Can you trust someone enough to dance with them with a blindfold? Learn how at a three-hour inclusive workshop tomorrow
"Show me how you'd hold a steering wheel," asks 20-year-old Latin, Bachata and Broadway Jazz expert Jason Arland, as we take our position in front of a mirrored wall in the brightly-lit studio at Bandra's House Of Wow. While otherwise, we would have raised our fists mid-air confidently, it's difficult to hold them steady when a pair of black eye pads covers our face. We follow Arland's instructions for 15 minutes before we can learn the most basic footwork of Latin dance — two tiny steps to the right, two tiny steps to the left, each followed by a thumka and then a turn too. As Arland puts on a lovely eight-beat Latin track, we feel claustrophobic and timidly ask if we can take off the blindfold. "Not yet," says the Nagpur-born dancer, who has participated in several national and international competitions including International Latin Fiesta and shifted to the city last year to work full-time as a makeup and hairstylist. He takes our hands into his, and applies pressure on each of them in turn, as a cue to turn from that particular side.
Jason Arland teaches this reporter a basic turn in Latin dance. Pics/Nimesh Dave
All ears, we surrender to the beats and instinctively follow our instructor step-by-step. We begin to enjoy the rhythms and somehow, the blindfold stops being a deterrent. It actually enhances the experience as the rhythms teleport us to rustic lands. As Arland pulls off our eye pad, we adjust our eyes to the sudden brightness. He steadies us and we continue dancing, practising the moves that we had learnt blindfolded. While otherwise we'd be cautious of stepping over our partner's feet, having trusted the instructor blindly (pun intended), we're uninhibited and enjoy the dance even more with our two left feet until the song ends and Arland takes a bow. It's liberating; something we believe that the organisers, Rachana Iyer and Rohan Sabharwal of Crayon Impact want guests to experience at the Dancing In The Dark workshop, which happens at the same venue tomorrow.
Anybody can dance
Open to the visually impaired (low vision, partial or complete blindness) and sighted over 15 years of age, the inclusive, three-hour Latin dance workshop will witness guests learning moves by being blindfolded during certain segments. "The workshop is for those to understand that the visually impaired are not suffering from a setback," says Sabharwal, who was a film curator previously who moved on to start the social enterprise with Iyer, armed with a Masters of Social Work (Disability Studies and Action) from TISS. "We help innovators tell their stories in a better way, through various platforms, whether it is shooting videos, designing crowdfunding campaigns, etc. Along with this, we also conduct a workshop every month with an attempt to bring dialogues related to mental health into the mainstream," informs Iyer. A case in point: Last month, on Women's Day, the organisers held an Improv Comedy workshop curated for women with disabilities, who also got to perform along with experienced women improvisers Preeti Singh and Jahnavi Dave. "Next month, we plan to host film screenings for survivors of bullying and also bring together people from film industry to share their stories," shares Sabharwal.
The dancing duo
Limited to 20 guests, the workshop will be conducted by Arland and Pune-based Latin dance expert Stefi Joseph, who has a visual impairment. In a telephone interview, Joseph shares, "The idea of the workshop is to help you learn about connection and trust exercises, which are also important life skills. Firstly, guests will learn the steps blindfolded and then, we will remove them to see what they have done."
She adds, "They will be taught Latin and Bachata dance styles because the latter's music is easier to connect with." Moreover, the workshop is open to even those who may not be good at dancing. "In Latin dancing, there are no rules. It's all about individual's personality. You have to dance to the beats, the way you want and just remember that you are beautiful and sexy," informs Arland, who met Joseph while working as an administrative personnel at the Pune-based Danza De La Liga (DDLL) dance company, a couple of years ago. "When I saw her dancing, I couldn't believe that she could barely see. She is such a beautiful dancer and during my stay in Pune, I would end up at her home for dinner and she's family," he smiles. While the duo has jived together at many dance socials in Pune and even during training sessions at DDLL, the workshop marks their first professional collaboration.
On: April 10, 3 pm to 6 pm
At: House Of Wow, 10, Natraj Building, opposite St Stanislaus School, Hill Road, Bandra (W).
How dance healed Stefi Joseph
"The beauty of Latin dance is to see two people performing as one soul, without compromising their personalities. What I love the most is the concept of leading and following where the latter takes as much strength," says 26-year-old Pune-based Stefi Joseph, a former student and instructor of Latin dance forms like Salsa and Bachata with DDLL, who will be in Mumbai tomorrow to conduct the workshop with Jason Arland. Currently, she works as an English and Social Studies teacher at City Pride School. To prove her point, she quotes a line from the Antonio Banderas-starrer Take The Lead, "When a guy leads a girl, he doesn't dominate but takes her on a beautiful journey. How you want to take the journey is up to you." Five minutes into a telephone chat with Joseph and you know that she is passionate about dancing. You also discover she has a critical eye condition, and makes no bones about it.
Rohan Sabharwal (left) and Rachana Iyer, co-founders, Crayon Impact
Born and brought up in Pune, Joseph was detected with Keratoconus — a progressive eye disorder where the cornea thins and bulges into a cone-like shape causing distorted vision — when she was in grade 8. "It means that the power in your eyes keep increasing till you go blind. Like cancer, it cannot be detected in early stages," she says. While she underwent a Corneal Cross-Linking (CXL) surgery procedure three years ago to slow down the disease, it worsened her condition. "I couldn't see anything except silhouettes and colours without lenses. For six months, I barely stepped out of my room because the light would irritate my eyes. I was heartbroken. My mother motivated me to take up something creative. Since I had a passion for dance since childhood, I joined the DDLL as a student and within two months, I was also made an instructor," she recalls.
Through the association, she got opportunities to participate in Latin festivals like India International Salsa Congress in Bangalore and India Fiesta Latina in Delhi where she attended workshops and danced at socials with international artistes like Santo Rico, Ataca y Alemana, Andrea y Silvia, Terry and Cecile and Marvin Ramos among others. Having undergone corneal transplant last year, Joseph currently has sutures in her left eye and the power in her right eye has gone up to 16. "Last year, during a competition, my eye began to water due to the lens, so I removed it and since then, I attend dance socials without lenses. When one organ shuts down, others are heightened. I rely on my other senses and let the music guide me. However, I can't let anything touch my eye and also, I avoid eye makeup," informs Joseph, adding, "If it hadn't been for my eye condition, I wouldn't be so stubborn and push myself so much. Dancing heals me."
Workshops for differently abled
Music: The courses accommodate differently abled students, including the visually impaired. For them, the theory module is eliminated and the emphasis is on learning with their ear. With course duration of up to three years, the instruments taught include guitar, keys, bass, drums and Western vocals too. Students can also opt for private lessons with their choice of instrument.
From: July (admissions open) AT The True School of Music, 107, Sun Mills Compound, Lower Parel. COST `2,000 per hour (for private lessons).
Dance: Ace choreographer Shiamak Davar’s dance academy conducts inclusive classes as well as classes specifically for students with special needs. Instructors, who are trained in Davar’s faculty programme and have undergone dance therapy courses, conduct the classes with music and movements specific to the students’ needs.
Age: 12 and above
From: April 16 (enrollments begin from April 11)
AT: Thane, Chembur and Andheri (W).
Cost: Free (disability certificate required)