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Positively ballroom, absolutely fabulous: In these dance classes for the blind, grace and rhythm rule the night

Rita Giordano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

It may have been an ordinary Wednesday night everywhere else in the Delaware Valley. But on one dance floor in Haddonfield, New Jersey, disco fever was alive and well.

“One-two-three-four and circle!” called out instructor Gene LaPierre, as 10 pairs of dancers twirled to the 1970s dance classic “The Hustle.”

Carmella Smith of West Oak Lane was one of the newbies, but you’d never guess. Beaming, moving with the beat, Smith looked more like a diva than a dance floor debut.

“This is the first time I’ve done something like this,” Smith said. “I’ve always wanted to learn to dance but I never had the opportunity. I was tired of being the wallflower.”

That night, her white cane stayed on the sidelines.

Smith, 61, was the newest addition to a program created to bring the joys of ballroom dancing to the blind and visually impaired. Sponsored by the Haddonfield Lions Club and nonprofit Dance Haddonfield, the free class meets on Wednesday evenings at Grace Episcopal Church in Haddonfield.

The church provides the space as part of its community ministry. LaPierre, who is founder of Ballroom Dancing for a Better U, a program for special needs dancers, and the LaPierre Dance Studio in Glassboro, donates his teaching time, too. A few other dance instructors also do so, and a cadre of volunteers picks up the dancers and drives them home to various points in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area so transportation isn’t a barrier for those participating.

Besides the Hustle, the class covers the waltz, the foxtrot, the bachata, the meringue, the rumba, and others.

Instructor LaPierre said the lessons aren’t so different from those for sighted students.

“When people learn how to ballroom dance, everybody’s starting from scratch. It’s not something that your body does naturally,” LaPierre said.

“We start off as a circle and move together so everybody can feel the direction of the others,” he said. “Then from there, we break off into partners.” They switch partners, too, to build the camaraderie of the class.

Sometimes, LaPierre will dance with a student so they get to experience how a movement is supposed to feel. Sure, a blind person can’t see a step being demonstrated, but LaPierre has found sighted people can have their own hiccups.

“Even when we teach [sighted students], sometimes I tell people to close their eyes,” he said. “Especially someone following has to follow their partner. It’s sometimes better for people who are sighted to close their eyes so they are following vs. trying to anticipate.”

The ballroom program is the brainchild of Joe Murphy, a founder of Dance Haddonfield and a Lions Club member. Now 75, Murphy took dance classes in 1998 and fell in love with dancing, especially ballroom.

“I’m an introvert,” Murphy said. “With ballroom dancing, it’s always one-on-one. It’s always structured. You know what you’re going to do. And you always have something in common with the person you’re dancing with because they’re interested in dance. So it works out very nicely.”

As an active member of the Lions, which supports vision-related causes, Murphy said the ballroom class seemed like a natural fit to him. The first 10-week session was in spring 2023. Since then, there have been two more, with a fourth coming in the fall. Murphy’s hope is that other organizations replicate the idea so even more people can enjoy it.

A couple of dancers

Eugene Strickland, 64, one of the dancers, hopes they do, too.

“There are a lot of us out there who would love to have the opportunity to get out and do this,” said Strickland, an employee of Bestwork Industries for the Blind in Cherry Hill.

Strickland is legally blind now, but he’s been an avid dancer since his younger, sighted days. In fact, he met his wife, Eleasa, at a party at Villanova University in 1979. They danced three songs together, and then went their separate ways.

Strickland went to the party because his sister, Sonia, then a Villanova freshman, promised to introduce him to a friend. Eleasa, as it turned out, was at the party to meet the sibling of a matchmaking friend.

After her three dances with the handsome stranger, Eleasa sought out her girlfriend and asked her where her brother was.

 

“‘You were just dancing with him,’” Strickland’s sister said.

Over the years, the Overbrook couple continued to dance — quite the duo, two-stepping at family functions and other events — but ballroom felt like something magical Strickland just saw on TV. He never learned it.

Now his wife, who is sighted, would like to learn the dances, too. Then they can trip that light fantastic together.

“I can’t see the person I’m dancing with, but I hold her hand and I have my hand on her back and we’re moving together with the music,” he said.

Canes cast aside

Patti Cole, 65, of Haddonfield, now gets around with a white cane; her vision had steadily declined since being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa over 20 years ago. She hasn’t let that hold her back. Retired now from a career in sales, she moved to San Francisco for three years to enjoy a new city and a new grandchild before coming back to South Jersey.

When a friend told her about the ballroom class, she decided to give it a go.

“It’s a nice way to move. It’s exercise. And nobody takes themselves seriously, so you get some laughs,” Cole said.

The ballroom classes have held happy surprises for her fellow dancers as well.

“Since I was a little girl, I always liked dancing,” said Maria Hernandez, 59, “but I have had very bad eyesight since I was born. Nobody would ever teach me the dance steps.”

When she was younger, she danced to Latin music with friends and once even went to a club. When she and husband Orlando were wed, they danced to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” But when she heard about the ballroom dance classes, she jumped at the chance even though she is now blind in both eyes. She didn’t think Orlando, 72, and more of a homebody than she is, could come since he’s sighted. But it turned out he wanted to.

“My husband got jealous because I didn’t invite him at first,” she said.

Now the Camden couple go to the classes together every Wednesday. And Hernandez said they may start going to Dance Haddonfield’s ballroom dance Sunday sessions, too.

‘I can dance better than I walk’

Lorraine Carter, 66, has been dancing since she was 2, but, “I never took classes. I just watched what was going on around me and I picked it real easily. And I always like music and the beat.”

But about 10 years ago, Carter lost her vision to diabetic retinopathy. Since then, she’s had balance problems and has fallen several times. But, like her Bestwork coworkers Hernandez and Strickland, she decided to sign up for the ballroom classes anyway.

“The way I adapted to these dance classes, I was totally amazed. It’s something that opened my eyes,” said Carter, a Collingdale resident. “Every now and then, I might get off balance, but I pretty much keep up. I tell people in a joking way, I can dance better than I walk.”

When the class was over, volunteers escorted the dancers to their rides home. Carter and Smith left the parish hall ballroom with the aid of their canes and avolunteer.

“Your carriage awaits, ladies,” the helper said.

That evening, the carriage was a white Lexus. Smith and Carter stowed their canes and hopped in, grinning. They’d be back a week later to dance the night away.


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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