HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Ask any ballroom dance instructor you can find about the prospect of teaching a novice to proficiently paso doble, quickstep or tango. They'd tell you, without hesitation, that it's certainly going to take plenty of practice and willingness to work hard.
Tell the instructor to then imagine their fledgling student has been blind since birth and they're likely to look at you as if you've shuffled one too many rounds of continuous cha-cha in an all night, dance-until-you-drop Latin rhythm competition.
Think of the world's famous dancers, classic or contemporary. From Fred Astaire to Mikhail Baryshnikov to, well -- even Britney Spears -- successful dancers, whether Soviet-born or sired on deep south U.S. soil, have many attributes in common. Those among us who share a mastery of fanciful footwork also share poise, dedication, agility and vision -- and I don't mean creative foresight or artistic intuition. By vision, I mean the ability to actually see.
How, after all, could one expect to study, observe, absorb then replicate specific dance maneuvers without the benefit of sight?
There is no Braille for dance steps.
Professionals not quite bold enough to characterize the thought of instructing a blind dancer as 'impossible' would likely at least admit the effort and the outcome, while admirable, may not be pretty.
Enter Annie Park to prove them all wrong.
In addition to falling shy of most people's idea of the typical demographic interested in ballroom dance, the 19-year-old has also been blind since birth.
Annie has always loved music and dance, but in July her dream of sailing across a dance floor started to become a reality.
Come on in, the water's fine.
Southern Elegance Dance Studio instructor Bob Pratico had met Annie Park and her dad Terry several times during routine swims at Brahan Spring Park Natatorium in Huntsville. One day the men began talking about Pratico's other hobby. Pratico and his wife Debbie are avid competitive ballroom dancers. The Praticos train and compete in cities all over the world, but call Southern Elegance in Huntsville their home practice studio. When they heard about Annie's desire to dance, Bob and Debbie Pratico offered to give Annie lessons free of charge, and Southern Elegance Studio owner Rick Jones graciously agreed to forego the floor fee.
"He thought it was a great idea and she thought it was a great idea -- very challenging but extremely rewarding," smiles Annie's personal dance coach.
Atlanta dancer Jari Muller also dedicated some of his Saturdays to help instruct the teen. Pratico even contacted Larinda McRaven, professional ballroom instructor and competitor in the Boston area, who had taught a blind person to dance several years ago. McRaven predicted the experience would be far more rewarding for Bob than for Annie.
"This is probably going to be one of the most challenging things you've done but probably the most rewarding thing you've ever done -- and she was right," Pratico agrees.
Follow my lead
Pratico says it didn't take long after starting lessons to realize Annie's potential. Annie, now a senior at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega, made hometown pilgrimages to Huntsville each weekend to continue instruction.
"I was amazed at how fast she could learn. A photographic memory, but extremely challenging to communicate with," Pratico admits. "You just can't say, 'look in the mirror, do this,' someone who's never seen has no concept of what a hand looks like. And so very quickly on we realized the best way to teach her was my wife would make the shape that we need her to make and she'd feel my wife all over and immediately understand and make the shape," explains Practico.
Pratico says, fearlessly, Annie completely trusts whoever is leading her on the dance floor. In just one month, Annie learned basic social waltz, tango, foxtrot, swing, rumba and even simple quickstep.
"I tried the first night and loved it," Annie says. "I've always wanted to learn to dance my whole life. Honestly I didn't think ballroom dancing would be the way I would learn all the moves but this is very fun," the newbie admitted.
"In dancing," says Practico, "sight is probably the primary means of communication -- and that's gone. And so you have to figure out creative ways to communicate."
Just 30 days into her newfound passion, Pratico offered Annie the chance to attend the weekly social dance at Southern Elegance which she quickly and excitedly accepted. At the social party, she danced with several different partners including other instructors who complimented her gorgeous posture, grace and ability to blindly follow a lead.
"It has taken a lot of practices and technique working," Annie says. "The funniest one: to show me how to be in the correct frame, my instructor put this device on me which he said looked like a medieval torture device," she joked. "We danced a few dances with it but I think that's the most unique way to teach the frame because it really showed me what it really is supposed to feel like."
Annie was well on her way to facing an admittedly daunting challenge head-on -- but sightless, social waltzing was certainly not the first hurdle young Annie ever had to surmount.
From Russia, with love
Annie's story actually began in a place far removed from her later-formed Alabama roots. In 1999 Terry and Syble Park of Huntsville were working as missionaries in Izhevsk, Russia, known as the 'gun maker's city' located about 600 miles east of Moscow.
They had no knowledge of the Russian language and certainly no prior experience with the harsh realties of Russian winters.
After retirement the Parks founded The International Center of Hope. As they were not allowed in Russia as 'missionaries,' their mottos was simply, 'giving help to the hopeless and hope to the helpless.'
The Parks found themselves visiting several orphanages while in Russia. They house children from 1 month old to 18 years of age. Orphanages are also called 'Internoit Schools' because children housed there are not allowed to attend public school. The Parks explain orphanages are so plentiful because a Russian mother can leave her infant at the hospital and if they don't come back to claim the child, he or she becomes a ward of the government. As long as parents visit these children once every six months, the child is deemed not adoptable and may stay in the orphanage.
The Parks had worked doting on and feeding infants at the 'baby orphanage' which housed 'handicapped' children up to age 4. One day the orphanage director told the Parks about a little blind girl. "Where?" Terry Park asked, "We've never seen her."
They say in the corner with her head hung low was a little girl; a blunt haircut, rags for clothes, ill-fitting boots and a blank stare.
"She looked like she was in a stupor," Terry Park remembers. "And come to find out later, she was. They were giving her Phenobarbital so it made her very sleepy. We went over there and picked her up and right then God said, 'I want you to adopt this child.'"
At 58 and 55 respectively, with 3 grown children and two grandchildren of their own, Terry and Syble Park had already far exceeded the age limit for Russian adoption.
Age wasn't the only obstacle.
Only Syble, because mothers are revered in Russia, was allowed by law to become an orphan guardian. After navigating the court system, endless paper work and securing necessary documents the Parks had to deal with the obvious language barrier and hiring an English tutor for their new family member.
In the midst of seeking an English-speaking social worker who could perform the 'home study' and evaluate the Parks' family life, past and present, their Visas expired. They had to travel to Russian Embassy outside the country to apply for new Visas. Before leaving for nearby Estonia the Parks got a letter from social services stating Annie could be left in her nannies' care while they were gone. The letter was signed and notarized but when the Parks returned they received notice from the prosecutor's office that claimed they had 'abandoned' Annie and that their guardianship was in jeopardy of revocation. The Parks were told the adoption should have never been allowed in the first place and had to go to court to defend their guardianship status. It took many more months of hoops and hurdles before Nekludnava Margarita Nicklolvana officially became known as Annie Rita Park.
"When God asks you to do something, even though you may think it's totally impossible, he'll make it happen and every time during this adoption process that we ran up against a brick wall, He provided somebody to come in and help us get around that wall," explains Mr. Park.
Annie Rita was invited to attend the Alabama School for the Blind in the fall of 2006, which she and her family graciously accepted. Annie has quite the list of extra-curricular activities. She is on the swim, goal ball and track team, plays in the band and sings in the choral group, studies piano, violin and maintains an A average in her classes.
Apparently the only thing Annie is afraid of is dogs.
"She doesn't know she's handicapped," says Annie's mom. "She can do anything a sighted person can do except drive a car. So she told her dad, she said, 'well Papa you can tell me where to turn and I can press the pedals.'"
After all this, ballroom dance must have seemed like a breeze of an undertaking.
In November, Annie performed in a charity showcase event along with dozens of dancers. She got the only standing ovation of the night. In January Annie will take on her first competition with a dance professional at the Nashville Starz Dance Spectacular.
It has always been Annie's dream to be asked to dance at her school's junior/senior prom. In April, not only will she dance, but instructor Bob Pratico will stand in as her date.
"I'm gonna go down there on her prom night, be dressed to the nines and we're going to put Annie in a beautiful ball gown," says Pratico, "and she will be the belle of the ball."