Exploding Stigma with Heidi Latsky Dance

#MeOnDisplay means exploding stigma!

Earlier this week, I received information about an open rehearsal/audition with Heidi Latsky Dance and thought it sounded fun; I haven’t danced in a while and I decided that, whether or not I’d be accepted into the performance, it would be a cool experience. I did not realize the experience would begin before I even got there…

After emailing the coordinator my headshot and resume, I visited the company’s website. I did not get very far when I encountered a link called #MeOnDisplay. I clicked on it and read:

“Every day we see people on display on magazine covers and billboards and we KNOW we are not reflected in those images. It’s time we own our truths, imperfections, and fierceness.

Join us in redefining beauty one image at a time.

Take a STAND. Take a PHOTO.

Tell the world what being On Display means to you…”

So before finding out more about the company, I injected myself into their “Social Media Revolution!”

After thinking for a moment about what photo to use–I knew I wanted to use one featuring my blind cane–I decided on “Behold my Unisphere!” a photo of me pointing at a giant metal structure of the Earth constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, as if I were a general indicating my territory, lately conquered.

I uploaded it to Twitter, but In my excitement I’d neglected one of the directions, so @HLatskyDance urged, “@DrMLGodin loving this! To us #MeOnDisplay means taking risks. What does it mean to you?! Let us know and we’ll add it to our gallery TwoHearts emoji [I don’t know how to make emoji on my PC!]”

My first thought was to write #MeOnDisplay means reveling in difference, but then I thought that might be too flabby, or worse, that someone else had already said it or something similar–I am a little OCD about uniqueness! So I read through a few of what others had said, then did a search for difference and sure enough I found something–wasn’t mine, but it was close enough, so I thought some more…

I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, and my ears pricked up at her use of the word stigma. Referring to work by Erving Goffman she writes that “a central feature of the operation of stigma, especially toward people with impairments and disabilities, is the denial of individuality: the entire encounter with such a person is articulated in terms of the stigmatized trait, and we come to believe that the person with the stigma is not fully or really human.”

Ouch! But I take her point as she develops it into the recognition of the age-old amazement people who do not perceive themselves as disabled have when they discover something quotidian in the behavior of one they perceived as wholly different:

When such a person performs the most normal actions of a human life, “normals” often express surprise, as if they were saying, “Fancy that! In some ways you’re just like a human being!”

Though she is not speaking specifically of blind people here, it has certainly been my experience that sighted people get excited about the dumbest things with respect to my behavior and congratulate me on things they would ordinarily reserve for children. In other words, one who is disabled often feels the impressing people bar to be rather low.

I’m the first to admit that if you are going to judge me according to whether I do a bang-up job of walking a straight line or eating politely with a fork and knife, I will likely fail. But frankly, my expectations of leaving a mark on this world have absolutely nothing to do with the quotidian. Though I sometimes feel bad about my lameness at using my blind cane, mobilitying oneself to the bodega does not a genius make.

To take an extreme case, if we judge Stephen Hawking on the basis of normalcy, he too will fail, but of course, we do not. I’m not a (physics) genius and I shudder to think of the bodily sufferings he’s gone through, but when it comes down to it, there have been countless humans birthed into this world and deathed out again, and greatness is not always measured in physical ability.

Despite my shortcomings in using him, I love my blind cane, who, you should know by now is named Moses! My boyfriend and I do not agree who awesomely dubbed him Moses, thereby conjuring powers to part the endless Red Seas of New York City, but we agree there is magic in naming a stigmatized object–the lowly government issued white cane with red stripe and reflective tape–after a biblical man of power.

A couple years back, I was lucky enough to find myself in LA on a national commercial set and it was positively charming to see how the crew, when introduced to Moses, referred to him with no small reverence, and even, in some darkly fantastic way, seemed privileged to hang with him. This is what exploding stigma means: using the mark of shame to blow up perceptions!

I’m thrilled that Heidi Latsky’s #MeOnDisplay helped me articulate a thought that’s been rattling around my head for some time.

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Sewing Blind, Refashioning perceptions

My blind sewing adventure began about seven years ago when on a whim I searched for, and found, sewing needles at MaxiAids, a website that sells disabled people gadgets. As with so many of the great things that have happened in recent years to enhance my life as my sight fails, the technology inspired the activity and the activity inspired creation.

I bought two kinds of needles. The first I use all the time for general sewing they come in a rainbow pack of sizes, but each needle, from fat to skinny, share the ingenious feature of a slit at the top wherein you push the thread and it gets trapped by a little hook. The other needle is perhaps more clever but less sturdy and more prick-prone. It is called “Big-Eye” and this is not false advertising. The eye of the needle splits the slender flexible steel from one sharp end to the other. This is the needle to use for beading and the like because it is so skinny, but of course it tends to get bent out of shape with little provocation. With these two needles and my dress form, I have made all my best loved dresses.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and say that nothing I’ve made has turned out a sequined monstrosity, or deny the sad existence of more than one vintage-lace carcass, seem ripped beyond all repurposefulness. But there are a solid handful that have been successful enough to garner many compliments and become staples of my performing life.

 

The Little Black (Furry) dress

 

One of my first major successes was the little black furry dress AKA the sexy teddy bear dress. If you want to be petted, this is what to wear to your next cocktail party! Because of course, in the end, it’s all about texture.

I whittled away countless hours of listening to epic novels while creating this one, which consists of individually knitted patches of black eyelash yarn sewn onto a dance dress. You can see it in action in the behind the scenes portions of the Proto Trailer for The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville.

 

The burgundy corset Ensemble

 

Worn by Marie Antoinette in The Spectator and the Blind Man, my play about the very sexy history of the invention of braille, and removed by her over the course of her heart-breaking monologue, the Burgundy Ensemble has had a lot of performance wear. Come to think of it, it is not only my clothes that get repurposed. I refashioned Marie Antoinette’s monologue into a flash fiction piece called Nothing Can hurt Me Now, which has, I’m delighted to say also been published at Quail Bell!

The burgundy corset dress also features in the short film The Kerfuffle in which I play Sam, a blind floozy who gets busted for two-timing a couple of amputees… Oh just watch it; it’s cute! Even my mother thinks so.

The materials at hand, whether tawdry or elegant, shiny or shabby, provide inspiration for my sewing creations. In this case, several gorgeous yards of butterfly and flower embossed satin, given to me by my best friend when I visited her in Memphis, presented the impetus. The ensemble consists of A corset top and skirt with enormous pockets. I put pockets in all my designs because girls should not have to be encumbered by purses!

For the underskirts and halter ties, I used some opaque burgundy curtains I’d purchase years before. (It is likely that Scarlett’s green “Curtain Dress” in gone With the Wind is a significant design influence!) Finally, in an adventurous mood, I bought a handful of rhinestone flower ribbon decorations on EBay which cost $2.50 and took three weeks to ship from China, but which worked perfectly as accents on the bodice and the skirt.

The top’s foundation, an old and unattractive corset, came into my possession during an unfortunate performance on a boat in which I did not win a certain “Miss Demeanor Pageant” despite my first round sweep and my lovely assistant Millennium, my black lab guide dog! Anyway, somewhere in the madness of the dressing room I ended up with someone else’s corset that became the shell for my corset top. I draped and sewed the burgundy satin over that top and over a little side zipped skirt that I used as the skirt base. You see,   I am a very lazy sewer. I like to do the fun pretty draping designing stuff and the mindless stitching, but refuse to waste my time putting in zippers!

In fact, I think that even if I’d not lost my sight, I would not have kept up with the conventional sewing I learned in grade school. I could see quite well back then and, although I made a few cool things, the precision and patience of patterns and darts and button-holing was just not for me. So, oddly enough, I think that my blind sewing is something I’ve come to as a culmination of who I am as an artist and a blind person, not as an approximate adaptation of the former behavior of my sighted self. The spirit of blindness infuses everything I do and makes it, if not always better, at least more interesting.

 

The Crocheted Chimera

 

This one is comprised of no fewer than seven clothing items from decades of life and death. It began with fashioning the lacey waist-cincher pocket accoutrement out of several items bestowed to me by my mother’s friend who died and left me all her clothes from her seventy odd years of collecting/hoarding. I fastened that odd device, which on its own looked a lot like a holster, to a knee length circle skirt to which was added the real bells and whistles of the ensemble: a gold-threaded crocheted wrap that, although very glamorous, had always been too scratchy to use. I wear the skirt with a lacey crocheted top kept from my long ago wild days in New Orleans whose sleeves were cut for the heat. But, hot as NYC summers may be, one must have some portable sleeves to beat the arctic AC. Et voilà, enter the slightly bell-sleeved black crocheted half sweater with iridescent threads that ties under the boobs.

The whole ensemble looks good enough that I adopted it as my audition outfit. Good enough to prompt an ABC Casting director to say when I walked in the terrifying audition room, “What a beautiful dress!” Good enough to momentarily disconcert her, and boost my confidence, when I said, “Oh thank you. It’s my latest creation.” Herein lays the joy of wearing clothes made by you when you are a blind person: it confuses sighted people, which is often just what’s needed to refashion perceptions!

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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Guide Dog FAQ by Igor GuideDog

 Can I pet you?

No, I’m working. Duh.

 

What is your name?

You talkin to me?!

 

Can I pet you now?

1 Strangers’ hands on me make me uncomfortable.

2 stop staring: unless you want to fight

3 and please, this constant chattering in silly voice is totally embarrassing for all.

 

Oh, please can I pet you?!

If, by chance, my mommy thinks you are worthy, she will introduce us and then you may give me a little pat if you must, and then run along or stay, whatever.

 

Do you bite?

Why do you think I have these big, ugly, nasty, teeth?!

 

Do you ever get to play?

Pretty much every waking moment when at home.

 

What do you like to play?

Chase After Kong Like a Mad Dog and Bring it to Mommy Throw it Again Game.

 

Do you like being a guide dog?

Yes! And According to wonderful trainer Sue at the Seeing Eye, I took to it right away and was super talented and enthusiastic from the start!

 

How long was your training?

Four months of formal guide dog training but before that I lived with a nice family who raised me from a 2 month old pup to be sociable and obedient.  When I began my formal guide dog training at The Seeing Eye I already knew the cues for sit, heel, down, etc.

 

How old are you?

I’ll be three in November.

 

How can you tell when it’s safe to cross the street??

This is complicated. You ready?

Ok.  so I don’t determine when to walk; I do not read (whatever that is), and I’m not so good at colors.  Rather, Mommy listens for parallel traffic and then gives the cue for forward.  Generally speaking – like 99percent of the time she is right.  (I love my mommy).  But sometimes she asks me to go and I refuse because there is a car turning in front of us or something, and then I get to do this thing called intelligent disobedience and pull or push her out of the way or simply refuse to budge.  This is exciting because when it happens, mommy gets very teary eyed and gives me lots of praise.

 

How do you know where to go?

Sadly, I can’t read mommy’s mind but, generally speaking if there is a place that we’ve been before, I will give mommy a little pause and a look to ask if we are going in again and she says yea or nay, but if it is a place I’ve never been then I have to wait for mommy to show me.

 

Now can I pet you?

Grrr!

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