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'Someone demonstrates the footwork on my back with their hands': Learning to dance when blind

Guest Guest | 09:37 UK time, Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Continuing our occasional series on hobbies, blind musician Shaun Hayward explains what he gets from dancing and some of the challenges of participating in dance classes if you can't see the moves everyone else is doing.

I got my first taste of formal dancing in October 2010 when a friend asked if I'd like to go to a salsa class. I thought about it - music and women - and decided to give it a shot. I immediately fell in love.

When I was younger and could see a bit I didn't really take any notice of what dancers were doing, so when I came to this I didn't have much concept of what was going on. It can be difficult for a blind person to visualise dance movements and to grasp what the instructor is getting at when they shout "arms, legs, up, down" etc. But when you understand that the body can only move in certain ways, this helps you feel more confident and that you're doing the right thing.

After a couple of weeks of successful salsa classes I was invited to attend a le - roc or modern jive night. This was a very different experience to the salsa as there were many more people there, about 60, and so it had the potential to be less friendly and personal, not to mention more disorientating.

I would be lying if I said it was easy in either class, introducing myself as: "Hi I'm Shaun and I'm blind," was not one of my finest chat up lines. But everybody was so helpful and friendly from the word go, that I only needed to say it for the first week.

After learning four modern jive moves in half an hour, the group then goes into freestyle, where people ask each other to dance - that is when I got nervous. I thought: "oh god here we go, I'll just be sat in the corner". How wrong I was.

I must have been asked to dance a dozen times or more that night. Blind or not, that really helps your confidence. And you can throw getting super fit in as another positive. Going to a gym, which I did for years, doesn't even come close to the feeling of well-being I get through dancing.

Even though I am now totally blind, I still experience unnerving visual hallucinations, known as Charles Bonnet syndrome. I have become more mentally relaxed through dancing and while they haven't gone away, they are more easily ignored now.

In the middle of last year I decided to broaden my dance horizons and went along to a ballroom class. It felt like leaving nursery and going to big school, as here, there was much more concentration on your posture and correct movement than I previously had to deal with.

I get around quickly and independently but as the years pass by since losing my sight, walking into obstacles - an unavoidable side effect of being blind - takes its toll that bit more. As a result, I had become more hunched, holding my body differently as a defence mechanism. Ballroom dancing has encouraged me to stand up straight and with confidence.

The foot work can be quite complicated too. When you can't see, this throws up many challenges, leading to ever more creative ways of getting the patterns in to your head.

The best method we found was to have someone demonstrate the foot work on my back using their hands. This was a much more viable option than me getting down on all fours to feel someone's feet, which felt like I was doing a bad impression of a pantomime horse. Well the back end of one.

Learning to dance has been the most liberating experience of my life. The knock on effects have been mainly emotional but also practical.

Emotionally, I feel more attractive and have benefitted the regular physical contact that dancing brings.

In practical terms, I have become a better musician, as dance has given me a much clearer understanding of rhythm and timing. Also, my balance has improved and my feet and calves have strengthened, making me more agile and lighter on my feet. I can spring back more quickly on impact, so these days, when I walk into a lamp post, I generally give it a 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 cross body lead and then I'm on my way; but I do always thank it for the dance, this is the law.

Dance can really change your world, so blind or sighted, do yourself a favour and give it a go.

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