published Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Moment: Blindness no handicap for belly-dance teacher

As the summer sun sets, warm light passes through a bank of windows and reflects off a mirrored wall to illuminate a trio of dancers.

Adorned in colorful garments, the women flow and gyrate in sync to rhythmic Middle Eastern music. Leading the class in their hip drops and shimmies is Jillian Ricks, a Soddy-Daisy native who teaches belly dancing at the studio she opened three years ago. Jillian's Studio is unique -- she uses a hands-on approach to teach her students by feel. It's a necessity, as she began losing her sight at age 6 and is now legally blind.

"I don't have central vision at all so I can only see from the corners of my eyes," the 27-year-old explained, wearing a light coat of perspiration after one of her sessions.

Not being able to see has never been a handicap for Ricks. As a child she danced, played soccer and softball. She also performed in the color guard, throwing and catching flags, throughout high school and college while studying philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It just took dedication and a little extra practice.

"My parents did not baby me, I was not coddled. If I wanted to do something I did it." Ricks said. "That's how I am here today with the studio, because I never said I can't do that or shouldn't do that."

Ricks does make use of all the technology available to her today and loves Apple products. She uses the Siri app on her iPhone religiously, as it reads her emails aloud and even helps her find music playlists for her dance class.

"It [Siri] reads absolutely everything to me. I'd be lost without it," Ricks said.

Ricks also teaches yoga and is a massage therapist, which gives her a great knowledge of the muscular system. This knowledge helps her when touching her students, feeling what they might be doing right or wrong in a particular move and helping her correct them.

Ricks has practiced a number of dance forms, from ballet to clogging, but fell in love with belly dancing after being forced to go to her first class as a mother-daughter date that she originally dreaded.

"It's my true dance form versus all the other stuff I've done. Belly dance fits my personality and my body better than any of the others. ... I love it," Ricks said with a smile.

Moment is a weekly column by the Times Free Press photo staff that explores the seldom-told stories of our region.

Kristen Connell, back, practices at Jillian's Studio in Soddy-Daisy under the direction of Jillian Ricks, middle, who has been dancing since she was 3 and now teaches belly dancing while being legally blind.
Kristen Connell, back, practices at Jillian's Studio in Soddy-Daisy under the direction of Jillian Ricks, middle, who has been dancing since she was 3 and now teaches belly dancing while being legally blind.
Photo by Dan Henry.
about Dan Henry...

Dan Henry, a native of Atlanta, Ga., graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s of fine arts and a minor in journalism in 2001. Dan worked as a photojournalist in Atlanta and North Alabama before joining the Chattanooga Times Free in 2005. While in Chattanooga. Dan has received numerous state and national awards on a multitude of platforms including still imagery, video, and multimedia projects. Contact Dan at 423-757-6693 or dhenry@timesfreepress.com.

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