‘There was so much joy in that space’: Blind critic Olivia Muscat attends her first ever dance performance, Dancing Qweens
I’ve always had a distant relationship with dance. I’m interested and I want to enjoy it, and I believe that dancers are highly skilled performers and athletes; but if you’re a blind person sitting in the audience, there’s a good chance that you’ll reach a level of boredom hitherto unknown to human kind.
Dance is an extremely visual thing. I can’t see. It’s as simple as that.
Which was why, when I heard that Dancing Qweens, an exploration of queer dance history at Dancehouse, was offering an audio described performance, I was beyond intrigued. Dance? Audio described? After all, there’s only so many ways you can describe what dancers do with their bodies in words. While this remains true, I can honestly say that I wasn’t bored for a single second.
Before the show, I listened to the notes provided, which gave me a good idea of the space, costumes and performers’ appearance. Pre-show notes are fantastic! They also reminded me that there would be copious audience participation, which was somewhat scary. Audience participation and dance? I didn’t know if I was up for that.
In the end my fears were unfounded. It was contagious from the moment I walked into the performance space, to be greeted by the performers and hit by the mingled scents of hairspray, sweat and smoke machine. It was like being at a really fun backstage party, complete with racks of costumes for the audience to wear. I personally donned a baby pink wig, because why the hell not?
Yes, there was a lot of audience participation, but at no point was anyone pressured or singled out or made to feel like a sad party-pooping loser for not wanting, or not being able to, participate. I couldn’t help but want to dance: there was so much joy in that space. And thanks to the describer who stuck by me for the whole performance, I was able to catch on to some of the dance moves and join in. She asked me if it was ok for her to move my arms, and then demonstrated waacking. And I now have a new skill.
The atmosphere was one part lecture, one part tutorial and four parts party. I learnt a fair amount about queer dance, about which I previously had very little idea, and the structure, moving through the decades, made it easy to follow. It reminded me of a university tutorial, but not in a bad way. I found that I wanted to hear more about each decade, though; I’d just settle into listening and really getting into what was being said, when it would be time to move back into party-dancing participation mode. I just wanted them to keep talking.
I think I would’ve been happy for it to run longer and for there to be more of the explanation and exposition. As it was, it was more like a party with occasional fun facts thrown in. Which is totally fine and a lot of fun? I’m just a bit of a nerd.
I guess I have some googling to do.
All the same, if I had simply walked in to a regular performance of this show, it would have been an absolute nightmare. Near constant loud music, people moving around in a tightly packed space, with very little dialogue to create context and two instances where the audience was required to watch a video. I know I would have been bored and uncomfortable, anxious to leave as soon as humanly possible.
In this performance, I had someone describing, in the traditional way through an ear-piece, what was going on. That included what audience members were wearing and the two videos, one which consisted of footage of the audience dancing. It felt a bit novel, seeing myself as part of the performance. I had another describer near me demonstrating and describing things as needed, and I had a designated space where I could sit or stand as I wanted. I never had to fight through a crowd for space, despite it being almost uncomfortably crowded, and I never felt bored or lost or unsafe. Which so easily could have been the case.
It would have been even better if I’d known how much movement there would be, as I could have arranged to get there minus a guide dog. I spent a good chunk of time worrying that she’d be spooked or stepped on or get in the way: there was a lot going on sensorially, and she’s a sensitive creature. In the end, she was fine. With a differently tempered dog it might have been a disaster, and I did have a couple of slight internal panics.
Dancing Qweens isn’t a show that I usually would have chosen to attend, but it left me feeling uplifted. It broadened my outlook and put a seriously bright spot in my week. I learnt new things and had a great time doing it, which is all I really ask out of life.
I’m so glad that the world of audio description is moving away from a limited view of what performances are appropriate for blind people. I was sure that I would never really enjoy a dance performance, because it was never offered to me as a realistic option: and here I am, having been proven wrong. With willingness and creativity, it can be done.
Dancing Qweens, choreography and performance: James Welsby/Valerie Hex. Collaborators and Performance: Rolly, “Mad Fox” Maggie, Ally Cat, Joel Bray. Lighting design by Sarah Platts, costume design by Tristan Seebhom, audio description by Description Victoria. Dancehouse as part of Midsumma Festival, until February 3. Bookings
Dancehouse is wheelchair accessible