Zouking in the Dark: Toronto, Canada

One year ago, five people walked into their first-ever Zouk experience. Two guys, three girls; none of them knew what ‘Zouk’ was, and only one actually had any exposure to dance. The five only knew they were at an audition for an opportunity to dance on-stage during a full-length production. All of the dancers were blind.

The audition began like any other. My partner Darius and I talked to them a little bit about their goals. It soon became very clear that two of them – the only boys in the group – were not particularly keen to be at a dance class, having been dragged there by a female friend. As the music soaked into their bones, all of the dancers slowly began to open themselves to the dancing. Nerves gave way to smiles, and even the guys started enjoying the rhythms.

We were nervous, too. That audition was the first time either of us had taught dance to the blind. Although I had some experience with blind children and adults from work I did with an integrative camp, Darius was entering the situation without any prior knowledge. It had taken us months to gain the confidence of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to work with their clients – and we really did not want to mess this up.

Our teaching methodology had to adjust on the fly. “Watch this” became a careful, verbal mapping of each movement. Visual cues became shapes drawn on hands, and hands placed on various body parts to feel the movement. Any dissonance between what we said and what we did was met with an instantaneous barrage of questions from the students. Just as they were learning the language of dance, we were learning the language of non-visual instruction.

The original goal was to find two dancers to perform on stage. We found more than that. We found five dancers hungry for the chance to immerse themselves in our world of movement and music. Five people willing to trust us to shape and guide them in dance, seeking the social and connected world of partner dancing. Our program morphed from being simply about a stage production to a vision for a wide-scale, social and performance dance program for the blind. We took all five dancers to run a pilot social dance program, and three to perform in our production.

Their integration to the social community was more successful than we could have imagined. Within three weeks, all five of them attended their first-ever social dance party in the city. They demonstrated their new-found Zouk moves with a team of dedicated volunteers, and were met by a thunderous round of applause from the Zouk community. Darius and I were close to tears as we saw our community accept these dancers with open arms.

They danced until the subway closed. At the next class, we found out who their favourites were. For the guys, it was a girl they affectionately nicknamed “Frenchie”, for her French accent. For the girls, it was a dancer they nicknamed “Versace:” the Cadillac of body manipulation. The confidence, joy, and vivaciousness of the dancers’ voices were contagious. Seeing Zouk touch people in such a meaningful way gives a whole other level of appreciation for what dance gives to every one of us who may have forgotten our own initial enthusiasm in the haze of lessons and training.

Most of our original dancers continue to attend and dance socially, and have expressed a desire to travel to events outside of their city to perform. The three performers will again be reprising their dance roles on December 19th for the next edition of the “See Inside Me” dance production. Our programs have grown. We now have the privilege of working with a brand-new group of social dancers, and have taught at summer camps for blind youth. Talks are in progress to bring Zouk to the high-school prom at the school for the blind. Darius has given several keynote speeches at conferences for blind education.

This program has done far more than simply teach a few dance steps to the blind. It has become proof that, in dance, almost anything is possible. As one of our blind dancers said: “I was born to dance!” Truer words were never spoken.

 

Laura Riva and her partner Darius Zi are Zouk instructors, promoters, and event organizers in Toronto, Canada. Laura also maintains two other dance blogs: Zoukiera (www.zoukiera.dzouk.com) and The Dancing Grapevine (www.grapevine.dzouk.com). Their production “See Inside Me” (http://seeinsideme.dance/) returns to stage on December 19 in Markham, Ontario, Canada.

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About: Laura Riva

Laura Riva is a senior instructor, choreographer and performer with dZouk Productions in Toronto, Canada. She also maintains two dance blogs: The Dancing Grapevine (grapevine.dzouk.com) and Zoukiera (zoukiera.dzouk.com). Laura and her partner Darius are the co-founders of the first Zouk program for blind dancers. They are also the co-organizers of two events: Canada Zouk Congress and Vision Dance Encounter. Vision is both a non-profit to raise money for the blind, and the first Zouk - West Coast Swing crossover event in North America. Laura holds a degree in English and Theatre from the University of Guelph, and is currently working on a J.D. of Law degree at Western University.

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