Visually impaired ballerinas spin into the spotlight - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Visually impaired ballerinas spin into the spotlight

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Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2003 9:06 am | Updated: 1:00 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Fourteen little ballerinas, dressed in pink leotards and fluffy skirts, shuffle across the studio, chattering with excitement about their upcoming performance.

"OK. Everyone. It’s crunch time," says instructor Allison Miller, as she tries in vain to get the girls to line up at the bar. They’ve got two rehearsals left before they perform a scene from "The Nutcracker" on Sunday evening at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

"Allison, will you be on stage with us?" 11-year-old Anna Havig of Gilbert asks, jumping up and down.

"Everybody be quiet," commands 5-year-old Emily Coffman of Tempe, as she smooths out her skirt. "Isn’t that right, Allison?"

It could have been any other beginning ballet class rehearsing for a performance on a Saturday afternoon. But these little girls, who range in age from 5 to 14, are visually impaired or blind.

Ballet for Blind Children is Allison Miller’s brainchild, conceived as her community senior project at the Arizona School for the Arts. It’s the only ballet class for these girls. The class is made possible by funding from the Foundation for Blind Children.

Miller’s inspiration for the class came four years ago when, as a ninth-grade Spanish student, she was assigned the name of Cuban prima ballerina Alicia Alonso, who is visually impaired. Alonso could see shadows, and she used lighting to map the stage. Her partners, who included Igor Youskevitch, had to be exactly where she expected them to be. She danced flawlessly, and the audience never realized she is practically blind.

Miller approached the foundation’s board last year and got their support.

"When I first started, I was just hoping they’d get more confidence, a little more presence and musicality," says Miller, who has been teaching the class at Phoenix Dance Academy since September with the help of Katie and 16-year-old Kaylin Reynolds. "You know. Poise. Posture. Body control. They’ve all done that."

Initially, Miller kept the class to the basics of ballet. Describing the movements proved challenging for Miller, who has taught ballet for four years.

"I really had to use my imagination and describe things more in depth than I usually do," Miller says.

For example, Miller used a large ball to show the girls how to hold their arms in front of them. Each girl held it and immediately understood. To demonstrate proper posture, Miller placed a ruler against each girl’s back.

As their skills increased, so did Miller’s ambition. She decided Ballet for Blind Children would make its debut at "Tutus and Ragtime," Phoenix Dance Academy’s 2003 performance.

"There’s not a lot of movement in the dance," Miller says. "But it’s what any beginning class would do."

"We don’t have anything like this in Chandler," says Albert Dyke, whose 11-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was born blind. "I know it’s the reason she’s excited to get up on a Saturday morning."

Now Stephanie has the same opportunity to dance as her two younger sisters.

"I like doing pliés," she says, demonstrating the position. "I want to keep dancing."

By the end of the class the girls are chatting, and chaos ensues. Miller wants them to do a final run-through, but little Emily is more interested in spinning than keeping the class in line.

‘Tutus and Ragtime’ featuring Ballet for Blind Children

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 E. Second St. Cost: $20 adults, $10 students

Info: (602) 266-4029 or (480) 425-5340

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