Michèle Martens is Managing Director at dansclub Etage Tropical in Ghent. Together with one her dancers, blind-sighted Manuel, she participated with the TV-show ‘The Greatest Dancer’. Although the performances during preselections were unfortunately not broadcasted, they learned a lot and we interviewed her about the experience

1. How dit you get the idea to participate on The Greatest Dancer?

In the past we’ve already done some TV-shows. We had the idea to participate with Manuel, a blind dancer from my classes. We wanted to do this because it’s something we really stand for. Something Manuel stands for: bringing blind and seeing people together and creating something beautifull.

Manuel was the first dancer in our school that’s blind. I also have a dancer, An, who is visually impaired, but she can still see some things. Manuel is 95% blind what makes it a whole different thing. The fact that Manuel is blind, gives us an extra challenge because there are a lot of little things that have a big impact on dancing. For me it’s important to welcome everybody.

2. How does your approach differ from teaching the sighted?

There are a lot of things you have to keep in mind. I’m a danceteacher for over 15 years, mainly in cuban salsa, and in those years i have simplified the explenation of a lot of techniques. i use a very ‘flemish’ way of teaching in witch i explane a lot. That differs from the ‘typical cuban danceclass’  in wich one can improvise more. I also think it is important to learn to improvise, but not in the first year.

Because of this approach, Manuel was able to start in our regular classes, 3,5 years ago, as the only blind person between about 40 seeing dancers.  In corona time he asked for private classes. Because of this one on one work we have started to look for things we could do for dancing for the blind, and that evolved more and more. At this moment i’m putting about 20 hours of work in this every week. Teaching the blind, developing methods, testing and evaluating new tools (look on www.danceorientation.eu), etcetera.

3. How was it to participate in The Greatest Dancer?

We followed the normal selection procedure like everybody else. First step: sending a video.  For me this is important, to be judged the same way as the others. For us it is important the create a visability for dancing for the blind, to show that blind people can dance.

What was challenging for us was the difference between social dancing, what we do in classes, and dancing a choreografie like in the program. If you are used to do social dancing and then you learn a fixed choreo, then it’s a new experiance for every dancer. But for Manuel there were some extra things to keep in mind. For example: If you are blind your orientation is not the same as for a seeing person. Turning 90° is not always 90°, sometimes it’s 110° or 75°. So that was very challeging for us to do. An other example: when we dance next to each other and he has to turn his head from left to right to “look at me” or “look away from me”. This we had to learn on the beat because he doesn’t see it. Those seem like small things but it is something you have to keep in mind. Those are the things we  have learned from a lot.

4. What do you think was the most fun about your participation on the program?

 I’ve been in that world for a while, so i’m not so easily impressed anymore by the showbizz. So for me it’s mostly the partnerconnection. The experience of living it with him. The feeling of ” we deliverd that without mistakes en we did something of wich we hope that people can get something out of it.”  Manuel is someone who likes to be in the spotlight, so he has a sertain drive, like every dancer I think, to be seen. For him everything was new of course. And he liked that.

5. Would you participate again on this program?

I can not judge that yet. I would like to see where this goes first. We’ve participated now and we have, sertainly Manuel, offerd a lot of vacationdays to train. We’ve put a lot of effort in this. The most important thing I got out of it, I think, is gathering the knowledge of how to proceed in dancing for the blind. To bring it to the people in real live, not only on television. Of course such a program is very important to make a statement. You can have a lot of good intentions, if you don’t have a platform, you can not proceed with your goals. So for this The greatest dancer is of course a very big platform.

6. What would you recommend to other dancers who want to participate?

Go for it! If you have a passion: do it. Maybe you will fall, but get up and do it again. If you are a dancer, that’s for life. Then you just dance, if it is for full hall or for empty ones, you just have to dance. Follow your feeling, your guts and just do your thing.

To blind people i’d like to say: dare to cross that border, dare to have trust in the seeing world. The blind often get disapointed by the seeing world, but you have to know: sooner or later something comes along of witch you think “see, it was worth all the effort.”