When Kalamazoo’s Benjamin Yonattan, a student of Dexter’s Dancer’s Edge owner Valerie Stead Potsos, received a yes-vote and standing ovation from the entire panel of judges on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, the path ahead for the 14-year-old dancer was clear.
“When I was getting ready for my first audition, I knew I was just doing it for fun and the experience — it was just another audition to me, I just wanted to have fun with it” Yonattan recalled. “But when all four said yes and gave me that standing O, I realized that this could change into something else.”
Why does a talented dancer drive all the way from Kalamazoo, which is exactly one hour and 29 minutes and 94.3 miles from Dexter each way to train under Stead Potsos?
“Ben was dancing with a group in Flint — it was right before he found out about the vision loss … we knew that he wanted to go professional,” said Erin Brown Conroy, Ben’s adoptive mother. She adopted him from parents in Guatemala when he was just four years old.
In addition to blindness, Yonattan also has a condition called epidermolysis bullosa, which can cause his skin to blister and break away with friction or contact.
Despite the fragility of his epidermis, everything contained within his skin including a spirit even deeper within his being is possessed with a verve and a will to be in motion, to be flying through the air, and to be pushed to the limits of strength, endurance and flexibility at all times.
“Working hard and working out are different,” Brown Conroy explained. “It’s a good kind of pain, when you work out and work hard, and it’s not comparable to the pain of his skin condition — a severe kind of pain, so in comparison, working out for him is easier.”
Yonattan began dancing when he was five years old in order to be athletic like all active boys his age, in a way that allowed him to avoid tackling, checking, sliding and grabbing.
Future remains bright, despite the dimming of the light
Shortly after Stead Potsos began working with Yonattan, he and his mother began noticing the degradation of his coordination and awareness, which all of a sudden began having a considerable negative impact on his ability to dance.
“I was at a dance convention that my mom told me to go to and I was dancing and there were a lot of people there, but despite having more than enough space to dance and move around, I began to feel closed in and I was bumping into people and I got to a point where I couldn’t dance at all,” Yonattan said, with an echo of discomfort betrayed by the look on his face while recalling that part of his past.
Brown Conroy was concerned and began asking herself what was causing her son’s abilities to falter all of a sudden.
Once the two began talking about what was happening, it was clear they were dealing with a problem that had been creeping into the picture for awhile, which had been masked by Ben’s other senses and brain adapting to the vision loss. They had just reached a turning point in his condition.
After a visit to the doctor, it was revealed that Ben’s vision was decreasing. As of publish, Yonattan can see as if a sighted person were looking through a straw. He may one day be completely blind — a possibility that Stead Potsos is working to prepare her young student for, so that he may continue doing what he loves using his remaining senses as much as possible to compensate.
“We’re using a lot of adaptive techniques now in preparation for full loss of sight, should that happen,” Stead Potsos explained. “You can know in terms of the space around you by being aware using sound, light and different things so that he can get used to seeing by making those pictures ahead of time.”
When his vision first started going, Yonattan told his mother that he felt like the ceiling was falling in on him and that while dancing it was starting to feel like he was on a boat that is rocking, thus causing him to constantly lose his footing.
There was a low-point where the loss of vision exceeded his training and skills, and he essentially lost the ability to dance. Special training with Stead Potsos restored his abilities and he’s at a point where he is inarguably on even footing with the peers in his age group, if not better than many of those who would face him in competition in the dance world.
Using bean bags, wearing weighted bracelets, training with the assumption of a more restrictive field of movement, and undergoing sensory enhancement exercises has given Yonattan abilities that some may be tempted to liken to a certain Hell’s Kitchen superhero.
No limits in sight
While many might consider blindness a debilitating condition and an insurmountable discouragement, or worst yet an excuse to wallow in pity and take no meaningful action in life, Yonattan simply works around or even right through it with sheer force of will.
He asks that those he comes into contact with pay no mind to the impairment that he’s well on his way to compensating for, and then some. Although it’s difficult to not be impressed with his ability to adapt and pull off incredible feats of sheer skill and physical prowess that most of us couldn’t even achieve with extra senses, let alone the five that are part of the package deal of being a human being.
“Even if I lose full vision, I will still be able to tell stories and feel myself doing it,” Yonattan said. “Dancing is just so expressive. There’s joy that comes out and I just like to tell stories and talk with my body instead of talking with my mouth. It’s just a way to connect with another and to get my emotions out to within reach of another person and for them to feel the emotion, and draw them in.”
Yonattan also wears a necklace engraved in braille that says, “Never give up.” He never removes it. He even had a different one than the one he wears now, but the metal clasps wore away and the necklace’s creator sent him a new one as a replacement and a show of support and appreciation for his accomplishments while wearing her handiwork.
“One of the greatest assets he has from my point of view as a teacher, is that I can say, ‘Do it again, do it again, do it over,’ and he says, ‘Yep, okay,’ and most 14-year-olds don’t always respond to that,” Stead Potsos explained. “Despite everything that he’s got going on in his life, he just keeps pushing himself. I can just tell him to do anything and he just keeps pushing himself, and that’s one of the things that gives me joy as his teacher.”
Yonattan hopes that the judges, audience-members, and viewers at home who see him on the upcoming live final rounds of America’s Got Talent, during which viewers will choose the winners by referendum, will look at him as something other than a blind kid who dances.
“I’m a dancer, not a blind person who dances,” Yonattan said. “I’m a dancer first.”
Stead Potsos says that no matter how much farther her student goes on the television show that has brought him to the current peak of his fame, he has so much higher and farther to go: “For me he’s already a success — no matter what the outcome of this show is, he’s going to be successful.
“Whether’s he’s going to be a choreographer, whether he’s doing something with students, whether he’s a speaker, there are just so many things he can do with his life. To me he’s already won because of all the challenges he’s already overcome and how well he’s done already. He’s got a spirit that you just gravitate towards that he has despite his lack of sight, not because of it.
“It’s why he’s able to keep going despite the challenges that he faces, and it’s just contagious. I think that’s the gift he could spread to other people, no matter what he’s doing in life.”