The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Connoisseurs of roller coasters know that rides feel wilder at night. In the dark, our brains stop receiving the visual cues that help us stay balanced, so movement feels destabilizing enough that most of us teeter like drunkards whenever we simply close our eyes. But wobbling through life felt like defeat to Brenda Mosby, who lost her sight to an autoimmune disease at age 40. At 68, she sought an unlikely cure for her chronic instability: ballet.
Walk into any ballet studio, and you’ll understand that seeing is critical to the way this dance form is taught and learned. Mirrors on the walls help students scrutinize the difference between a perfect glissade and a clumsy imitation. Every millimeter matters in dance’s least forgiving discipline, where there is no “close enough.”
That's only $1 per issue!
Mosby, however, couldn’t watch her teachers’ movements or make use of the mirrored walls of the Colorado Ballet Academy studios where she attended her first classes. Her right eye has no light perception, and her left eye sees only misty shapes. Unable to read print on a page or computer, Mosby relies on screen readers to translate text into spoken words.
But after struggling through a few group classes, Mosby met Diane Page, a veteran ballet teacher who was intrigued by the challenge of teaching someone who couldn’t learn through traditional means. Page offered to meet Mosby for private lessons at Colorado New Style dance studio in Lincoln Park.
Instead of modeling moves so Mosby could learn visually, Page tried using her hands to move her student’s limbs through space. “That changed the game,” Mosby says. “She’d move my feet so I could know what it feels like to perform a glissade, or she’d use masking tape to get my fingers to do a certain thing,” she continues. Essentially, Page developed methods for teaching ballet via touch.
“When you are blind, you use everything you can to figure things out,” Mosby explains. “I just needed a [ballet] teacher to work with me where I am.” Beyond her blindness, Mosby is also 68 years old and 160 pounds—numbers that don’t typically fit ballerinas’ descriptions. She’s well aware of how her older, bigger body and skin color don’t conform to the discipline’s traditional ideals. “I am an anomaly,” she acknowledges.
Still, Mosby believes that ballet is providing her with a pathway to physical strength and poise. As for her disability, “It hasn’t hindered me. It’s let me be the best person I can be.” With betterment as her goal, ballet is turning out to be so much more than pliés and relevés.
Growing up in small-town Indiana, Mosby danced to music from Motown, along with nearly everyone else she knew in her mostly Black community. “Where I grew up, ballet never came up,” she says.
Later, as a young woman living in Los Angeles and Denver (where she settled in 1980), she whirled through the night at clubs with her girlfriends, who would periodically hit pause on Mosby’s dancing frenzies to bring her cups of water. Participating in community dance troupes was how she exercised and had fun.
But in 1983, Mosby’s antibodies started attacking her optic nerves, and within a week, her 20/20 vision had deteriorated to blindness. “I spent three years feeling worthless and depressed,” Mosby recalls. Then she heard a minister say, “You’ve got to start by loving yourself.” The advice sparked a turnaround that introduced her to her husband (a professional trumpet player with whom Mosby travels the world) and inspired her to launch Mosby Services, an employment company that helps people with disabilities achieve personal empowerment.
And yet, Mosby wished that she herself could perform basic functions—like standing—with more authority. She was tired of teetering over a cane. “I wanted balance,” she explains. “I want to feel healthy and strong. Like I can go out and dance all night like I used to.” Her dance troupes had always warmed up by borrowing from ballet’s repertoire, so she thought: Maybe ballet is the core that underlies all other dancing?
Mosby decided she would try a plié, but what she really wanted was simply to stand strong.
If Mosby sought dance’s wellspring, she found it in Page, who became her family’s fourth generation of ballet performers and teachers. Her great-grandmother was a principal dancer with London’s Alhambra Theater and she had cousins who entered professional ballet companies. Page began her own apprenticeship at age four, in her mother’s dance studio, and by age 14, she’d relocated to Toronto to train for pro-level performance. But, says Page, “I didn’t have the right body.”
Weeded out of ballet’s elite, she became a dance teacher and passed along ballet’s traditions to up-and-comers. Eventually, Mosby presented her with the puzzle of how to impart that time-tested pedagogy through unconventional means. “I learned a certain way to teach ballet,” Page says. “But I’d long ago discovered that I could take that rigid discipline and use it in my own way.”
When Mosby attempted ballet’s fifth position—with both feet turned sideways so that the heel of one foot touches the toe of the other—she kept putting the wrong foot forward. Page insisted on the proper form, using touch and repetition to help Mosby embody the pose properly.
“When I do things correctly, I feel it immediately,” Mosby says. “When I’m at the barre and hold my leg up but turn my foot incorrectly, I feel nothing,” she explains. “Diane helps me into the correct move, and oh yeah! I can feel the strengthening that is happening in my feet and my legs.” The differences are minute, but critical.
Lessons include no leaping—that’s Rule Number One, jokes Mosby. Instead, jump simulations substitute for the airtime that dancers might traditionally execute.
Yet the floor work, along with Mosby’s willingness to adapt to Page’s continual critiques, is already paying off. Three months after she’d started working with Page, Mosby went to dinner with her husband and sister, and when she stood up to leave at the end of the meal, her family members were shocked. “I stood straight—tall! Statuesque!” Mosby says.
“Learning with Diane, I feel composed,” she continues. And although Mosby likes looking poised, she’s not dancing for an audience or hoping to impress spectators with her stance. She is chasing an internal feeling that she can maintain not just in the studio, but throughout her day.
It helps that Page’s teaching soundtrack includes Ray Charles as well as Tchaikovsky: The Motown girl loves when Page occasionally detours from the classical repertoire when teaching classical dance. Says Mosby, “One of the things I love about Diane is that she brought in contemporary music and makes it fun.” Page teaches how to move with the beat, regardless of style.
Sometimes, when Mosby is flowing with the music and executing her moves with muscle-wringing accuracy, she feels transformed by flashes of ballet’s magic. No one but Page is watching; there is no audience for her dance. But in those moments, “I feel pretty,” Mosby says. “Like a lady. I can imagine myself in a flowing dress. Swirling.”