I would like to share my experience of working at Tempest Dance & Fitness with pole and aerial students who are visually impaired, in the hope that it will help other instructors to have the confidence to seek out these mutually beneficial relationships.
Discussions with student
First of all discuss your student’s visual impairment with them. What, if anything can they actually see? Have they always been unable to see? Can they make out shapes or colours? Each student’s needs will be different and may change each lesson, so have an ongoing discussion of their abilities. For example, consider which part of the room you are teaching in that day, maybe it’s not a good idea to teach directly in front of a window or maybe that could be the best place for them. Try to understand their sight loss as much as you can.
Do they want music? Some students will want background music as it helps with the movement and flow, others may prefer no distractions and just to be able to hear your voice clearly. Ask them how much they want to be guided from pole to pole, one of my students can locate them herself and the other prefers guidance.
Travel to your studio
Consider how your student is travelling to your studio. Do you need to meet them at the bus stop or in your car park. We work in an upstairs studio along a balcony and it is essential that none of the business owners leave large items outside of their doors as we need to walk side by side. Don’t assume all of your students want you to link their arm or guide their elbow, ask them.
If you have another class immediately after your lesson where can your visually impaired student wait safely. We have ‘Rachael’s bench’ outside of the studio where she is happy to sit and wait for her taxi but you must be prepared to let your student wait inside and then escort them if necessary, consider if you need to leave a little extra time between classes.
If your student is bringing their guide dog to the studio do you have a suitable place they can wait for an hour? Not all dogs are the same. Rachael’s dog will sit untethered near the door for the full hour. Another of my students has a dog that thought she was getting attacked every time we did floor work, so would come and lie on top of her. We realised we needed to tether her dog to a pole in the next room with a bowl of water. There may be a lot of dog hairs to clean up afterwards, so again consider the timings of your classes.
Teaching and learning
Before beginning the warm up Rachael stands at an equal distance between poles and we move from one to the other arms outstretched to get an idea of spacing in the room. This way she feels confident to warm up without fear of hitting her arms or legs. Sometimes I will tap the pole to guide her to it without having to physically guide her each time. If your student hasn’t exercised before think about how you are going to verbally describe each move. Asking them to circle their arms isn’t such an obvious movement without a visual clue, so preparation is key. Practise teaching your warm up verbally to someone else prior to the class. I always physically warm up with my students, even though I’m not going to be demonstrating moves throughout the class, as I can feel what my student is feeling at the time. It is better, in my opinion, to work together rather than your student feel that you are just telling them what to do then standing watching them.
I would always recommend an initial 1-1 session for a student with a visual impairment, but they should be allowed and encouraged to join in group sessions where possible. Rachael found one group session particularly noisy and disorientating and, in hindsight, we should have adjusted the music levels and the pace of the class. By trial and error, you will find what is right for you and your student.
Take plenty of photos for your student to share their success with others.
Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. I often say things like ‘look at your hand’, ‘watch where you are putting that leg’, ‘you should see your face’ – your student will not take offence at everyday terms. Also have the same expectations as you do for all of your students, for example don’t ever let your student get away with not pointing their toes……seriously there is no excuse for that!!!
Teaching aerial to a student with a visual impairment can be a little trickier than teaching pole, the kit is perhaps not as easy to understand, and it moves in all directions. Also, our aerial mats may be thicker and spread out across the room so even just walking across the room can be more hazardous than teaching in a pole room which has wall to wall matting. To warm up, make sure your student is standing safely out of the way of the kit and not straddling two mats. Use video to review how you and your student work together and evaluate your teaching methods regularly. Don’t forget to describe how the moves may feel to your student, ie ‘this will be fast’, ‘you’ll feel as though you’re free falling until…’ you’ll find your own joint language.
What does your student get from it if they can’t see the outcome?
Consider how you feel when you do pole or aerial, you feel free, like you are flying, confident, proud, a sense of achievement, it boosts your self-esteem and it gives you body confidence. It develops your muscle strength and level of fitness and helps with your spatial awareness. You will have cultivated a group of like-minded friends and you feel a part of something bigger than yourself. Your student will no doubt feel all of this, but if you want to know just ask them. Rachael wanted to be a graded pole dancer and recently passed her PDC level 1 with merit.
Finally just enjoy the experience of learning together and from each other. We all have certain barriers to learning and some have bigger barriers than others, but with open communication and confidence in your teaching ability there should be no limits for any of your students.
Follow Rachael’s adventures here