Meet the legally blind UAA student who still has a vision for dance

Carmel Young seems like a typical college student when you first meet her.

The bespectacled 21-year-old chatted about her classes, dance rehearsals and the pressures of finding a job after college while walking through the University of Alaska Anchorage campus on a recent chilly spring afternoon, her brown curls bobbing slightly with each step.

But her vision isn't what it used to be. Legally blind, she can't drive anymore, which is frustrating.

"Central vision is all I have really," she said. She estimates she sees about 25-30 percent of what she should be able to.

A lot has happened to Young the past few years. Her parents moved to Alaska for her father's job. Then her mom was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. After her mom died, Young started having trouble seeing. She went to an eye doctor at the Costco on DeBarr Road, who sent her to a neurologist. That's when she found out she has a slow-growing malignant brain tumor in her optic chiasm, which was affecting her vision. After surgery, her eyesight was "noticeably worse."

An ‘otherworldly’ art

Long before the pain of her mother's death and the shock of her own diagnosis, Young was a kid in South Carolina, taking her first dance class at age 6. Her first performance was as an angel in "The Nutcracker."

While leotards, tights and ballet slippers are part of a phase for many girls, Young's love of dance didn't fade as she grew up. She was good at it, it was a challenge and a portal away from everyday life.


"It always feels otherworldly," she said of dance.

"You can always go in the studio and focus on something completely different. Something beautiful, something uplifting."

Even when her family moved, dance was a constant. Young did a summer intensive with the renowned American Ballet Theatre in Detroit, went to The Art of Classical Ballet in Florida and trained with Dance Theatre of Harlem in pursuit of her dream to have a professional dance career.

She visited Alaska after her time in New York, and that's when she saw how sick her mom had become. Young put her dance career on pause to be closer to her mother.

"She was so sick from chemo," said Young, who was 18 when her mom was undergoing treatment for primary peritoneal cancer. "She had, like, 13 hospitalizations during her whole run with cancer."

Picking up the pieces

Young is a member of the Baha'i faith, and she said it helped her cope with her mother's death. Young's boyfriend of nearly three years has also been a strong support.

But things haven't been easy. Less than a year after her mother died, she received her own cancer diagnosis.

"It's exhausting," she said. "First, you get this diagnosis and you're just in a whirlwind of emotions and just out of it."

Then comes treatment. Recovering from brain surgery is "hellish," she said.

"And then you have to deal with the bills and side effects, but you also need to figure out things like Social Security and disability and who's gonna insure you now, and then you're also 20, so you've got to figure out where you're going to live, what you're going to do after school, can you go to school?" she said. "So, it was a lot to figure out."

The tumor in her optic chiasm is still there because removing it is too risky. She said she could completely lose her vision or suffer brain damage. Besides the seven classes she's enrolled in, she also has a slew of doctor's appointments to worry about. The tumor has to be monitored.

Sometimes, she said, life feels like someone has chucked a bag full of stuff into the air and she's running around trying to catch the bag's contents before the items hit the ground.

"And it does fall, but you pick it all up, right?" she said with a laugh.


It's been about a year since Young ventured into the Costco in East Anchorage to get her eyes checked. She said she's grateful for the doctor who referred her to a neurologist after he couldn't correct her vision.

She also feels thankful for the outpouring of support she's received. A GoFundMe account raised nearly $15,000 to help pay for her medical expenses.

Having limited eyesight was stressful at first. She would constantly dart her head around to take in everything around her and avoid colliding with people.

But dance, and choreography, remains part of her life. She's a dance minor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has been busy preparing for this weekend's showcase, New Dances 2016, for which she is choreographing and performing in a piece called "Love Stories." Several people were interviewed for it -- a mother talking about her son who has special needs; Young's sister, who spoke about their mom; a woman whose sister had died of cancer; a young boy who describes his mother; a man who talked about his wife.


Those interviews will play on a screen as Young and five other dancers perform movements inspired by them.

She is one of 10 choreographers and among the many dancers in the performance that's been months in the making. The pieces are mostly modern and were created by veteran choreographers, UAA faculty and students.

Brian Jeffery, an assistant professor for UAA's Department of Theatre and Dance, said he's known Young for a few years and that she "has recently been emerging as a very gifted choreographer."

Young said choreography gives her the freedom to pursue the intellectual side of dance. It can be challenging sometimes, she said, because she can't see everyone's movements at once and has to make dancers repeat steps.

During a Sunday rehearsal at UAA, Young offered feedback to her colleagues after a run-through of her piece. She chatted casually with them onstage, rattling off the moments she loved and the steps that needed work. There were sporadic bursts of laughter.

The dancers seemed confident while moving through choreography that featured intimate partnering -- hand holding, face touching -- and raw emotion -- anguish, joy, regret, pride -- that complemented what the interviewees were saying.

"Carmel's choreography has been particularly insightful in both its vulnerability and affecting snapshots of our humanness," Jeffery wrote in an email.

Sometimes, Young has wanted to take a break from dance. Somehow, though, she always finds her way back to the art.


With Jeffery and others watching in the Mainstage Theatre of UAA's Fine Arts Building, Young walked out to her spot to begin another run-through of her piece. Glow-in-the-dark tape was placed on the stage to guide her to her position.

As the soft music began and the interview with Young's sister played on a screen above the stage, Young started to move.

"I love dance," Young said. "I still love it. It still feels like another world you're in."

New Dances 2016

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 14-16; 6 p.m. Sunday, April 17

Where: UAA Mainstage Theatre, Fine Arts Building, 3640 Alumni Drive

Tickets: $15 for general admission, $12 for UAA students