Mexico’s Blind Ballerinas
Dancing in the Dark
I’m on a beach in Southern Mexico with eight blind girls and we’re dancing to reggaetón. The beach is empty except for the dirt bikes that race up and down the sand stretching for miles in each direction. In the sky there are stars. But the girls can’t see them. They can only feel the sea mist rolling off the ocean, the saltiness of the air, the roar of the waves and the amplified hiss of the tide receding. They feel the rhythm that rattles out from their speakerphones, and the rush of being away from home.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Mexico to follow the story of a group of blind girls taking ballet as a form of therapy. Psicoballet, as it is known, is a Cuban psychotherapeutic dance method founded by Georgina Fariñas Garcia in 1973. Founded upon the idea that dance is rooted in our biology, Psicoballet claims to boost self-esteem, decrease anxiety and depression, and improve the body’s balance and mobility.
One young woman dedicated to teaching Psicoballet is Lorena Nieva, who has applied the method to her own dance practice in Mexico. Each weekend, Lorena voluntarily travels the 130 km distance from her hometown of Puebla to Mexico City to teach this group of blind girls. She invited me to attend one of her lessons.
It’s Saturday morning, and I sit waiting in a third-floor dance studio in a quiet neighbourhood of Mexico City. 22-degrees outside, and the windows are flung wide open. I see a taxi pull up below and as the engine cuts, the girls file out (for a moment, I’m vaguely amazed at how many they can fit in this tiny car). Holding hands or gripping each other’s shoulders for support and direction, they make their way up the stairs in single file to where we are. Before they arrive, Lorena explains that they live in a home for blind children run by a congregation of nuns. The reasons they ended up there vary – from straight-up abandonment to families simply unable to support them.
When they enter, Lorena introduces me as the writer from England and I hold nine sets of hands, while they try to compensate for what they cannot see in the touch of my palm. “They say you’re very tall,” Lorena translates. I feel their kindness and acceptance despite the fact that I’m a total stranger to them, and in a moment I have one of the girls – Alexa – hanging off my waist asking me questions about my home country.
The start of the class is just like any ordinary dance class, and the fact that the dancers are blind almost slips your mind. I’m bewildered at how Lorena manages to get them so well co-ordinated, so I ask her if there’s any technique she uses to teach. She explains that she works with a method known as Ballet Active Contact (BAC), which relies on the sense of touch to help guide the girls and walk them through new movements.
The next part of the class is devoted to improvisation. Here, they split into partners and are allowed the freedom to create their own dance, which they reveal to the class at the end of the lesson. Though the majority of the audience can’t see them with their eyes, they make use of their other senses to feel the movement and the music.
Although he’s busy documenting the lesson, I ask Lorena’s husband Alejandro what kind of changes he’s witnessed in the girls since they first started. In the very beginning, he says, they were afraid to move at all and they had problems co-operating. 18-year-old Radhika, for instance, started out with a bad posture, but now her posture is improving and she has a renewed confidence in herself.
In fact, each one of these girls has discovered a newfound confidence in dancing. A confidence that’s helped them overcome fears, and enabled them to venture outside their comfort zones. Dancing has also proven to them that there are no limitations to what they can do, despite their disabilities.
At the end of the lesson, Lorena gets the girls together in a circle and asks how everyone is feeling. Looking in, you get the sense of a family; there’s real love and care, and it’s for these reasons that Lorena makes the journey every weekend. The girls give a variety of responses from short to long, and elated to sad. But one thing is clear – everybody leaves the room with a smile on their face.