There are many aspects of dance performance to consider as well as opportunities when it comes to integrating audio description into your performance. This is a brief dive from Krishna Washburn into some layers to consider in your planning process.
Start thinking and planning about audio description at the beginning of developing the dance performance.
Ask a student or multiple students to plan an audio description. Ask them to plan and practice modulating their voice to support the goals of the overall performance.
View and discuss stereotyped movements or poses. Invite students to create their own poses or movements that demonstrate an emotion authentically for them.
Timing Is Everything
The best time to start thinking about audio description for a dance performance is at the beginning of the planning process. The more time everyone has to think about the audio description, the better, more effective, and more equitable the audio description will be. The best possible audio description for dance de-centers sight as its origin point. There are a lot of blind and visually impaired people who love dance and music and art, and who are artists themselves. Some of us have memories of better sight, some of us don’t. Some of us have a symbolic understanding of movement, some of us don’t. Dance for someone like me, a blind dancer, is not a visual art form. It is an art form about sensations of the physical body, and how it connects to emotion, narrative, and our natural human empathy for one another. When we de-center sight as the origin point of our audio description, we spend less time thinking about what things look like and more time thinking about how things feel, and why they feel the way they feel. People interested in de-centering sight as their origin point for audio description are well served by a) figuring out specifically how movement feels in our bodies—and why—and b) being able to talk about it in words.
The human body is made of many layers of unique and specialized tissues, all of which have their own ways of making themselves known when we move. When we dance, we can particularly sense our skin, our connective tissue, our muscles, our bones, and our nerves. When considering how to describe the movement, try to limit your focus to the one specific type of body tissue at a time. Give yourself time to focus on just that one layer, and then think about a different tissue. When you move quickly through space, you might feel air resistance against your skin, you might feel specific muscles activating, and you might notice your sensory nerves in your feet, hands, or face giving you information about your movement. Feeling someone else’s movements and feelings, that’s what audio description for dance can be, and that, to me, is what’s beautiful.
Emotional Expression and Assumptions About Movement Shorthand
Audio description for dance should be connected to the emotions of the movement, and the emotions should be explicitly shared through language. To reach this goal, we need dancers that are deeply connected to their bodies, emotions, where in the body those emotions reside, and how to talk about physical and emotional experience in movement.
In many forms of traditional narrative dance there are stereotyped physical movements that are sometimes used as shorthand for the audience to understand that a specific emotion is being expressed in that moment of the performance. These stereotyped movements are often quite useful and can communicate important emotional content very quickly.
These stereotyped movements are not universal across cultures; they are learned culture just like language, and for some blind people, they may not even have specific or explicit knowledge about the full complement of stereotyped movements of the culture in which they live because of the assumption that these movements are universal rather than learned. Describing just the movement and not its significance can be confusing and alienating to people in the audience with this kind of personal history.
A common example from ballet: I’m tipping my head up a little bit, my eyes are shut, and I’m bringing the back of one wrist to the top of my forehead. My other hand is pressed away from me, I feel that stretch on the back of my wrist, and my fingers are flared apart. Some of you will know that this movement represents great suffering, but I’m going to bet that not everybody did. “Wrist to forehead, Juliette suffers Romeo’s absence miserably!”
Considering these stereotyped movements is only scratching the surface when it comes to expressing emotion in dance and language. Speaking as someone who has used stereotyped movements in dance performance, they might be useful communication tools to the audience, but they don’t help me, the performer, embody the emotion very much. When I’m suffering, I really don’t put the back of my wrist on my forehead, that’s not authentic to me, and I suspect that it would not elicit the same sort of empathy in the audience that more authentic expressions might.
What do I mean about authentic expressions? These are movements of the body that honestly connect to the emotions that the performance is meant to express. I propose that audio describers for dance might investigate some authentic physical expressions of emotion in our own bodies and have conversations with choreographers and dancers about this, explicitly.
Consider for a moment: If you wanted to encourage your students to move with a very smooth, continuous character, how would you want your voice to sound? If you wanted to encourage your students to move with a sharp, staccato character, how would you want your voice to sound? At what moments would you choose to speak louder or softer, faster or slower? To me, a grand port de bras should always sound very, very exciting, because it is. These same principles can and should apply toward audio description for dance performances. Sometimes the very best tool to capture the emotional energy of the dance performance is the tone of voice.
When considering tone of voice, always ask yourself, “Why?” Why are the dancers moving in a particular way? Why do I know the emotional character of this movement? Could my emotional reaction be grounded in my prior knowledge of cultural shorthand? Could it be based on something more instinctual? Am I feeling empathy for the performers? Am I sharing in an authentic emotional experience? Whenever possible, engage in conversation. Can the dancers express in words how they understand the emotions of the movement? What do the dancers’ voices sound like when they talk about the dance? Can you capture that tone?