Zumba for the blind

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, January 10th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Zumba!

If you haven’t seen it or done it, you’re probably in the minority. The aerobic fitness class combines Latin-inspired music with hip hop and other international dances.

BASHAM: There’s Zumba gold for the elderly, classes held in homes, churches, and swimming pools. There’s even a Zumba class for the visually impaired!

WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown met the woman who started that class and helps keep the beat, even with those who can’t see well.

MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: In a narrow 1,200 square foot studio, Dawn Wells snaps and taps to beats from her playlist. Wells stands before a wall of mirrors. Her blond dreadlocks are neatly pulled behind her ears in a ponytail. Wearing black capri leggings, grey sneakers and a white tee, she’s dressed for fitness.

WELLS: 30 different classes here… from dance fitness all the way up to boot camps.

WELLS TEACHING: Front and center, and front and center, front and center.

The former IT recruiter and military reservist gave up a career in corporate America to teach fitness and health. Teaching the dance-inspired fitness class is challenging.

WELLS: You’re not even supposed to speak when you teach Zumba. You’re supposed to just cue. Yeah, you’re not supposed to say anything.

That rule of thumb is why the certified fitness instructor almost turned down an unusual invitation five years ago to teach an often forgotten group of people.

WELLS: I said, “What! How do you teach Zumba to the blind when the blind are visually impaired?”

The 47-year-old grandmother says her first attempts were disastrous. That’s because she tried to use Braille as a teaching tool.

WELLS: So the Braille cell sort of looks like a domino and this is how the blind read. It’s 6, 5, 4 coming from the top down and the other side of the domino is 3, 2 and 1.

The plan was to use those numbers to help coach the students.

WELLS: We were ready to go. Alright guys,  they were like, What? They didn’t even read Braille. I was like…. So that didn’t work.

Wells says she turned to plan B and started giving vivid descriptions of her moves.

WELLS TEACHING: Now we’re going to move our arms up. We’re going to act like we’re climbing a ladder.

WELLS: Sometimes I have to change the direction or the instruction while I’m teaching it.

WELLS TEACHING: Big circles. Come on Johnny, come on now.

Forty-four-year-old Johnny Franklin hangs on her every word as he shuffles to the rhythm. A ruptured artery took his sight in 1998. Standing more than six feet tall, Franklin is a big man, with an even bigger sense of humor.

WELLS AND FRANKLIN: Let’s make this party happen. Let’s do a nap time first. Nap time, Johnny don’t start!

FRANKLIN: To be able to come and exercise, even though I complain like a baby, you know, it’s still good for me, you know to move around and sweat a little bit.

WELLS TEACHING: Shoulders up and down, up… keep your head lifted, George.

Sixty-three-year-old George Hunter is diabetic and a multiple stroke survivor. This is his first time in Dawn’s class. Blind for the last seven years, Hunter likes to wear his baseball cap and his sunglasses as he moves to the beat.

WELLS TEACHING: Come on, Laney, stretch ‘em. Come on now.

And 31-year-old Laney Nipper lost her peripheral vision to glaucoma six years ago. Nipper is quiet, with short brown hair that neatly frames her round face.

WELLS TEACHING: Knee up…..and down.

Nipper’s cadence is a bit off, but with both hands extended, she’s able to keep up. With a look of determination, Franklin steadily follows Wells’ voice, moving up and down to the beat of the music. And with a sly grin, Hunter inches his way down then cautiously, with a slight wobble rises back up.

WELLS TEACHING: Have a seat, you’re warmed up yay!

FRANKLIN: Water break. 

Sitting in grey folding chairs, Franklin immediately gulps down nearly all 8 ounces of his bottled water without coming up for air.

WELLS TEACHING: Now you’re going to bend your elbows like you’re holding an ice cream cone, straight out in front of you. You don’t get to lick it, though. [laughter]

Nipper appreciates Wells’ humor-infused guidance.

NIPPER: I love that it’s described in a way to me that I can understand it so I don’t feel like I’m behind the sighted people in the class.

So does Hunter…

HUNTER: It’s just working muscles that I haven’t worked in a while. [laugh]

…and Franklin.

FRANKLIN: We can do the same thing anybody else can do. Ain’t no limitations. I always tell people, watch me!

Wells draws from her student’s tenacity. All of her blind students must rely on others for transportation. Wells is working to overcome that challenge by learning how to teach them remotely.

WELLS: This is not something I do for gain. This is strictly because it’s the right thing. It’s needed.

NIPPER: I would say thank you to Dawn for the vision that she has to create this atmosphere for us to be able to workout. She’s got no reason to, other than she cares and than means a lot.

WELLS TEACHING: You are done. [laughter and applause]

For WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown reporting from Covington, Georgia.

(Photo/Myrna Brown)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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