As the music comes on, they begin to move across the stage slowly at first, then pick up the tempo. The only thing unusual about the scene is that the dancers are almost all blind.
At the Recreational Centre for Disabled Persons in Beijing's Xuanwu District, about 50 blind people learn dancing on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
Song Yue, 48, is one of them. Ten years ago, she developed fundus oculi disease and had to quit her job in a bank. The loss of sight also made her reluctant to talk to others.
"I stayed at home for almost 10 years," she said. "Then I was brought here to learn to dance one day earlier this year when my family heard on the radio that there was a special dance class for blind persons."
New doors are opening for blind people in China not just in recreation but also employment and education. Eventually, those who are visually disabled may be judged not by what they cannot do, but by what they can. And they can have fun like everyone else, even as dancers.
But learning how can be tough. Song had great difficulty learning to dance at first. "I had no sense of how to move since I can see almost nothing and it is hard to learn only through the words of the teacher," she said.
Gradually, Song became used to moving in under the teacher's guidance after several classes.
"I can now dance the tango and rumba with my partner," she said proudly.
Moreover, she became more willing to talk to others. "I felt so sorry for myself after losing my sight, but now I realize I can still do something that is usually impossible for blind people," Song said.
"Dancing is not only an activity for physical exercise, but also an occasion to communicate with others because you meet people who have the same physical disabilities."
Guo Songdong, the dance teacher, said: "Blind people show much interest in dance here. Most of them come from the downtown areas of Beijing, and there are some from the outskirts."
The dancing class for blind people began in early 2001.
"We came up with the idea of providing more chances for them to have social interaction and thus help them to regain confidence for life," Guo said.
Guo, 60, has been teaching dance for more than 30 years. "I never imagined blind people could learn to dance until I came here to teach them," he said.
At the class, each person learns how to move step by step at first with Guo, and then they start to dance with their partners in step with the music.
"But it is far from easy to teach a blind person, who has no dancing experience and can see almost nothing," Guo said.
For example, it takes almost four hours to teach the blind students a single movement, as opposed to only several minutes for sighted people, Guo said.
"As a result, I always encourage them to learn through hearing instructions and touching their own bodies," Guo said. "You know that blind people, to compensate, have good senses of hearing and touch."
Moreover, Guo stands still after each movement and asks his students to touch him. "It allows them to know what each movement is," he said.
After years of teaching experience, Guo has developed a concise formula, which tells students how to move and in which direction. For example, "back, back and down" means moving back two times and then stooping down.
Last year, the recreational centre selected 10 pairs of dancers for a blind persons' dancing competition. It was well-received and widely acclaimed.
"Dancing helps them better communicate with others and become more confident of life," Guo said.
A 50-year-old blind man, surnamed Wang, travels nearly two hours by bus with his wife every Tuesday and Thursday to dance. "We were curious about dance three years ago, and we quickly developed an interest in it," Wang said.
Wang also likes the dancing music. "We forget those unhappy things when we dance with music," Wang said.
Blind people used to experience much difficulty in terms of employment and education, let alone recreational activities, according to Li Weihong, director of the China Association for the Blind (CAB), a non-governmental organization affiliated with the China Disabled Persons' Federation.
"But following improvements in terms of employment and education in recent years," Li said, "they have begun showing interest in social interaction."
Learning and jobs
The first national survey on disabilities in 1987 revealed that China had about 60 million people with disabilities, of whom 8.77 million are visually handicapped.
"There are 4 million others who suffer both visual problems and other disabilities," said Li.
The country is currently conducting its second national survey on disabled people, and the number of people with visual problems is expected to be double that of 1987, Li said.
Sources with the Ministry of Health said in April that China has about 4.5 million new blind people every year.
"As the number continues to grow, blind people thus meet with greater pressure in terms of employment and education in today's modern digital society," Li said.
He added that blind people used to work in the social welfare sectors from the 1950s to the 1980s, but later moved to massage industry in the 1990s.
About 5,000 blind people were trained and then transferred to the massage sector early in 1996 when the China Massage Association of Blind Practitioners was set up to help blind people better get employed.
At present, more than 90,000 blind people have been trained and work as massage practitioners.
"They cannot see, but they get a new life in massage since most of them are now able to depend on themselves for their livelihoods," Li said.
"In addition to medical treatment for blind people, we have realized that they should go out into society even though they are visually handicapped," said Li, adding that some of them can earn more than 1,000 yuan (US$125) per month as massage practitioners.
According to Li, China has more than 500,000 blind people who regain their sight after cataract-removal operations and 20,000 who can see with assistance from medical equipment every year.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences developed the Chinese Braille Computer System in 2003, enabling blind people to read Chinese articles directly and enjoy the convenience of computers.
Early this year, 156 blind people in the country completed their online training and obtained certificates that qualify them as psychoanalysts, Li said.
More than 200 blind students from 20 provinces and municipalities enrolled for the training project, which started in October 2004.
After studying basic psychology, social psychology, mental health and disabilities, as well as professional ethics and diagnostic skills through multimedia training materials, they are expected to be employed as psychological counselors in schools and hospitals.
Some of them have already tried to provide counseling services by running a hotline, website or through an ICQ or online chat system, according to Li.
Besides the training program, some have also already opened online shops and their own websites to sell goods.
The number of such shops and websites has reached more than 100, Li said.
"Computers serve as the eyes for blind people in today's digital and information society," said Li, adding that there are other groups of people who work as translators, music editors and even computer programers online after training on computers.
Education authorities have also prepared examinations in Braille so that blind students can sit the national college entrance examination.
Blind students in Shanghai became the first in China to sit the annual college entrance examination in 2003.
Previously they could get access to only special or technical secondary schools.
(China Daily May 22, 2006)