As performers took their final bows and the audience dabbed at glistening eyes with their sleeve corners, Art-Reach executive director John Orr watched with satisfaction.
The choreography had lasted only two or three minutes, but for that short moment, the room had fallen under a spell, captivated by a sense of awe and a fortified hope that seemed to stretch time.
“I told you all that you’d cry,” said Orr.
Though the routine was simple in theory, situationally it was far more intricate. The dancers who participated hailed from two very different backgrounds. There were those with years of rigorous training, and those without. And there were those with sight…and those without.
The piece, performed at Art-Reach’s 2018 Cultural Access Awards at the FringeArts theater last month, was an unprecedented collaboration.
Students from the Overbrook School for the Blind joined budding professionals from Pennsylvania Ballet II for a world premiere tap performance. As they tapped in sync, the technical “withs” and “withouts” were obfuscated, in a harmony established by reverberations from the strike of their feet and by the feel-good vibes beating through the venue. It was an unmitigated success — representative of Art-Reach’s 32-year mission to increase participation in the arts by people with disabilities.
Blind and visually impaired people are often excluded from many fine arts, Art-Reach Deputy Director Charles Miller said. So when the organization’s board selected Thomas Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources (who happens to be blind) as one of its 2018 honorees, Miller decided it would be fitting to include blind dancers as performers in the ceremony.
“I wanted to test the boundaries of the arts, stretch the boundaries of accessibility,” Miller explained.
Tap dance seemed appropriate because it relies so heavily on sound for coordination, so he reached out to PA Ballet and Overbrook to see if they were interested. Leaders of both organizations were unsure how it would play out logistically, but were enthusiastic about moving the project forward.
Rehearsals began all the way back on Jan. 3, with weekly sessions under the direction of Melissa Chasse, a nationally-renowned tap and jazz choreographer who is also administrator of the PA Ballet School.
“The process of teaching blind and low vision students,” Chasse observed, “is just a bit more involved at the start.”
She introduced terminology by first explaining the position of the leg and foot necessary to execute a sound, then physically picking up Overbrook students’ feet and positioning them so they could memorize the proper placement. After that basic knowledge is instilled, Chasse said, the class runs similarly to any other.
It helped that the visually impaired students have all honed a keen sense of hearing, she noted, and that the Overbrook students who chose to participate — or were asked to participate — had previous experience singing in choirs or playing instruments.
The enthusiasm of one Overbrook student, Stephanie Algarin Diaz, had caught deputy director Miller’s eye when he met her at a Barnes Foundation workshop, but she initially didn’t want to join the troupe. She had a “bad knee,” she said. But after Miller “practically begged” her to be part of the group, she ended up being the star of the show, and forged a tight bond with ballerina Katherine Capristo.
That’s what nine weeks of intense rehearsals will get you. Nine weeks of repetition, repetition and repetition, going over steps solely with verbal cues, ingraining the dance into muscle memory.
During those two months of preparation, fate did its best to thwart the unique collab.
Rehearsals were scheduled for Wednesdays, and four out of five of them ended up having snowstorms. Then two of the PA Ballet dancers participating were injured during the company run of Swan Lake. In the end, the entire impromptu ensemble was never in the same room together until two hours before the show.
But despite the obstacles, in the end, the recital was a total success. Moving in sync, the pro ballerinas and the blind amateurs killed it on stage.
Chasse came away impressed with the dedication and positive attitude of the Overbrook students.
“[It] was so inspiring to me,” she said, “especially because they didn’t think of their low vision as an impediment to learning to tap. They approached both the lessons and the performance aspect with a positive attitude and a sincere eagerness to learn a new skill and make new friends.”
Can dance be made accessible like this more often? Art-Reach, with a staff of only five people, impacts roughly 150,000 Philadelphians per year. But it is growing, and working to build on partnerships like the one with PA Ballet.
“From start to finish the project was uplifting,” Chasse said. “Which in retrospect diminishes the challenges that were faced at the beginning of the process. It’s probably not even accurate to call them challenges. It’s just a different method of teaching and learning.”