An excerpt from Haben: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law
By Haben Girma
Dancing in Enchanted Hills
Napa, California. Summer 2003
“Haben, this is your last chance,” a British voice warns.
The blind high school students attending Enchanted Hills Camp can all identify the British counselors by their voices, except me. I just turned fifteen, and camp is the first big adventure of my fifteenth year. The camp offers swimming, boating, horseback riding, craft-making, hiking, sports, and theater.
Blind and sighted counselors teach blind campers how to do all of these activities, from safely mounting a horse to playing goalball. In goalball, players roll a basketball-sized ball with bells in it, sending it at top speed across the court. The opposing team members throw themselves on the floor in the ball’s path, blocking it from entering the goal zone. All the players, sighted or blind, wear sleepshades (eye masks) to even the playing field. Goalball is a popular sport here, but I quickly discovered that my limited hearing makes it difficult for me to determine the ball’s path of travel. So I’m avoiding goalball this year.
This year, I want to try theater.
“Haben? Don’t you want to audition?” The British counselor asks. I’ve missed half of what they’ve said during the audition. As far as I can tell, people have been singing songs to audition for parts in West Side Story. Twelve blind campers sit in chairs facing the stage.
Heart racing, I shake my head no.
“Come on, give it a try.”
Sinking into my seat, I shake my head again.
“Okay. We’re done here, everyone can go. We’ll do announcements after lunch.”
The sounds of chairs scraping against the floor echo around the large room. Tap, tap, tap. Some campers use white canes to find their way to the door. I have a white cane, too. It’s leaning against the wall of my closet at home. The cane helps me navigate unfamiliar places. I don’t need it at camp because I’ve learned the lay of the land. My residual vision helps, too. I can see the white walls, the sunlight pouring in through the open front door, and the six people walking in front of me.
Outside, I step away from the group. The summer sun warms my skin. A light breeze carries the smell of horses from the stables down the road. A long, paved road runs from the cabins all the way up to the dining hall. The road has a three-foot-high rope along each side. Some campers like holding the rope to help them stay oriented. Other campers use their canes or residual vision.
Walking along the left edge of the road, I start looking for the horses. There’s one! Oh, and someone else is here.
“Hey, it’s Robin,” she says.
Last year, Robin and I bonded over our shared sense of humor. We performed a skit together at the camp talent show. She goes to the California School for the Blind, and I attend Skyline, a mainstream public high school in Oakland. We only see each other at camp.
“Hi! It’s Haben.” I notice she’s holding her hand out to the horse. “What are you feeding them?”
“Apples. Want one?” She hands me an apple.
I spot another horse, one with a chestnut coat and black mane. Standing next to Robin, I hold the apple out to the horse. As it chews, I raise my free hand to its head. Gently, I stroke the warm hair along its face, marveling at the size of its head. My hand rests on the horse’s cheek, just feeling the movement as it chews.
The horse takes another bite, and its mouth grazes the palm of my hand. “Don’t bite my fingers, please.”
Robin cackles. “You sound so serious! Like saying that would actually make a difference!”
“It does. If you tell the world something, the world will hear it. You should tell your horse not to bite you, too.”
“Don’t . . .” Robin starts giggling. She takes a deep breath and faces her horse. “Don’t . . . Don’t bite me!” She doubles over laughing. “This is silly! I can’t believe you made me say that. Let’s change the subject. What did you do this morning?”
“I went to the auditions.” My hand strokes the horse’s cheek.
“Nice! What part did you get?”
My heart skips a beat. “Nothing.”
“Because…” I lower my voice. “They wanted someone who could sing. I can’t sing.”
“Of course you can sing. Anyone can sing.”
“No. I seriously can’t sing. I can’t tell if something is off-key. It’s a hearing thing.”
A tight ball of sadness settles in my chest. Even blind camp leaves me feeling excluded. They expect people to hear the ball for goalball. They expect people to hear the music for the play. All day long it’s listen to this, listen to that.
“Hey,” Robin pipes up. “We should do a skit for the talent show again!”
Two people approach us. “You girls are in trouble now,” the tall one says. “We’ve caught you horsing around.”
“Oh, please!” Robin crosses her arms. “And who are you supposed to be?”
“I’m Robin, and this is Haben.”
“Get out of here! You made that up!”
Robin laughs. “Those really are our names!”
“Fine, then,” he says. “I’m Blair, and this is Claire.”
“We’re not making it up! My name really is Robin, and my friend really is Haben.”
Wait a minute. If Greg thinks Robin rhymes with Haben, then is Robin mispronouncing my name? Is she saying, “Habin?” Or maybe Greg means Haben and Robin rhyme in a loose, Dr. Seuss way. I can’t hear these auditory nuances. This is exactly why I don’t sing.
“Okay, okay. If you say so,” Greg says. “I wanted to tell you girls that there’s a dance class that’s about to start. You two should come.”
Robin turns to me. “Haben?”
“I…I’m not sure. I’m not any good at dancing.”
“This will be a great opportunity to learn,” he says. “A blind woman who’s a professional dancer will be teaching salsa.”
“A blind dance teacher?” My eyes widen in astonishment.
“She studied salsa in Cuba and also trained in Spain.”
I must have misheard. “Did you say a blind dancer?”
“Yes, she’s blind.”
A thousand questions whir through my mind, each one vying for attention. “How did she learn? How does she teach if she’s blind?”
“Why don’t you go take the class and find out?”
My spirits drop as we enter the Kiva, the site of the awful auditions. About ten people stand around chatting. Robin and I walk over to the front. A tall woman and man are talking quietly near the “stage” area.
“So,” Robin says. “Do you dance at home?”
“Not really. My family does these Eritrean dances where everyone travels in a large circle. Every time I try, my mom goes, ‘Haben, move your shoulders!’ Every time I try, I get something wrong. ‘Ha-ben, move your shoulders more.’ ‘Haben, move your shoulders faster.’”
“That sounds hard.”
“When I want to stop she gets so disappointed. ‘Ha-ben, I want you to dance with me.’ ‘Ha-ben, we want you with us.’”
“Your mom says your name a lot.”
“Yeah…” Now Robin definitely knows how to pronounce my name.
The instructor calls from the front. “Hello, EHC!”
“EHC’s the place to be!” Everyone shouts and claps.
“My name is Denise Vancil. I’m going to be teaching you all salsa today. First, I’ll tell you a little bit about my background. I’ve been dancing pretty much all my life. I started with tap dancing. Then I picked up other dances—jazz, modern, swing, salsa, merengue, flamenco. I love dancing and I’ve traveled all over the world to learn these dances. Over the next few days, we’re going to focus on salsa, merengue, and swing, so we can get you ready for West Side Story. How many of you auditioned for the play?”
“Some of you may not know that I’m blind,” Denise says. “I can’t see if anyone is raising their hand. I need you to use your voices. If you auditioned for the play, say ‘me.’”
Several people call out.
“Great!” Denise continues. “I’ve been totally blind for most of my life, since I was thirteen. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that you don’t need to see to be able to dance. If anyone has told you that you can’t dance, they’re wrong. You don’t need to see to teach dance, either.”
Standing in the front row, I listen with all my might. Learning from a confident blind woman is a novelty. I want to capture her every word, study her every movement, and memorize her every lesson.
“Okay, let’s get started. I want everyone to face me. Face the direction of my voice. Those of you who can see a little bit, feel free to come up to the front. Get as close as you want.”
Delighted, I immediately step forward, positioning myself three feet in front of Denise. Robin and five other people also step forward.
“We’re going to start off with your feet together, facing forward. Okay, now move your feet about six inches apart. Your feet should still be directly under you. Each foot should be directly beneath each shoulder. How are we doing? Any questions?”
Someone asks a question.
“Let me check. I’ll come over and look.” Denise walks over to the speaker.
So far, this lesson’s a breeze.
Denise walks back to the front. “So, this is our starting position. I want you all to remember this. Next, I want everyone to step forward with your left foot. Just a small step.”
Watching Denise’s feet, I copy her movements. She’s only one person over to my left, so I can still see her feet.
“When you make that step, transfer your weight onto it. Most of your weight should be on your left foot. Not all of it. You’ll still have a little weight on your right foot, but most of it will be on your left foot. Got it? Great. This is ‘one.’ This is the first basic step. For ‘two,’ you’re going to step in place with your right foot and transfer weight to it. Did everybody do two?”
Kids start giggling. Confused, I recall the last thing Denise said. Oh, do two sounds like do number two. I roll my eyes.
“Let’s keep going,” Denise says. “Remember, I’ll check in with everyone one-on-one, too. So, for ‘three,’ take your left foot and bring it back to the starting position. Let’s go through that again. ‘One,’ step forward with your left foot. ‘Two,’ step in place with your right foot. ‘Three,’ bring your left foot back to the starting position. I want everyone to keep practicing that. One, two, three. One, two, three. I’m going to go around and check in with each of you. Keep practicing.”
Denise steps forward to Robin. They talk quietly, and I stop practicing so I can watch. Denise steps behind Robin and puts her hands on Robin’s waist as Robin does the steps. Denise talks to Robin some more, and then moves in my direction.
“Hi!” I step closer to better hear her. “My name is Haben.”
Uh oh. I’m not sure how she’s pronouncing it. “Yes, Haben.”
“Nice to meet you, Haben,” Denise says. “Would it be okay if I feel you doing the steps?”
Denise steps behind me and puts her hands on my waist. She maintains a light touch as I do the three steps. “Great! Keep practicing.” She then proceeds to the next person.
A huge smile spreads across my face. Of course a blind person can teach salsa. She can feel footwork through the waist, the hands, the shoulders…The whole body is connected. People who train themselves to listen to the body develop tactile intelligence.
After touching base with everyone, Denise returns to the front and teaches us the rest of the basic step. “Okay, now I want everyone to partner up,” she says. “Find a partner. Talk to each other. Go!”
Robin walks off toward someone. I wonder if she spotted her crush. Brave Robin!
I look around hoping to see someone who needs a partner. Blurry figures float around the room.
A tall guy with dark glasses appears in front of me. My heart drops to the floor, rolls down the hill, and locks the door of the girls’ cabin.
Steve doesn’t see the alarm on my face. “Need a partner?” he asks.
I hesitate. “For the dance.”
“How about for life?”
“What? Come on! Give me a chance!”
Denise calls, “Does everyone have a partner?”
Steve puts his hands out to me, palms up.
I turn to the front, facing Denise.
“Okay, now I want you to hold hands,” Denise instructs.
“Yeah!” Steve cheers.
Stifling a laugh, I put my hands in his. He lifts our hands above our heads and launches into a booty-shaking, hands-waving, silent, ecstatic dance.
A surprised giggle escapes my mouth. I pull his hands down. Thankfully, Steve stops dancing.
“On the count of three,” says Denise, “I want you to do the basic step with your partner. Remember, ladies start by stepping forward with the left foot. Guys start by stepping back on the right foot. We’re going to turn on the music now. Music, please!”
Music begins playing. It sounds festive and lively. I can hear the high frequency parts of the music, but not the beat.
Then I notice the beat flowing through Steve’s hands. His arms, his feet, his shoulders, his whole body transmits the rhythm. My hands sense all of this as we dance. I can’t hear the beat, but I can feel it. Tactile intelligence.
Denise comes over and puts one hand on Steve’s wrist and one hand on my wrist. She stands there observing our dance, then turns to me and begins speaking.
“I can’t hear you over the music,” I tell her.
She gently takes my hands and puts them on her waist. She goes through the basic steps, emphasizing each move. Her core sways side to side with each step. Left, right, left. Right, left, right. Denise then guides my hands to her feet. Crouching on the floor, I follow her feet with my hands as she goes through the basic step. Oh, she steps out on the balls of her feet, keeping her heels up. My eyes had missed that detail.
Denise stops dancing and I stand up. She moves behind me and places her hands on my waist. Cautiously, I shift my weight to the left and step forward on the ball of my left foot. Mindful of her hands, I start each step by moving my core. One, two, three, hold; five, six, seven. Her hands remain on my waist, so I run through it again. One, two, three, hold; five, six, seven.
She pats my shoulder and shouts something.
“Thank you!” I yell over the music.
Denise soon has the whole room performing turns, and Steve and I execute them flawlessly. He’s a great dancer, actually. His movements feel graceful. When he improvises moves, I glide along with the flow of our rhythm. Every movement has a natural opposite, and I seem to instinctively understand all of his hand signals. Tactile intelligence.
How amazing to understand without straining to see, to just know without straining to hear. Salsa dancing requires me to utilize my strongest ability: feeling.
Dancing, spinning, I revel in the smooth flow of our movements.
The music fades. Steve lifts my hand and plants a kiss.
“Hey!” I snatch my hand away. “I didn’t say you could do that!”
“Oh!” Steve wails. He steps back, clutching at his chest. “You just stuck a dagger through my heart!”
The kids around us titter. Part of me wants to laugh, too. Yet part of me wants him kicked out of camp. Just when I started feeling comfortable following his hands, he shatters my trust in one fell swoop.
“Okay!” Denise calls for our attention. “That’s it for our class. You all did really great. I’m going to be here for the next few days, so you’ll have more opportunities to learn more dances. Now it’s time to head up to lunch.”
Walking outside, Steve falls into step beside me. “I’ve been dancing all my life,” he says. “I’ve danced with a lot of people. You’re a really good dancer, you know that?”
“Mhm.” I take long strides up the path to the dining hall.
Steve keeps up. “I mean it. You’re really good. We should dance together at the dance party. We’ll be the best dancers in all of Napa.”
I shake my head. “No way. I haven’t forgotten what you just did.”
“What the…are you serious? All I did was kiss your hand!”
My lips curl up in a smile. “I trusted you to lead the dance. Kissing my hand was not part of the dance.”
“Jesus! You’re being ridiculous.” Steve waves his hands in the air as he searches for a response. “Kissing someone’s hand is a sign of respect. It’s a polite thing to do. It’s not romantic at all.”
I bite my lip to keep from laughing. I don’t know if his vision allows him to see facial expressions. I hope he can’t see I’m laughing! Finally, the laughter passes, allowing me to make my voice serious. “You didn’t kiss Denise’s hand.”
“You want me to kiss her hand? If you’ll dance with me, I’ll kiss her hand! I’ll do it!”
Steve leaps forward, pulls the dining hall door open, and gestures for me to enter first. My pace quickens as I glide past him and the memory of our dance together.
He catches up to me. “Are you really saying I can’t dance with you at the dance party?”
“What? This isn’t fair! I’ve never met a girl so—”
Turning away, I speed walk to the one place he can’t go: the ladies’ room.
Dancing salsa felt glorious. The connection two people share during a dance carries a special joy grounded in presence. Now if only I could find a way to dance salsa without boys…