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Dancing in the dark

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For most of us, watching a dance piece is a multi-sensory experience. We hear the music and see the movement of the performers. Costumes add to the overall enjoyment and understanding of the piece. Watching a dance recital can be one of the finest cultural experiences.

But for people who are blind, a dance performance evokes a kind of "why bother?" response. Not so at the International Festival held three weekends ago at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. There, folks who are blind were given a chance to "see" the costumes and intricate movements of a series of dances from many nations: Young Chinese girls in red and gold glitter-covered dresses twirling across the stage; Swedish men in vests and short pants pushing each other in a mock fight over a woman in a long plaid shirt.

How was this possible? A slew of volunteers--myself included--took turns at a desk at the back of the room describing the movement onstage. At the "describers table," we talked into microphones connected to transmitters carried by at least half a dozen people who have trouble seeing. They could move freely around the auditorium and enjoy the shows alongside the sighted crowds who cheered, laughed and clapped after each vignette.

I've been trained by a Raleigh nonprofit called Arts Access that's dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone. I don't take my assignments lightly. When I'm describing at a dance festival or live theatrical performance, I don't want my listeners to miss anything. I must concentrate: "There's three young men wearing white kimonos tied at the waist with black cloth belts, jumping in the air, turning as they seem to fly and kick an aluminum pan held high by a fourth man. Now they turn toward the audience and bow."

Access volunteers mostly describe theater events, and we usually have time to see rehearsals or performances a few times before we're "on." For the festival though, I'd had no time to preview the dances or to think about the best way to describe a flowing skirt or a felt hat that looks like a soup can.

Still, even winging it paid off. Shawn Lemieux, a young woman with partial sight, told me she'd never seen a dance performance in such detail before. She liked that I told her when one of the dancers rubbed her nose on her sleeve. Or that a dancer in the Japanese lineup had dropped her fan.

Shawn wants the real thing. And she's entitled to it.

Arts Access can be reached at (919) 833-9919.

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