Search for new aesthetic dance forms for the blind, visually impaired, and the sighted

Dear Michele,

Our conversation on 16 December was also very educational and inspiring for me! You raise interesting questions about the aesthetic experiences of blind people and to what extent these are comparable to the aesthetic pleasure of the sighted, especially in relation to dance. Where can blind people on the one hand (which I also include severely visually impaired people) and sighted people on the other hand meet each other in their art experience?

Let me start by answering your question about my synesthesia. That is a difficult term from psychology that refers to the mixing of different kinds of sensory sensations in the brain. In my case, it is true that words, sounds, music but also numbers are naturally associated with the inner seeing of colors. Every letter, every number, every day of the week, and so on, evokes a fixed color in me. Synesthesia is estimated to affect one in five thousand people, and they are by no means always blind. I have met other blind people who, like me, had gradually lost their sight and developed a form of synesthesia, but sound-color synesthesia such as mine has also occurred among the ‘normal’ population. The Russian composer Scriabin, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, but closer to home, and newsreader Annelies Van Herck all seem to have (had) synesthesia to a greater or lesser extent.

Synesthesia is therefore a recognized neurological phenomenon and, in that sense, not subjective, but the exact sound-color relationships that result from it are. I have often compared my color alphabet with that of other (blind or sighted) synesthetes, and they never match. Your proposal to link my color alphabet to dance couples seems very interesting, as an experiment, but I don’t think this will be the hoped-for bridge that will bring blind and sighted dancers closer together.

Just as the perception of the world and therefore also the aesthetic experiences of sighted people can vary greatly, this also applies to blind people. There are many persistent clichés about blindness, such as that we would always live in darkness. That is utter nonsense: many blind people physically still have some form of visual perception (they still see light, dark, spots, and the like), while others like me see absolutely nothing physically anymore but still think very visually, in colorful images. So “the blind” does not exist at all; we are also unique individuals, with all the accompanying physical and cultural idiosyncrasies.

However, this does not mean that we cannot look for common aesthetic ground. But if we want to do that, we will first of all have to let go of visual beauty as the only norm and gauge. If you judge blind dancers solely on how their movements look, in most cases they will always be inferior to their sighted colleagues. Logical too, because a blind person cannot judge himself in the mirror, or copy the steps of others. But dance is so much more than just a visual language. I’m not a good dancer but I like it, and for me, the pleasure lies mainly in the haptics (the sense of touch in the broad sense) of movement, rhythm, balance, your changing position in space as well as in relation to other bodies, feeling the game of touch, distance and closeness, and so on. Listening to dance – the dance figures on the floor, rhythmic steps, breath, etc. – can also be very enriching, as I described in my article ‘Dancing beyond sight: how blindness shakes up the senses of dance’.

Instead of judging the handicapped body by the normative, strictly visual aesthetics, it seems to me crucial – and much more interesting artistically – to reverse the roles and start from the body, in all its potentiality. What does this body, with all its possibilities and limitations, have to offer dance? How can different bodies, in mutual dialogue and interplay, arrive at an experience that is aesthetically pleasing all? I agree with you, Michèle, that everyone – including the blind dancers – has a responsibility in this, but only if we can start with certain equality. The visual may be there, of course, but let it become more of an organic part of a multi-sensory grammar of touch, audible and tactile movement, and – why not? – smells for me. After all, the more multisensory our language, the better we will be able to communicate with each other and the more beauty we can share and create together!