I love anything to do with dance and movement. I have been a dancer and student of movement for as long as I can remember. When I googled “blind dancer”, Brilynn Rakes showed up.
Brilynn performed last year on “Dancing with the Stars”. She was born with Nystagmas, which makes her legally blind. When I was in New York City, she was gracious enough to sit down with me and have a chat. I even asked some of Bernard Pivot’s famous questions, a la James Lipton.
MW: Where are you from?
BR: … born and raised in Visalia, California, a small town in central California, but I’ve lived in
San Diego for the past 4 years. And I recently moved here for school. I go to Fordham University. I’m in the dance program at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
MW: Alvin Ailey?
BR: Yeah, it’s on 55th and 9th. It’s a really big dance institution and they formed a program with Fordham University, so I’m getting a degree but also being able to dance intensively everyday and train.
MW: So what is your condition?
BR: I was diagnosed with Nystagmus, which is the “dancing eyes,” which means my eyes shake back and forth uncontrollably. I’m extremely light sensitive so I wear tinted contact lenses to filter out. . .
MW: You have tinted contacts on now?
BR: Yes. They’re like a layer of sunglasses. We send them off to a lab. It’s quite a process, but we order them, the prescription that corrects my eyes to twenty-two hundred, which makes me legally blind. So the corrected vision is twenty-two hundred.
MW: What can you see right now. . . me, what do you see?
BR: I see you. A lot of it is distance. I can’t see details in distance, really, at all.
MW: You said five feet?
BR: Yeah 5-10 feet is clear, and then past that is. . .
MW: After 10 feet what happens? Everything is blurry?
BR: Not everything is blurry, it’s just little details aren’t clear. We’re in Starbucks right now, I see someone sitting, drinking coffee, but I couldn’t tell you if it was a guy or if it was a girl, or what size coffee that person was drinking.
MW: And that happens throughout the day?
BR: Mhm, and I also am colorblind, which is extremely rare. . . for females to be color blind. I am completely color blind.
MW: What do you see in a sunset? You see different shades?
BR: Different shades, I mean, it is pretty, but, apparently sunsets are really gorgeous because of the color and all of that, but I just see different shades. . .
MW: Do you need a cane or. . .
BR: I have one if I ever need it, for crossing streets.
MW: Your eye are always moving? Does that mean you’re looking many different places all the time?
BR: It means the clarity isn’t there. It’s not like, I’m looking at one thing, and it’s perfectly clear and it’s solid. It just slightly moves, and so it just takes away that clarity. It’s really confusing… hard to explain…
MW: Do you feel your eye moving?
BR: I don’t feel it, but sometimes if I stare at one object, it’ll go back and forth and back and forth, like, it moves.
MW: When did you start dancing and why?
BR: I started dancing when I was really young, maybe, 7 years old. My 3 older sisters had done dance as an extracurricular, so I was not gonna do sports and be outside because I’m extremely light sensitive and I was just not very into sports at all, so my extracurricular was dance. And I really found to love it and every year that I did it, I continued, and I did more classes. Just worked harder, wanted to improve each year… I loved it from the beginning, yeah, it’s something I could do. . .
MW: What are your styles?
BR: I started out with doing all styles: ballet, tap, jazz, modern, lyrical, hip hop. . . but then, when I was 12, I moved into just ballet, and some modern in there. I did that for 4 years, and now in college I do ballet and modern, mainly. . . and pointe also.
MW: So here you do ballet and modern?
BR: Mostly… there’s also extra classes, like right now I’m taking West African dance, which is really fun.
MW: How does your [condition] help you?
BR: I’ve transformed it into a positive thing. Number one, it sets me apart from everyone else. It gives me a background story, and it’s given me so much more body awareness. I don’t need my eyes, so I don’t check myself out in the mirror. I feel every position, like I feel the muscles working. I can pinpoint a muscle and think do this, I can work my inner thigh more… yeah, so I just send messages all over my body telling them to do certain things and to create the correct position. So I hardly use the mirrors.
MW: Ballet has a big thing with mirrors. I’m not a ballet guy at all, but with studying ballet, a lot of people use the mirror, right?
BR: Everyone depends on the mirror to make sure [they] look a certain way…But honestly, it’s more about what it feels like, and also listening to the music is a big thing, and the big musicality. . . I love musicality, and the nuances in the music, and catching them holding an extra note. . . uh, I love having live musicians, too. At Ailey we have the pleasure of live drums, live piano. . . it’s amazing, it’s great.
MW: How do you work with partners?
BR: It definitely comes through in the partnership. I love partnering because I can just feel that other person’s energy when we work together. And so, again, it’s like a more complex way of dancing together. You feel that person. . .
MW: So you’re dancing with a partner. . . how are you different than the average dancer that they dance with? If they didn’t know you had a condition, and they started dancing with you? What would be different?
BR: Nothing really. I mean, my danceability is not affected, but I’ve trained for so long that I’ve learned so many different techniques on my own on how to make it just like everyone else, even maybe try to make it better than everyone else who doesn’t have my condition. I try to add the extra little artistry on top of that, so most people that see me dance, they don’t know I have a visual problem. Even with partnering, there’s not worry… they don’t take any extra caution. . .
MW: You said add extra artistry to it, so does your condition help you do that, or. . .
BR: I think it does, yeah. It just makes. . .
MW: Because you’re able to, you feel things better.
BR: Yeah. It’s all about internal. . . working internally, and that comes out of the body.
MW: Who are the dancers or teachers that you look up to?
BR: Alicia Alanso. . . she’s kind of an inspiration to me, because she’s also legally blind. She’s from Cuba, she used to be a big star with American ballet theater years ago. She’s amazing, she’s that hope that you can still be a professional. I look up to any dancer that has made it in the professional field because it’s such a hard career. So if you made it into a company, and you’re doing it as a career and you love what you’re doing. . . I want to be that.
MW: You want to be a professional dancer?
BR: Yeah, I do. I really do. I would love to get a contract with an amazing company and tour around those big, packed theaters across the world, like, that would just be. . .
MW: And ballet, is that your first choice?
BR: I love contemporary ballet. I love the ballet technique, but also movement on top of that. I’m really open to anything.
MW: Dancing with the Stars, were you sitting by the phone one day, what happened there? How did that start?
BR: One of my teachers is kind of connected. . . not my current teacher, but one of my past teachers. I just got a call, and I’m, I think it was that connection with agencies in Los Angeles, and things that um. . . someone sent my story in to the producers of Dancing with Stars, and I wasn’t even really aware of the picture or anything. And they just called me, and presented the idea of me dancing on the show, and I jumped on it.
MW: Yeah, who’d you dance with?
BR: I danced with Derek Hough. He’s won the past two seasons of the show. He’s becoming a big dance star right now. He won an Emmy for his choreography on the show. Yeah, he’s an amazing dancer and partner and person in general. I was honored to dance with him.
MW: What was it like dancing with him?
BR: It was amazing, he was such a good partner, and was so supportive, and was like, how are you doing this? And I was like, I’m just dancing. It was just amazing. He was an amazing dancer. So versatile, he can do so many different styles.
MW: I always was dancing growing up… I felt so good dancing, and I was always trying to get people to dance. Like at weddings, I’m always like, get out, just move… there are people that are apprehensive about dance. What’s your strategy for getting [them] to dance… what do you tell them.
BR: It’s just so much fun and it’s just, like, a release of almost stress, energy. It’s a form of exercise, too, which, releases endorphins. It just makes you happy, especially when it’s a good song. I enjoy it so much that I want other people to feel that same happiness as when I’m doing it… If you’re really feeling like you’re having fun, it comes through. This is told by us all the time. . . if you’re worried about what you look like, then you look worse. If you’re not worried about what you look like, you look better. You look like you’re enjoying yourself.
MW: What can you say particularly to people who have vision issues that want to dance, that are apprehensive about it.
BR: I would say don’t be afraid of anything, because fear is just your worst enemy. It will hold you back from so many things. It will hold you back from being really happy, and you could really love to dance, but you’re too afraid of the one person who is different. And so, throughout my life, I’ve learned that you wanna be that one person who’s different. You want to stand out, and share who you are. And if you have a visual impairment, it’s part of you, and you have to accept it and hold it and cherish it, because it’s. . . it was given to you for a reason. And so. . . not just dancing in general, um, if you’re visually impaired and you want to do anything, go for it, uh, despite how scared you are, or how worried you are. . . you know what I’m saying? Like, just go for it, ‘cause life is very short. And you will regret it when you don’t.
MW: What was the most amazing thing about “Dancing with the Stars”?
BR: The moments on stage and also all the feedback. . . my phone was just going off, lighting up with followers, with messages from people watching the show and who heard my story and just, the effect that my story had on so many people. I guess, that are just like contacting me and follow me on social media. . . that was exciting knowing that I made a difference in their life. . . it’s like the biggest thing. Of course the light and the makeup, the whole experience was amazing, but just the aftermath of it, just what happens in my life after that experience. Different dance magazines contacted me, doing big articles about me. Going to the blind center of Nevada and doing a whole gala being a guest. It’s just amazing, being able to share and actually affect the world in a way. Awesome.
MW: Have other people with vision issues contacted you?
BR: Messages from parents and kids who are saying you have given me hope that I can do things I want to do, I can go out there and fight for my dreams, despite all of these things that are holding me back.
MW: What surprised you the most about “Dancing with the Stars”.
BR: The celebrities on the show are just the most normal people. The behind the scenes was kind of crazy too, like, it’s hectic backstage, and, it’s crammed, and before the show it’s like this countdown, and it’s live television too. So these people are performing a piece, and, if they mess up, that’s what’s going on television. I can’t just press pause and say, okay, well, we gotta start over. So millions of people are watching you live. And so that was kind of shocking. I knew that it was live, it’s a different thing when you’re in it. It’s a lot… Luckily I didn’t fall. Goodness.
Bernard Pivot’s 10 Famous Questions
MW: What is your favorite word?
MW: What is your least favorite word?
MW: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
BR: People who love what they do or are excited to wake up in the morning and follow their passion.
MW: What turns you off?
BR: People who complain about insignificant things in life.
MW: What is your favorite curse word?
BR: Uh, oh wow, um. . .
MW: Uh, you don’t have to answer that.
BR: Yeah, no, I don’t know. That’s a funny question though.
MW: What sound or noise do you love?
BR: An exhale.
MW: What sound or noise do you hate?
BR: Chitter chatter, when people are whispering to each other. I don’t like that, it’s annoying. It’s like, say what you have to say. Don’t just whisper, you know what I mean?
MW: What profession other than your own would you like to do. . . if you couldn’t study dance. . .
BR: Oh, public speaking. Inspirational public speaking… I want to do, like, after school or after my dance career I want to write a book and do that. It would just be amazing.
MW: That’s awesome.
BR: Dream job.
MW: What profession would you not like to do?
BR: Waitressing or book work in an office, I wouldn’t really want to do anything other than what I’m doing.
MW: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
BR: Brilynn, congratulations, you’ve lived an amazing, fulfilled life, and you’ve done everything that I’ve planned for you to do.
This concludes the first interview of my #Flight4Sight.
A BIG THANK YOU to Brilynn! I am now a fan!