Bailando Bailando

as published in “De witte stok 4de editie” Braille liga

A while ago, one of our members sent us an email that he was having salsa lessons tailormade for people with a visual disability.

We wanted to know more about that so we contacted Michèle Martens, the driving force of the project and we met her in her dance studio Etage Tropical in Ghent.

Michèle, how did you get into the dance world?

After my studies in archeology I taught for a few years geography and history. At the age of 36 I decided to chase my dream and to start a dance school. I’ve been fascinated by Latin America for years, I’ve spent a lot of time there and that’s where my passion for salsa grew.

How did the salsa classes become inclusive lessons?

In 2017 we were invited for the television program ‘Camping Karen & James’ to give dance classes to people with a hearing disability. In the dance school we already had G classes at that time and because of this experience we developed it further. We applied for the necessary recognitions and advertised for our G-classes. In the beginning we mainly had members with a mental disability and with them we created a show team. We advertised a lot every year, including at the sports department of Ghent. This is how our first member with a visual impairment  ended up in our classes.

How did that impact your classes?

Of course, when the first person with a visual impairment signed up, it meant I had to rethink my teaching methodology. My first visually impaired dancer was An, she came to dance with her sighted partner. Later Manuel, my first blind dancer, joined. Fortunately I already wrote down my classes completely because I noticed that the salsa dancers needed structure. So I already developed a methodology in which the footwork, arms, coordination… were already fully written down. During the first dance classes with our first partially sighted participant, I naturally learned a lot of new things, which I then wrote down during the classes and then adapted every time. That certainly pays off because Manuel has been taking classes for three years now, and he is in an advanced group.

Did these people get the ball rolling?

Yes, thanks to them, more and more visually impaired people came knocking on our door to take classes. Every class I also learn more about blindness and visual impairment. For example, at the first class I did not pay attention to the fact that mobility, getting into the dance class, was already a first major obstacle.

Have you been working on inclusion for a long time?

Before the Covid crisis, my goal was to go fully inclusive. At that time I had very large classes consisting of 40 to 50 people, including then only Manuel as a blind person. There was then a pass system that worked very well. Later I noticed that if it was the other way around, so if I had seven blind or partially sighted people, for example, and three sighted people in one group, that caused problems. The visual was completely lost in those groups, the blind or visually impaired dancers each needed individual explanation, which was very time consuming. The sighted dancers were sometimes dissatisfied. It remains an ongoing challenge but I am very proud that I already have some excellent blind and visually impaired dancers in my classes. At the end of the day that is the goal: that everyone can come and dance relaxed, at their own rhythm.

So in your dance school all classes are included?

That’s right, there are no separate groups of members for blind and partially sighted people. Everyone is welcome in the classes we teach but I have already had to take a step back in my desire to establish a fully inclusive dance school. For me the ideal situation is as follows: an inclusive group, of which some people with a disability can occasionally follow an additional exclusive class to keep up with certain matters and then integrate it back into the inclusive lessons.

How do the sighted dancers respond to the visually impaired and blind members in their class?

The reactions are very mixed. Sighted people are usually okay with having visually impaired or blind people in class as long as it doesn’t take up too much of their class time. It should not be at the expense of their own leisure activities. Personally, I still have a very hard time with that. But what I think is really cool is that afterwards a conversation spontaneously emerges between all the dancers in the bar and that these matters are also discussed. Gradually you notice that friendships grow and as soon as a friendship is involved the problems disappear. I also say very often that there are many benefits of being in a group with people who are visually impaired just because everything is explained extra clearly. If someone who can’t see anything can reproduce the dance steps purely on verbal clues then the explanation must be very good.

How many blind and visually impaired people are currently dancing in your dance school?

Currently 12 people spread over Ghent, Brussels and Ostend. In addition, I am often asked to organize exclusive lessons by ParanteePsylos for example. For me, an article like this is very important to get the word out. I was very sorry that it didn’t exist and that it took so long for someone to start inclusive dance classes. Dance is also very important for the motor development of children even if it is just balance exercises. Everyone can dance, dancing is from and for everyone. The world will continue to dance, even when we are long gone. So come along and dance!