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Yarden Regal has been totally blind since she was three months old, and for as long as she can remember, the 21-year-old singer/lute player has loved music and dance. "I have spent a lot of my time dancing at parties and discos," says Regal with a smile.
Until about a month ago, this was the only version of dance Regal had encountered. That is, until she joined the Sandciel New Dance Center's "Movement Through Borders and Limitations" dance workshop at the beginning of February.
The second workshop of its kind organized by the Sandciel New Dance Center, the 30-member group - which consists half of visually impaired dancers, and half of sighted dancers - meets for a total of six, four-hour sessions at a studio in the Beit Tami Community Center on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv.
"The ultimate goal of the workshop is for participants to gain a greater awareness of their bodies through dialogue with other bodies," says Sandciel Founder Sandra Emsellem, who ran the first split wheelchair-bound/able-bodied dance workshop in Tel Aviv last year, and who plans to conduct a split deaf and mute/hearing and speaking dance workshop in Tel Aviv next year. "Through conversation with another body, disabled and non-disabled people alike can discover a sense of freedom within their own physical limitations."
According to Emsellem, the benefits of such integrated projects, that connect people with disabilities to people without disabilities, is well-known in Europe and North America, but is sadly lacking in Israel. "We want to expand this series of pilot workshops to the northern and southern regions of Israel," she says.
Emsellem draws from a variety of techniques, all of which are connected to sensory experience: contact improvisation and release, yoga, Feldenchreis, and various other systems of body awareness.
According to Sandciel cofounder Shira Peleg, a lot of participants are like Regal, and come to the group with little or no experience in any of the above-mentioned techniques. But, she says, people tend to make a lot of progress in a very short amount of time. "For a lot of people who have never danced before, they don't realize until they start, just how much potential their bodies have," says Peleg. "All people are capable of learning the language of dance."
"This is my first serious experience in dancing," says Regal, who admits that the group activities do not at all resemble the sort of dancing she is familiar with. To start, the environment is very different. "When I have danced at parties or a disco, I have been shy because I have been completely surrounded by sighted people, and as the only blind person, I was always afraid of how they would react," she says. "Here I am not shy because there are other blind people, so it is a more comfortable environment. You can be sure no one will laugh at you or criticize the movements you make."
Her increased comfort level has enabled Regal to embrace a deeper exploration of her own sense of touch. "As a blind person, physical touch is my greatest means of communication. I get more information from touching than I do from speaking," she says. "This workshop has helped me realize how important physical touch is, on an even deeper level. I believe in physical contact as a way of life. If you want to come to the depths of a person, you have to feel him."
Sighted workshop participant Yochai Ginton, 25, couldn't agree more. "Every experience of contact with another person helps you understand him better," says Ginton, who is currently enrolled in his second year of studies in Sandciel's three-year core dance program, which involves theater, pantomime, clowning, acrobatics, trapeze, yoga, ballet, and various other forms of movement.
So far, Ginton has spent most of the current workshop wearing a blindfold. "Without sight, my other senses become more alive," he says. "The workshop is teaching me to feel more free to use my sense of touch."
Says Emsellem, sighted and blind participants learn equally from each other. While sighted people share their experience of sight with the blind, the blind bring a much more acute sense of touch to the table. Both, she says, end up getting in better touch with their own bodies.
"Here I have learned to trust my body and to feel safe and more confident in my body," says Regal. "The movement of my body has already become more fluid, more organic."
Sighted participant Solomon Arush, in his mid-50s, agrees. "This workshop has taught me to understand the space around me." He says that his most amazing discovery so far has been realizing that he is capable of lifting lift another person onto his back or belly. "In general, I am learning how to better navigate around my body."
"Being here is helping me trust my body, and trust others," adds Regal.
"But most of all," she says, "It is teaching me how to make contact between my mind, my spirit, and my body."