MEXICO CITY – In a third-floor dance studio, Lorena Nieva begins teaching her ballet class. Every weekend Nieva, the international coordinator of Psicoballet, travels 80 miles (130km) from her home in Puebla to give lessons to a group of girls from Casa Rosa de la Torre, a home for blind children run by nuns. Aged between nine and 22, all of the girls in Nieva’s class are completely blind or partially sighted.
As the music plays, Nieva guides the girls, steering their movements with the sound of her voice and a gentle push with her hand. While the first half of the lesson is spent rehearsing a dance routine, the second half is devoted to improvisation. Breaking from the rigidity and strictness of conventional ballet training, Nieva brings in objects to inspire movement and games, such as fabric sheets, elastic ribbons and chairs.
“Dance cannot be reduced to a single sense,” says Nieva. “It has to come from the whole body – from its limitations, too.” Founded on the belief that dance is ingrained in our biological roots, Psicoballet was created in 1973 by Cuban psychologist Georgina Fariñas Garcia as a psychotherapeutic method to help people with behavioral disorders. Today, it is applied to a wide range of people, including those with developmental disabilities, visual and auditory impairments and the elderly. Teachers and advocates say Psicoballet, like most forms of dance, improves balance, posture and mobility, while also boosting self-esteem and reducing anxiety and depression. According to estimates, the Cuban dance therapy has benefited over 20,000 people in the last four decades and has spread to 17 nations, including Mexico, where it arrived in 1984.
“I really enjoy discovering new ways of teaching, as it forces me to get out of my comfort zone,” says Nieva, who has instructed people of all ages and various disabilities, but says teaching the blind girls has so far been the most rewarding. “I am keen to see that the girls have fun in the lessons, and that what is learned does not just stay in class, but it also enriches their everyday lives.”
For many of the girls, that’s exactly what Nieva’s teaching does. “It has helped me a lot,” says Itary, 15. “I feel I have improved my way of coexisting. Before, I was very aggressive, I walked a little weirdly and crashed up against everything, and this is not the way to be. Everything has to be done in a smooth way. To dance is to express with my movements what is within me.”
Since the girls started dancing two years ago, they’ve performed in various locations across Mexico. It’s an experience that, not long ago, some of the girls would have thought impossible. “I have learned a lot of things by coming [to this class],” says Rosaura, 17. “I never imagined this [dancing on stage] would happen.”
The following weekend, the girls have a performance at a school in the southern state of Chiapas. Accompanied by Nieva, her husband Alejandro and Mother Antonina, the director of Casa Rosa de la Torre, the girls board a minibus to start the 500-mile (800km) trip. As the bus pulls off, the girls erupt into song, all chiming in together on some unspoken cue. “They’re singing a prayer,” says Alejandro. At the front of the bus, Mother Antonina, who has managed the blind home since 1995, smiles to herself. Despite the heat in the cramped bus during the 17-hour drive, the laughter and singing continues into the night as the group crosses the mountains and descends into Tonalá, one of the 119 municipalities of Chiapas.
The next morning, the bus travels down a long ribbon of highway to the beach. The girls get out and lie star-shaped in the sand. For many of them, this is their first experience of the sea. Nieva wants the girls to experience new things, and later she will create a dance for them inspired by their trip to the ocean’s edge.
Later that day, the girls are on stage at La Rosa School. They perform with the same grace and coordination they had shown during rehearsals the week before. In the second dance, a nine-year old blind-autistic boy named Manuel joins in – he’s one of the youngest children living in the blind home and the only boy.
Together, the young dancers drift across the gray expanse of the open-air school gymnasium. As the first drops of rain begin to fall, they trace an arc shape across the stage and then, with the final note, they all stop and raise their hands towards the sky. If it hadn’t been mentioned before the show that the dancers were all blind, perhaps nobody watching would have ever known.