by Kelsey Nicolay
I have been singing in choir since the fourth grade without much difficulty. However, one day in my freshman chorus the director gave us the music we would be performing at the end-of-year show with choreography. I was really nervous about how it would go. How would I remember the moves? How would I move around without my cane? What about getting on and off stage? My choir director assured me that I would dance and participate like everyone else and that they would find ways to make it happen. We ended up having someone come in to help me. The choir director chose someone who was in show choir and had more dance experience. It worked out really well once the choir director found someone. The person the director found seemed to know instinctively that I was capable of doing the moves on my own once I learned them and made sure that, as soon as she felt I was ready, she insisted that I do as much as I could without her holding onto my arms. After about a week, she said, “I’m not going to help you too much today because I want you to be able to do it on your own during performance.” I didn’t do the moves perfectly the first few times I did them alone, but I knew that with repetition I would learn them, and I did. By two weeks before performance, I could do almost all of it alone, and she could simply watch from a distance and correct me if necessary. Performance weekend went pretty well.
While the first show time was mostly successful, I had a few setbacks. For instance, like most students, I chose to take part in my grade’s student-led ensemble. We auditioned for the show and were one of the groups selected. When it came time to learn our choreography, the choreographer made a comment that he tried doing the ensemble’s dance steps with his eyes closed, and he couldn’t do it, so he concluded that I couldn’t either. I felt devastated because I had been working hard in choir and then he told me I couldn’t perform the student ensemble choreography. The choir director decided to let me perform anyway and just sing the number with the ensemble. I was grateful he let me do that, but at the same time I felt robbed of an opportunity to prove myself. From this experience I learned that it is important to stay positive and keep working at your dream and trying to change minds even if others don’t believe you will succeed.
My sophomore and junior years, however, the performances were not as successful. Again the choir director found someone to work with me. However, this person did not have the same expectations that the former student had had. Instead of encouraging me to do the moves on my own, she stood behind me and moved my arms. It took a lot longer for me to learn the choreography, and on stage during performance she had to help me with most of it. The choir director allowed her to be on stage with me, but he overlooked the fact that she was practically doing it for me. My teacher of the visually impaired, family, and friends all commented that there was no reason for her to be on stage helping me. My TVI helped me with costume changes for one show so that my family could watch the performance. After both my numbers she told me that I could have done most of that myself. The same thing happened both years.
My junior year I participated in the student ensemble again. It was comprised of the people I had been in the freshman group with, but they were all in higher choirs than I was. They were familiar with my blindness, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to them until it was time to learn the choreography. The group leader chose to make up the choreography herself instead of having our choreographer do it. When it came time for dance rehearsal, no one bothered to teach me until the week of performance. My choir director told me one person was teaching me, my assistant told me something different, and another student in my choir said she was teaching me. I finally decided to call one of the members whom I knew from freshman chorus and who had helped me in that group as well. She agreed to teach me the next day. However, because it was so close to performance, I ended up dropping the group at the last minute because I could not learn the arm movements in time.
My senior year I was determined to make this the best performance, since it was my last one. I told my director that I wanted an assistant to help me learn the choreography but that I did not want him on stage with me. The director had a hard time finding someone who was free during the first period of the day, but she eventually found someone, and, once she did, it worked out fine. This person seemed to know instinctively that I could do the moves by myself. Once I felt confident, I did everything by myself. He was right there, but he never helped me when I didn’t need it. It helped that my sister was in the same choir as me, so she sometimes worked with me at home to correct my mistakes. I also participated in senior ensemble since it was my last performance. That started off shaky, but once somebody taught me the dance, I was OK. One of the girls in my choir was also in the group, so she started teaching me. However, she seemed to have the expectation that I needed constant help, and stood behind me and moved my arms. So two students whom I knew from middle school told me that they had decided to teach me instead. I met with them one on one, and we went through it. I learned the routine in about an hour, and by the end of our time I was doing pretty much all of it with very little assistance. The performance went really well, and my family told me that I fit right in, which is what I wanted.
Based on these experiences, I have several suggestions for students dealing with a similar situation. The most important piece of advice is to be confident. It may be difficult at times, but try to stay positive through performance. Second, self-advocacy is critical. If you feel you are not getting the help you need, speak up. Try to talk to the person helping you and let him or her know that you want to do the moves on your own. It may be uncomfortable to bring this up with the student, but as long as you do it tactfully, there should be no problem. You can also ask your orientation and mobility instructor or TVI for help. She may be able to help if there is a particular dance move you are struggling with. Either way, speak up if things aren’t going the way they should. Finally, show appreciation. Give the people who helped you learn the choreography a gift card to their favorite restaurant, or some flowers. People will be more likely to help you in future ensembles if they know their work is appreciated.