Life

Belfast dancer Helen Hall gives insight into the world of visual impairment

Belfast dancer Helen Hall chats to Jenny Lee about the hereditary condition which has left her with significant visual impairment and how she credits dance with improving her spatial awareness

Partially sighted dancer and choreographer Helen Hall challenges audiences to experience the world of the visually impaired with her new solo show Inside the Speaker

BELFAST dancer, choreographer and teacher Helen Hall is inviting audiences to explore her life as a visually impaired person in her new dance show Inside the Speaker.

The solo dance performance, which is opening this year's Bounce Festival is an intimate and provocative solo performance which will address and challenge the way in which visually impaired people experience the world.

Using an accompanying musical and narrative soundscape and flash lighting, the show will take audiences on a journey of the senses, to experience music and dance differently and explore what it means to dance.

Helen started having difficulty with her eyesight at the age of 10 and after many tests was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited juvenile macular degeneration. The progressive vision loss associated with Stargardt disease is caused by the death of photoreceptor cells in the central portion of the retina called the macula (the area of the eye responsible for sharp central vision for tasks like reading, watching television, and looking at faces).

The progression of sight loss and the ability to distinguish details and shape in Stargardt disease is variable, often decreasing slowly at first, accelerating and then levelling off. This is the case with Helen, who has no further deterioration in her sight during this past five years.

The vision loss is not correctable with glasses, contact lenses or surgery, though there are several promising avenues of research, including gene and stem cell therapies.

Despite her visual impairment, Helen went on to get involved in community arts, first attending dance classes at the age of 16 at the Crescent Arts Centre, where she now teaches herself.

"I really connected with the movement of contemporary dance," says Helen, who was even an extra in the BBC sitcom series Give My Head Peace, performing a Michael Jackson Thriller routine.

With the help of assistive technologies she went on to obtain a degree in English and a foundation degree in art and design, before following her heart in completing a HND in dance and pursuing a career in dance.

"A lot of people with disabilities don’t go the straightforward road into their chosen career. A lot of that is down to confidence," says Helen who believes dance has huge benefits for people with visual impairment.

"Dance makes you more spatially aware and in tune with your own body as well as with others around you, making me more able to deal with daily navigation."

This point was proved when an optician, upon taking a photo of the back of her eye and seeing how limited her sight was, recently asked her how she was able to walk, let alone dance? Her reply: "I just put one foot in front of the other."

While Helen can't see signs when out and about and people are like blurs, she is still very much aware of her own spacial ability to manoeuvre obstacles and as well as teaching and performing, she choreographs for Open Arts dance group Luminous Soul, who will also be performing in this month's annual disabled and deaf festival.

With some of their dancers in wheelchairs and two members completely blind, Helen explains: "We don't do traditional dance routines. Rather, our dances are task-based, getting them to explore what their bodies can achieve."

Commissioned and supported by Unlimited, with funding from Spirit of 2012, Inside the Speaker is performed using a round stage, giving audiences a front-row seat, where they can "feel" the dance.

"I’ve listened to audio description for dance in the past and it tends to separate me from the show. I hope audiences will leave experiencing the world afresh and feeling invigorated and challenged," Helen says.

:: Helen Hall's performs Inside the Speaker at the Brian Friel Theatre in Belfast on September 27 and 28 as part of Bounce 2017, which continues until October 6. For full programme and links to ticketing visit adf.ie

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