What Happens When A Dancer Loses His Sight?

Benjamin Yonattan is a 15-year-old blind dancer who competed on America’s Got Talent in 2015 and now performs on stages across the nation, in front of millions.

The Story

Three years ago, with no warning, my son lost his vision.

At a horrific, rapid pace of loss, my bubbly, outgoing, super active 12-year-old boy’s visual world went from what you and I see – all 180 degrees – down to two degrees of fuzzy, graying hues.

Two degrees.

That’s like looking through a straw, to see only another’s eyeball. Or tip of a nose. Or earlobe.

That kind of sudden loss would be hard for anyone. But imagine if your passion, your drive, and your future were wrapped tightly around your ability to move, to leap, and to burst across a stage as a dancer.

If your visual world shriveled, blurred, and constricted – but you could still hear the fan across the room, feel the warmth of the sun on your cheek, and feel the breeze coming around the corner of the building – what would you do?

I’ll tell you what you’d do. You would thrive.

Benjamin Yonattan
Benjamin Yonattan

Loss and Thriving

We, as a human race, are resilient. We are powerfully able to take loss and turn it into gain. We find new ways.

Yes, the loss was hard. There were tears. Bursts of anger. Despondency. The process of healthy grief spares no one the heavy footfalls of its required path. But we, as a family, pulled together all the ropes of hope and love and hard work – and made a cord of strength that will never, ever be broken.

But not everyone feels or thinks the same. 

Being Told, “No”

I remember sitting in the conference room of the well-known junior ballet company where Ben danced, eye to eye across from the company’s directors. “He can’t dance on the stage,” they said. “He’s now blind. Too much could go wrong. It’s not safe.”

Since Ben was five years old, he was drawn unexplainably to the expressions of dance. When making dinner, I wryly scolded him “for the hundredth time” for spinning in the kitchen, shooing him out, only to have him sneak back in again because the floor was “just-right slippery” for spinning.

I watched him push rewind again and again with the movie, “First Position,” and then study Travis Wall and his choreography on YouTube day after day.  I watched him roll out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, then ride in the car two hours, to train in Ann Arbor with one of his coaches. At the end of every session, he’d plead, “Can we stay?”

And now, sitting in the conference room at the ballet, a handful of adult professionals in dance were telling him he couldn’t dance on a stage.

We left the company.

Benjamin Yonattan
Benjamin Yonattan

America’s Got Talent

Not even a year later, I watched Benjamin Yonattan dance on stages in Chicago, Newark, Gold Coast Studios Long Island, and finally on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, one of the most famous stages in history, in front of millions. Now, he dances on stages all across the nation – finding ways to learn, to remember, to safely perform – breaking barriers and bringing the emotional connection through the story in dance, to people of all ages.

I don’t feel sorry for my son. And you shouldn’t, either.

He doesn’t need pity or sympathy. He, like the millions others who have lost sight, is capable.

Benjamin Yonattan teaching Harry Shum, Jr. how to dance without sight.
Benjamin Yonattan teaching Harry Shum, Jr. how to dance without sight.

A Vision for the Future

Ben thrives on a vision of a different kind. It’s a vision for an active, vibrant life. And even at age 15, he has a dream for finding answers through medical research, to never have any person lose sight in the first place.

Because sight is a precious gift.

Over 10 million people in America today are losing their sight to retinal diseases. These are not statistics.  These are people.

If we come together, collectively and actively deciding to find answers, to find a cure, then we can destroy the causes of retinal disease, and blindness can be a thing of the past.

Right now, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness has the #HowEyeSeeIt campaign, where people film videos of themselves and each other experiencing life without sight to raise awareness and funds.

For #HowEyeSeeIt, Ben taught Harry Shum, Jr. (of Glee and Shadowhunters) how to dance while blindfolded. Harry’s an amazing guy, humble and kind, and to see him become aware of the challenges of being blind was, shall we say, eye opening. You can view the video here, or at the beginning of the article.

And, each time you or someone else shares this video, we’ll unlock part of a $15,000 donation from MAC Products and William H. Connolly to support medical research to end blindness.

That’s a lot of money for good.

You know, that day the junior company directors told Ben he couldn’t dance on stage, I’d actually created a pair of blindness-simulating glasses for them to try on. After placing the glasses on the table, I gently slid them across, asking the director to give them a try, to see what Ben sees. The director pushed the glasses back to me, saying, “I don’t need to try these on. I’ve taught kids with challenges before. I know what he sees.”

We don’t know what we don’t know.

I ask you today to not push the blindfold back across the table. Support the campaign. Take the blindfold challenge. Share your video. And donate. More financial support ultimately means more answers.

See what Ben sees. Believe in the capability of those who are visually impaired. And be a part of finding a cure.

Benjamin Yonattan and Harry Shum, Jr. 
Benjamin Yonattan and Harry Shum, Jr. 
CONVERSATIONS