hewlett Packard to create works of art that utilized the technology the companies had to offer.  It was a wonderful idea and a great show.

Now that I’m a dancer, I’m equally fascinated when dancers team up with technology to make creative use of media beyond the human body and music.  This is not a new concept, as evidenced by Gene Kelly’s partnership with Jerry the cartoon mouse in 1944’s Anchors Aweigh.  Here’s Jerry and Gene in their famous one time partnership:

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But what inspired me to write about it now is the Japanese troupe Enra. In a previous post, Can Inanimate Objects Dance? I showcased an artist who created dancing lights, but with out the human dancers.  In this brilliant work Enra uses animation to create collaboration between dancers and light.  It’s a flawless blending of two art forms, resulting in pure magic!

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If you want to know more about how this was done and see the video, check out this article in the Huffington Post.

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Making a Difference in Another Dancer’s Life


In my last post I talked about being kind on the dance floor even when you are feeling offended.  Today I wanted to give an illustration of how powerful your offhand words can be.

When I was regularly attending the Herrang dance camp in Sweden, I used to take a detour during the third week to go to a ten day camp in Norway.  They were trying to model it after the truly international Swedish camp which boasts attendance from more than 50 different countries, but it was really more like 200 Norwegians, a couple of Swiss Germans, and me.  But they spoke English whenever I walked into the room, and it’s size created an intimacy that was different from the huge camp in Sweden.

There was a young woman there who assisted in some of the classes.  She was a good dancer and had a good eye for what wasn’t working when people needed help.  One year when I arrived and saw her, I greeted her and asked how she was.  “I’m teaching dance with my boyfriend,” she said.  “ I’m in a great relationship and I’m really doing what I love.  My life is amazing and I owe it all to you!”

I had no idea what she was talking about.  I had nothing to do with the positive changes in her life.  I didn’t even know what she had been doing for a living before.  “Me!?”  I said.   “What did I do?”

“Well, last year I told you I wanted to teach dance and I asked you if you thought I was  a good teacher,” she explained.  “You said I was and that you didn’t see any reason I shouldn’t teach if I wanted to.  You told me if I was passionate about it, it was the right path for me because I had the talent to back it up.”

I didn’t even remember this conversation, but it sounded like something I would have said.  She certainly didn’t owe it all to me, especially the boyfriend part.  I didn’t even know him.  She took the initiative and made it happen herself.  But she respected my opinion and my words of encouragement were the inspiration she needed to take the risk to invest in herself.  It was such an easy thing to contribute and it made such a huge difference to her.

If she hadn’t been a good teacher, I would still have told her to pursue her dream, but I would have suggested she first work on her teaching skills.  It’s important to be honest when people ask for your advice, as well as to be as encouraging as you can be without sacrificing your integrity.  This was a dance example, but of course it applies to anything in which you are an expert and are in a position to mentor others.

Words are amazingly powerful.  You never know how yours will affect someone else, but if you do your best to be both honest and kind, your can’t go wrong.  Oh, yes, and forgive yourself when you don’t always measure up to these fine ideals.  It has been said that I don’t suffer fools easily and I’ve been known to let a snarky remake leave my lips before I can catch it.  Oops.  Do the best you can and be as gentle with yourself as you strive to be with others.


By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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