Genesis Morales dances the waltz, tango and cha-cha with ease. When the 16-year-old's partner spins her, her wavy yellow hair swirls, and a wide smile stretches across her face. Her eyes are hidden behind shaded, thick glasses that protect them. She has oculocutaneous albinism, a condition affecting her body's ability to produce pigment and making her eyes sensitive to light.
Morales learned to dance through a partnership between Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind in Port Richey and the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Palm Harbor. The partnership gives free ballroom dancing lessons to Lighthouse students.
Lania Berger, who co-owns the studio with her husband, told the story of the beginning of the program following Wednesday's lesson, the last of three free lessons given to Lighthouse students this summer.
It was February 2009, and the Lighthouse staff prepared a Valentine's Day dance for their students. They learned, however, that the students were nervous about the upcoming celebration. They didn't know how to dance or how to approach potential partners.
The staff called Berger and David Schmidt, the studio's senior dance instructor, who visited the school to teach students basic steps and ballroom etiquette, such as escorting a partner on and off the dance floor.
Morales is comfortable with etiquette at this point, and she and Schmidt, who she's danced with during individual lessons for two years, joined one another on the dance floor once again for Wednesday's lesson.
They stomped, marched and snapped their arms back and forth to the directions of Rio Rivero-Young, another dance instructor, as Berger reminded the other teachers to give physical rather than visual cues to students with limited sight.
Morales, in a short-sleeved navy shirt, skinny faded jeans with a hole in one knee and lime green nail polish, contrasted with Schmidt in tan dress pants, a teal button-up, black vest and black heeled dance shoes. When Schmidt left Morales to focus on another Lighthouse student, Morales continued dancing, alone, to a song bubbling over the speakers in Spanish.
Near the end of the 45-minute lesson, Berger told the students her husband was going to film them standing in a line practicing the steps they've learned this summer. She will submit the short video to So You Think You Can Dance.
Last year, a group of Lighthouse teenagers was featured on the television show on National Dance Day, July 30, 2011. Berger hopes to repeat the experience, since the studio will have a fundraiser on National Dance Day to benefit Lighthouse.
Morales started backpedaling when the camera came out, but Schmidt caught her around the shoulders and dragged her back to the dance floor.
"No, no, no, no, no..." she protested half-heartedly, trying not to smile.
During several takes of Berger introducing the teenagers and dancing with them, Morales continued to try not to smile. She didn't succeed. Schmidt kept his hands on her shoulders, holding her in place so she wouldn't duck away.
At the end of the second take, she laughed at something he said, spun and launched into his arms for a hug.
After multiple takes for the prospect of being on national television, Berger asked the dancers to escort their partners off the dance floor to chairs set around tables at the far end of the studio.
Berger pulled a poster and smaller pieces of white paper from a beige couch near the tables. She showed the pictures to the students. They were portraits of the instructors, drawn in a style akin to anime with dramatic eyes and bright colors. Morales drew them all. She'll start applying to art institutes in Tampa and Sarasota within the next couple of years.
Morales squirmed under the attention. "I want to crawl under a rock," she muttered.
But when Berger praised her dancing, she couldn't hide a grin. And when the students were dismissed for the day, Schmidt led her to the dance floor, spinning and dipping her while the others stood in awe.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.