Tuesday 20 November 2018

Dancing in the dark

A pioneering dance workshop is helping people experience the world without sight. Katie Byrne joins them for an afternoon

The integrated workshop at the Dance Theatre of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire in full swing. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The integrated workshop at the Dance Theatre of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire in full swing. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dance choreographer Laura Sarah Dowdall with Helena Mollaghan from Sandyford and her dog Alfie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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?"

Dance choreographer Laura Sarah Dowdall with Helena Mollaghan from Sandyford and her dog Alfie. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dance choreographer Laura Sarah Dowdall with Helena Mollaghan from Sandyford and her dog Alfie. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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 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.

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