By Christina Campodonico
When former Soul Train dancer Sylvia Taylor lost her sight as the result of a botched eye surgery about nine-and-a-half-years ago, it put her life on pause.
“I was actually afraid to come out by myself,” she recounts. “If my husband didn’t take me, I didn’t go [out]. If a friend didn’t come by and grab me, I wasn’t going.”
But now Taylor is on the move. As we talk over the phone, she’s stepping out of a cab with the aid of her driver. She is on her way to a rehearsal for the Blind Dance Company, a newly formed troupe made up entirely of sightless dancers, like herself.
“I was so happy to actually be dancing again,” says Taylor of joining the dance company about nine months ago.
Led by professional dancer and choreographer Hydeia Muhammad and Artistic Director Greg Shane, the group will make its world premiere debut at The Lazarus Experience in downtown L.A. on Saturday, August 12 and will present a mix of hip-hop, ballroom, and contemporary numbers.
Shane, also the co-founder of CRE Outreach (Create, Reflect, Empower) — a non-profit that helps at-risk youth, military veterans, and the visually impaired in greater Los Angeles engage with arts and produces the Blind Dance Company — came up with the idea for forming the troupe last year while working on a production of CRE’s flagship arts program, Theatre by the Blind.
“I had a ballroom scene that I knew I wanted at the end of the performance,” says Shane, who is blind in his right eye. “I reached out to Hydeia, who actually choreographed a dance at my wedding, and asked her if she could help put some routine together. I was just so impressed with the way she worked with the visually impaired community.”
Muhammad, a sighted independent choreographer, teacher, and dancer specializing in ballroom dance, had never worked with visually impaired dancers before. She held auditions in December, and assembled a group of seven dancers. Rehearsals commenced this past March.
In order to rehearse, Muhammad and the dancers came up with a customized teaching technique that emphasized touch, vocal instruction, and mental visualization.
“For example, … there are some steps in the routines that require [the dancers] to turn more than one time back-to-back and keep in a straight line,” says Muhammad. “So, we developed a method for spotting where I just told them to imagine if they’re looking straight ahead, I want them to imagine a red dot straight ahead, so when they turn in their mind they have to get back to that red dot. And it worked.”
Muhammad also had the dancers touch her as she demonstrated movements.
“We jokingly call it ‘brailing,’” says Taylor. “[Hydeia] will tell us moves … and she’ll go around to us individually and allow us to touch her to feel the movement.”
Like Taylor, the technique has helped 26-year-old Natalie Gross embrace dance once again after an almost decade-long hiatus.
“Dance was a constant reminder that I had gone blind. So, I stopped cold turkey,” says Gross, who participated in cheerleading and dance teams in high school before losing her sight eight years ago. “[The Blind Dance Company has] taught me to just go out there and do it — be courageous, take risks — because anything is possible and no disability is going to stop you from something that you really want to do.”
Even though “you can’t forget [how] to dance,” Gross says working with the company has changed how she approaches dancing.
“It’s changed me as a dancer because I feel like when you can see it’s just about getting the moves,” says Gross. “But when you can’t see, it’s more about how you feel and express it to an audience that can see. So I feel like it’s made me a more expressive dancer because I really have to get into character and put character in my actions.”
Muhammad hopes that the Blind Dance Company’s first performance not only empowers her dancers, but also encourages audiences to recognize that dancing transcends the ability to see.
“This is something that [members of the Blind Dance Company] do to embrace themselves, to be more confident, to put themselves out there,” she says. “I want people to see it and forget that they are blind and realize that they can dance like anyone else.”
As Taylor reminds me over the phone as she heads to rehearsal: “Dancing comes from the soul.”
The Blind Dance Company presents “EMOTIONS” at The Lazarus Space, 224 East 11th Street #501, Los Angeles CA 90015 on Saturday, August 12. http://tinyurl.com/emotionsdance