American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2017 MUSIC AND DANCE
by Mana Hashimoto
Reprinted from The Sounding Board, the Newsletter of the NFB of New Jersey, Fall 2015
From the Editor: Mana Hashimoto is a choreographer, contemporary dancer, and dance instructor. The New York Times has called Mana the "serene, imposing center of the storm," and in 2010 she received the Asian American Arts Alliance Award. She has toured, performed, and taught dance workshops in North America, Europe, and Asia. Mana Hashimoto is passionate about improving access to dance performance and dance education for blind and low vision individuals. To learn more about her work, visit her website at <www.manahashimoto.com>.
Do you remember what kind of child you were when you were little? I was a dreamy child, and I always loved to look at the sky. During the day I loved to ride my bike and look at the white clouds floating in the sunny, light blue sky. At night I would look at the silver moon hanging in the tranquil dark blue heavens.
I grew up in Tokyo and started classic ballet training at four years old. When I was a teenager, one day I suddenly lost my vision—half of my sight was gone. The condition was called optic nerve atrophy, and it has no cure.
The difficulties extended beyond the physical challenges. As a low vision individual in Japan, I faced stigma both from my community and from some family members. At times the stigma was obvious, at other times it was subtle, but all the time I felt helpless. I felt lost.
I needed to take a different step, so I came to the United States to pursue my artistic dream. I studied at the New England Conservatory and Berklee College in Boston and at dance schools in New York. While studying at the Martha Graham School in New York City, I began to lose more vision. For the next few months, I lived in fear as I lost the rest of my sight. Finally, six months later, I was completely blind. When that happened I felt relieved. I thought to myself, "Now I have nothing more to lose. What do I still have to fear?"
If there is one place where any dream is possible, that place is America. Even after losing my sight, wherever I went in New York, even when I went grocery shopping, I secretly carried my dance shoes with me in my backpack, hoping somehow I would find a chance to dance again. I never doubted that I could dance. I have my legs, my head, my arms, I have my body—I simply lost my sight. Most of all, I still have my passion and my dream.
Soon my opportunity arrived. A friend took me to a ballet class at Broadway Dance Center. In class I learned the movements through touching her body to follow the instructions. Three months later I performed on the stage. I was pursuing my dream again! For the next fourteen years, this dream took me to stages across North America, Europe, and Asia.
Dance has been my freedom. I especially enjoy dancing solo, because when I dance, I am in the moment of complete latitude. Unlike in daily life, where I face barriers, on stage I don't have to depend on anyone's help. I can decide where to go, when to move. I can be totally independent in the limelight.
I want to share this amazing feeling of freedom with everyone. That is why I founded Dance without Sight Workshop. In my workshop, I share with participants my own experience of how I relearned dance after vision loss. Since our bodies are an important part of dance, participants learn the movements by touching my body as I simultaneously provide verbal description of each move. They also feel various costumes and touch repertoire and dance shoes. They feel with their feet the tapes on the stage that serve as landmarks.
Without sight, dance doesn't become darkness; it becomes a rich, multisensory experience. Dance is often believed, or misbelieved, to be a strongly visually oriented art form. In fact, dance can be experienced through touch, a sense natural to many blind individuals. Through touch, participants can feel my mind, feel my energy, and feel my feelings and emotions as we dance. Through each touch, through our fingers, we all share the beauty and power of dance with our hearts.
As we dance, we learn that life is about forming your own style and creating your own steps. Dancing with my white cane is part of my style. My cane is my life partner that gives me independence. It is also a part of my body. It is like my extended fingers. Being blind helps me see dance in a new light. I used to observe my every dance move in the mirror like an outsider. But now I can focus on expressing my dance from within.
As my perspective changed, so has my view on beauty and dance. Instead of following strictly the style one is taught, each of us can create our own dance, both on stage and in life.
Now I realize why I was so mesmerized by the sky when I was little! Looking at the endless spreading sky gave me a sense of freedom. The sky exists for every human being in this world, whether you are happy or sad, black or white, Asian or Hispanic, blind or sighted, a man or a woman. The sky reflects our collective dreams. And through dance, I found my sky. I found my freedom. I could not have reached this point without my blindness or my challenges. Today, even though I cannot see the sky, I can still feel its enormity, the enormity of freedom and the dream that awaits us. And that is why I will keep working to make dance accessible for everybody, every human being, just like the sky exists for all of us.