Aerialist Rachael hangs in a "French gazelle" pose, suspended from two straps. She is outdoors and set against a backdrop of blue sky and green grass.

Hi – I’m Rachael, and I’m a blind aerialist and pole dancer. In fact, I’m currently training in pole dancing, aerial trapeze hoop and silks, contortion, chair dance, fire-spinning and breakdance. And I love it!

So, how did I get here?

I was diagnosed with sporadic exudative vitreoretinopathy at around two years of age. I never had much useful vision in my left eye but had fairly reliable site in my right.

It’s a very unique, very unpredictable degenerative condition that caused me to lose the remaining vision in my left eye when I was around 10 years old in 2003. Then, I suddenly lost sight completely in the right eye in 2009 when I was just 15.

It’s weird to talk about this now because although I’m completely comfortable with who I am as a blind person now, I just feel like a totally different person to this young girl. It feels a bit like imposter syndrome when I think about it all. It’s weird to say that I never really struggled with losing my vision because in some ways I really didn’t. I was strong but I definitely struggled in my own way.

At the age of 15, it’s very hard to process the fact that your whole life has changed overnight.

Reflecting on that time of my life makes me laugh because all I cared about was still being able to do my makeup and looking nice and as far away from a “stereotypical blind person” as possible. Like a lot of people, my idea of a blind person was elderly, grey-haired and wrinkly with chintzy frumpy mismatching clothing stumbling around everywhere not being able to do anything. Not really who you want to be associated with at the age of 15.

Focused on family, but wanting more

I had always been a determined and resilient person which were good traits to have when dealing with sight loss. I also have an insanely supportive family and some very strong-willed personalities surrounding me who I have to thank for keeping me up and moving forward during that traumatic period. Especially my grandma. After losing my vision I had many uplifting and encouraging talks with her. She would always set me straight, tell me to open my eyes look forward put my head up and walk forward. It worked – and her strong and caring words have stayed with me. They are my driving force and I feel very lucky to have had that at that point in my life, as well as now.

I had my son when I was 20 and my life was wonderfully consumed by him. As he got older and started school, I started to wonder who I was other than the blind mum. I had more time on my hands so I went to college and university. I started yoga and went to the gym regularly. I practiced running for a time and completed the great North run.

As much as I enjoyed and still enjoy all of that, I wasn’t completely invested in it. I randomly came across a pole dance feature online and wondered if it would be possible for a blind person to do it. I just felt really attracted to the idea of it.

Finding my fury (and why that’s a good thing)

In 2017 I plucked up the courage to attend my first one-to-one pole class after emailing the studio owner to ask if she could accommodate me as a visually impaired person. I immediately loved Mandy for her response which was something like, “Just come in and we can try and see what happens.” It was new for both of us – but we connected as teacher and student instantly, and from then on, I found myself falling down the beautiful rabbit hole of pole dance and aerial art.

We soon became Team Blind Fury, which I now use as a stage name. And after three months of training in pole dance, I then started aerial hoop, trapeze and silks training in 2018. I fell so much in love with it all – the creativity and possibilities it gave me – that I felt the need to document my journey through my Instagram and Facebook pages.

I was constantly asked questions (some relevant and some very stupid) about how I managed to train circus arts with no vision. So my writing quickly became a source of education and a place for sharing my experiences and advice.

“It makes me feel alive.”

It’s easy to see why I fell in love with and became so passionate about pole and aerial as a blind woman: I get so much more out of it than I do from other sport.

I didn’t want to be confined to mainstream blind sport. I didn’t want to be constricted and limited to only partake in sports that had been specifically adapted for blind people. I wanted to do something that was out of the box and make it work for me. With pole and aerial there was just me, my movement and the equipment. It fills me with creativity and room for expression.

As you may be able to tell, I am insanely obsessed with anything circus-related. I’m absolutely captivated by the weird and wonderful things that circus performers have to offer, and I’ve been passionate about the arts since I started.

I’m free and liberated in every sense of the word within the pole and aerial community. I’m free from stereotyping and judgment. I’m free from unfair and limiting expectations. I’m free to be whatever dancer I decide to be when I turn up for a class. That for me is incredibly important.

When I’m practicing, I’m not just a blind person. And I’m certainly not what society views and expect a blind person to be. I feel so far removed from the word “blind” when I’m practicing circus arts.

Like most blind and partially sighted people, I grew up without any prominent positive female disabled role models – and the lack of representation led me to believe that I wasn’t capable. With pole, I can be strong and sporty. I can be sensual and sexual. I can be elegant and artistic. I can be over-the-top extra. Or I can be all of the above – and that’s why I am completely besotted with all of it!

With aerial, contortion and fire-spinning, I get to hang from a really high ceiling. I get to fall and drop and run. I get to twist and tangle myself up into crazy impressive shapes. I get to jump and spin as high and as fast as I want. These are all things that you don’t really get the opportunity to do as a blind person. And I didn’t realize how restricting it was until I rediscovered them. It’s scary and exciting all at once. It makes me feel alive.

What’s next

I want to be a blind performing artist one day. I want to extend that expression into wider society to try and help advocate for change for blind and partially sighted people – especially young women who aren’t very well represented today. I’d like to be that blind artist or performer doing cool stuff that people can watch and be inspired and motivated by.

Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned on my journey so far is that I can rely on myself. I live in a world where I have to rely on something or someone constantly and it’s very exhausting. I finally found something that gives me absolute independence where I have learned that I can rely purely on myself and my ability.

About the author

Rachael Storey is a blind aerialist and pole dancer. She has been featured in The Shaw Trust Power 100, an annual publication highlighting the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK.

 To learn more about her – or to connect with her – follow her on Instagram.

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