Confessions of a Belly Dancer: I'm Legally Blind
The statement 'feeling the dance' means something different to everyone. For some, it means responding to music, to others, expressing a concealed emotion. For Jillian Ricks, the phrase takes on a more literal explanation. Jillian is legally blind, and for her, 'feeling the dance' is what she must do in order to pursue the art of belly dance.
Jillian began dancing at the age of four, but only two years later she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a genetic and degenerative eye disorder that typically leads to legal blindness. By the time she turned nine, the degeneration had halted, but had destroyed all of her central vision, leaving her with peripheral vision only (Times Free Press). Despite being legally blind however, Jillian continued to pursue many forms of dance, studying tap, jazz, ballet, modern and Irish styles before finding belly dance.
First Encounters with Belly Dance
Jillian was first introduced to belly dance in 2008 by her mother, who felt that taking a class to learn this art would be a good mother-daughter experience for both of them. Says Jillian, “At first I did not have any interest in joining the class. Even though I had been dancing since I was 4, I was not comfortable with moving my hips and belly. But I joined on my mom's request. And after 2 sessions I started to love it.”
I'm a Belly Dancer
Though not immediately stricken by the art, something in belly dance began to creep into Jillian’s life subconsciously.
“You will start to wonder why you waited so long to join the class in the first place,” Jillian said. “I try to shimmy under anything and everything.”
That latter fact was recognized by a ballet teacher before Jillian caught on. One day in ballet class, about a year after her first belly dance class, the belly dancer within emerged, in what would be an 'ah-ha!' moment for Jillian.
“I was in ballet class. We were working on arms and turns,” Jillian remembers. “I found myself shimmying after each turn. I was trying to shake off the bad turn and loosen my body. I did not think anything of it until I got corrected by my teacher. She said, 'Jill stop your shimmies. You're not in belly dance.' At that point I knew I was a belly dancer because I was shimmying without even knowing it.” Soon after she began performing, and a year later she began teaching others to belly dance.
Learning and Teaching Belly Dance Blind
Belly dancing is a skill that requires dedication and practice from anyone learning it, but for Jillian, dancing came with special challenges. “It goes without saying that it is hard to be any kind of a dancer as well as being legally blind. Dance moves do not come as easily to me. And I cannot just look at a dancer and copy what she is doing. But this has not stopped me,” said Jillian.
By using her hands to feel movements, she is able to mimic the motions without the benefit of sight. Additionally, focusing on learning the muscles behind belly dance has helped her perfect the art, knowledge that is also of benefit to her students. It’s literally made her a hands-on instructor, and her students are used to Jillian walking around the class to judge their progress through touch.
Belly Dancing: An Art Form and More
Jillian is fully appreciative of the beauty inherent in Oriental dance. She has great admiration for those who perform belly dance, especially those in the dance group Mirabi' who have been her friends and teachers.
“Every time they take the stage I hold my breath because I know I am about to see something wonderful. I only hope that one day I can grow into a great dancer and performer like these awesome ladies,” Jillian said. “Their costumes and choreography blend in such a way that they tell a story every time they take the stage. Their grace and talent are awesome to behold.”
But she also knows that belly dance is more than just an art form - it’s also a community and a support group. By developed close friendships with her dance sisters, Jillian loves going to practice not only to dance, but also to join in the sense of camaraderie there, especially with her teacher Stacy Nolan of Emerald Hips Bellydance Instruction.
“We support each other through everything from having babies, finding new jobs, husband problems, and family issues. We cry and laugh together. I wish everyone could have a awesome support group like Emerald Hips Student Troop,” said Jillian.
A Mother’s Love
Her mother continues to be a source of support for Jillian, providing her both with encouragement and criticisms that serve to make Jillian a better dancer. It also helps that her mother does her make-up and helps with costuming. In fact, Jillian believes that without her mother, she would never have become a belly dance instructor.
“I could not ask for a better mother,” said Jillian.
Despite the difficulties, Jillian continues to love and pursue belly dance. Whether it is through her teaching, her performance, or simply her example of pursuing a goal in the face of challenges, Jillian encourages others to learn this expressive dance form and to realize that they have the ability to overcome challenges, and to be what they want to be.