American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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       Special Issue: Early Childhood      BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

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Let's Dance: How I Dealt with Choreography

by Kelsey Nicolay

Kelsey NicolayFrom the Editor: For blind and low-vision students, choreography adds significant challenges to participation in a choir or ensemble. In this article Kelsey Nicolay describes what worked and what didn't work for her when she took part in high school choral groups. Kelsey went on to complete a double major in French and communications at Ashland University. She works full-time as a record research specialist for Concept Ltd., researching and completing projects within the company's database.

I had been singing in choir since the fourth grade without much difficulty. However, one day during my freshman year in high school, the chorus director gave us the music we would be performing at the end-of-year show, and choreography was included. I was really nervous about how it would go for me. How would I learn the moves? Could I use my cane to get on and off the stage?

My choir director assured me that I would participate like everyone else. We would find ways to make it happen. The choir director chose an experienced dancer who was in show choir to come in and help me. It worked out really well.

The person the director found seemed to know instinctively that once I learned the moves, I would be capable of doing them on my own. As soon as she felt I was ready, she insisted that I do as much as I could without her touching my arms. After we worked together for a week she said, "I'm not going to help you much today. I want you to be able to do it on your own during performance."

I didn't do the moves perfectly the first few times I tried them alone. However, I knew I would learn them with repetition, and I did. By the time the performance was two weeks away, I could do almost all of it alone. My assistant could simply watch from a distance and correct me when necessary.
My choir performance went pretty well, and I was mostly successful in the show. However, I also took part in another performance during the show, and there I encountered a few setbacks.

Like most students in choir, I chose to take part in my grade's student-led ensemble. Our ensemble auditioned for the show, and we were among the groups that were selected. When it came time for me to learn our choreography, the choreographer commented that he tried doing the ensemble's dance steps with his eyes closed, and he couldn't do it. Based on that experience he concluded that I wouldn't be able to do the choreography, either.

I felt devastated. I had been working hard in choir and had accomplished so much, yet he told me I couldn't perform the choreography in the student ensemble. The choir director decided to let me perform anyway, but I would just sing the number with the ensemble without dancing. I was grateful he let me do that, but at the same time I felt robbed of an opportunity to prove myself. From this experience I learned that it is important to stay positive and keep trying to change minds, even when others don't believe you will succeed.

During my sophomore and junior years, my experiences with choreography were discouraging. When I was a sophomore the choir director found someone to work with me. However, this person did not have the same high expectations as the student who helped me when I was a freshman. Instead of encouraging me to do the moves on my own, she insisted on standing behind me and moving my arms. It took a lot longer for me to learn the moves, and on stage during performance she still had to help me with most of the choreography. The choir director allowed her to be on stage with me, overlooking the fact that she was practically doing the choreography for me.

My family, friends, and teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) all commented that there was no reason for my assistant to be helping me on stage. After both my numbers my TVI told me that I could have done almost everything myself.

I participated in the student ensemble again during my junior year. The ensemble was comprised of the people I had been with in the freshman group, but they were all in higher choirs than I was. They knew me, and my blindness didn't seem to be a big deal to them until it was time for us to learn the choreography. The group leader chose to make up the choreography herself instead of having our choreographer do it.

When it came time for dance rehearsals I encountered a lot of confusion and miscommunication. My choir director told me one person would be teaching me, my assistant told me something different, and another student in my choir said she was going to teach me. Finally, I called one of the students who had helped me in freshman chorus. She agreed to start teaching me the next day. However, by that time the performance was only a week off. I ended up dropping the group at the last minute because I could not learn the arm movements in time.

My senior year I was determined to perform well, since this was my last chance as a high school student. I told my director that I wanted someone to help me learn the choreography, and I explained that I did not want the assistant to be on stage with me. The director had a hard time finding someone who was free when choir class was held, during the first period of the day. When she finally found someone, though, it worked out fine. From the beginning this person believed that I could do the moves by myself. Once I felt confident, I did everything on my own. My assistant was right there, but he never interfered when I didn't need him. It also helped that my sister was in the same choir as I was. Sometimes she worked with me at home to correct my mistakes.

That year I also participated in senior ensemble. I got off to a shaky start. One of the girls in the group knew me from choir, and she offered to teach me the choreography. However, she had the expectation that I needed constant help, and she stood behind me and moved my arms all during our rehearsals. Then two students whom I knew from middle school told me that they had decided to teach me instead. I met with them outside of class, and we went through the dance moves together. I learned the routine in an hour. By the end of our session I was doing it with very little assistance.

The performance went really well, and my family told me that I fit right in. That is exactly what I wanted!

Based on these experiences, I have several suggestions for students in a similar situation. The most important piece of advice is to be confident. It may be difficult at times, but try to stay positive. Second, self-advocacy is critical. Whether you are not getting the help you need or you are getting help that you don't need, speak up. Talk to the person who is helping you and let him or her know that you want to do the moves on your own. It may be uncomfortable to bring this up with a teacher or a fellow student, but as long as you do it tactfully, there should be no problem. You can also ask your TVI or orientation and mobility instructor for help. One of them may be able to help if you are struggling with a particular dance move. Overall, speak up if things aren't going the way they should.

Finally, show appreciation. For example, giving the people who helped you learn the choreography some flowers or a gift card to their favorite restaurant goes a long way. People will be more likely to help you in future ensembles if they know their work is valued.

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