Dancing in the Dark: Experiencing Dance Without Sight

By Angela Montefinise, The New York Public Library

I must be out of my mind. What the heck am I doing here, on a Saturday afternoon, blindfolded inside a Staten Island library, grasping the shoulders of a total stranger in front of me? This is truly insane.

That's all I could think of on March 5th, when I attended BARK, a performance by dance troupe Dana Salisbury and the No-See-Ums. They perform what they call "unseen dance" -- original dances experienced through senses other than sight. It sounded very quirky and cool, so I decided to attend the first of a series of performances the group is doing at NYPL locations throughout March, this one at the Richmondtown branch.


Participants learning to dance while blindfolded.

All photos by Mark McCluski, The New York Public Library

After a brief introduction outside the performance space (which was shuttered so we couldn't see inside), Salisbury took our coats, bags and other belongings (glasses for example). Everyone shuffled uncomfortably for a minute -- there's something disconcerting about having your stuff unceremoniously taken from you and put in an unknown place.

A few minutes later, Salisbury reappeared with a box of foam-padded blindfolds. We were told to put them on and grab the shoulders of the person in front of us. So I did. And immediately regretted coming. This is too weird, I thought, as I felt the hands of the stranger grab my shoulders. There were some mutinous mumblings and uncomfortable giggles. I wasn't the only one thinking about running for the door.

All of a sudden, I heard the entrance to the performance space open, and a weird recorded cackle came out of the room. Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. Part of me -- very aware of how silly I must look -- was dying to roll my eyes at someone, dying to validate my insecurities by seeing how insecure everyone else must feel. But, obviously, that wasn't possible. We were told by someone to start walking forward like one big blindfolded chain, so we did. It was like a Conga line from the Twilight Zone.

As we shuffled forward, I suddenly felt the strong hands of one of the dancers stop me, disconnect my hands from the person ahead of me and lead me to a spot where I was told to just stand there. Awkwardly. I tried to imagine how stupid I must have looked, but then realized I had no idea what the performance space looked like so I couldn't really do it. It was a bizarre feeling.

2011-03-18-webIMG_0968.jpgThe recorded cackle continued as, I presume, all the audience members were moved to different spots. Then the noise stopped. All of a sudden I heard and felt a bunch of people start moving all around me, making truly bizarre sounds. I immediately thought of fairies. Again, my inhibitions made me uncomfortable. What the heck is going on, I thought (except "heck" was not the word I used)? I'm seriously standing blindfolded in a room with a bunch of weirdos making bizarro giggling noises all around me? This is crazy! Occasionally, one of the dancers would giggle right in my ear or sideswipe my shoulder. I couldn't help but smirk.

Then the actors started saying, "Pleased to meet you" in a weird accent. The phrases were coming from all around me, some distant, some close. Suddenly, I heard "Pleased to meet you" right in my ear, and a hand held mind, gently pulling me forward. The person then moved my hand downward so I could feel a chair, and after a few seconds of confusion, I realized I should sit. So I did.


And then the weirdest thing of all happened. I started to relax. I realized I simply couldn't see anyone, so I stopped worrying about how I looked or how silly I felt. I just sat and waited for the next sound, the next smell, the next... thing. My inhibitions started to disappear and my senses sharpened. Every little noise seemed louder. I let go and started to concentrate.

Without me even realizing it, my mind shifted to a different place. All of a sudden the fantasy/sci-fi geek in me was imagining various worlds I could be based on the noises I was hearing. The giggling girls became fairies flying around me. At one point, the performers handed me what felt like a plastic bag filled with cold water. Immediately, my body told me we had moved "outside." A bunch of wind-like noises came next, and I was convinced I was on a ship, cruising down a canal. Someone else at the show told me later she thought we were on a train speeding through Europe.

Then there was crumpling paper. All of a sudden, the performers were throwing it at me. My brain now told me I was in a forest with leaves whipping into me. When I later took of my blindfold, I have to admit to being disappointed that it was just crumpled up white paper. I really believed they were leaves.

At one point I heard a thud, then a weird gurgling sound, then a dragging noise. The "CSI" fan in me was sure I just heard a murder, which inexplicably I pictured happening deep inside a jungle.

I heard dogs barking and cats meowing at another point and felt like I was in a park on a warm summer's day.

2011-03-18-webIMG_0966.jpgEach of these noises, each of these sounds is choreographed to perfection by Salisbury and performed to perfection by her team of female dancers. Mark McCluski, head of our Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library (which is sponsoring several performances this month in connection with the 80th anniversary of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress that provides Braille and talking books to citizens across the country and living abroad) described the experience as a "simulator ride without the machinery."

He also told the NY Times (which attended the March 12 performance and wrote a piece about the experience), "I saw the natural connection between a performance where you don't actually see what's going on and the services that we provide for visually-impaired readers."

After about 45 minutes to an hour of this wild ride (during which you're moved around, sometimes quite quickly, and once asked to duck under something), the dancers ask you to lie down. They then make quiet, cricket-like sounds as the show winds down. I was almost asleep when it ended and as relaxed as can be -- amazing, being that I was blindfolded on the floor of a library amongst 10 strangers.

Then Salisbury asked us to take off our blindfolds and reality smacked into all of us. We weren't in a forest or on a cruise ship. We were in a bare community room of a library, complete with a piano on the corner. The chairs were plain chairs. The dancers were just dancers. The "leaves" were just paper.

It made it even more amazing.

As I looked around, I saw the looks on everyone's faces - everyone felt like I did. Everyone was so happy, grinning ear to ear. We all felt like we had been on a journey.

Staten Islander Arlene Boyarsky told WNYC radio (which attended the performance and did a piece on it), "I never thought about how it feels to be blind and now this experience has shown me. It really is a revelation to me what it is not to see by experiencing this."

The following Saturday, March 12, I attended the second BARK performance at the Heiskell Library (which was full -- we had to turn people away). Same reactions from people. Some of the audience members were actually visually impaired, and one said to me as I helped her out of the performance space, "That was awesome! Amazing! Can you believe it?" Again, the smiles were wide and the amazement was widespread.

Salisbury did not create these dances for the blind specifically, but they are the only form of dance that blind and visually impaired people can experience to the fullest.

She told WNYC she came up with idea for unseen dance after reading an article by Dr. Oliver Sacks on non-visual perception. "He talked about a man who had been blind and had been given vision," she said. "And he was not able to absorb the world visually... He couldn't recognize, for example, his beloved dog until he touched him," she said. "And I thought, this is amazing, what does this mean?"

Come see for yourself -- NYPL has two more free performances to go.

BARK will take place at our Webster branch on March 19 at 2 pm and at our 115th Street branch on March 26. Just a warning -- the nature of the dance requires a small audience, with numbers varying depending on the size of the room. So first come, first served!

So come and not see something amazing. You'll never forget it.