Roger Alarie: Happily Dancing his Way through Life

By Evra Taylor

What’s astonishing about some people is that you just can’t keep them down – literally. That is the case with Roger Alarie, who manages to keep spectators’ eyes riveted to him on the dance floor as he moves deftly to the beat of salsa, merengue and a repertoire of other dances he has been studying. Learning the varying rhythms and techniques of Latin and ballroom dance can be difficult enough, but when you’re blind, how do you navigate around a large floor filled with sighted dance aficionados?

The answer lies in Alarie’s laudable life perspective. At age 65, he views life as an array of unlimited possibilities. In fact, for him the word disability doesn’t exist. He lives his life unconstrained and uninhibited. Like many visually impaired individuals, his attitude toward life in general, and to trying new things in particular, is far more daring than that of many of us sighted folks.

The majority of blindness is caused by conditions such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and glaucoma; however, Alarie’s case falls under a much less common etiology. He was born via forceps delivery, at the time a somewhat common practice during difficult deliveries. The forceps pressed on his optic nerve, causing progressive loss of sight.

Remarkably, Alarie has never felt angry at the doctor involved, nor at anyone else, for that matter. While he admits to having felt frustrated and depressed for the first year or two following his complete loss of vision at age 25 – and before he became better-equipped to continue his activities of daily living – Alarie has never let his impairment get the best of him. He still likes cooking and he relishes sharing recipes with his live-in girlfriend, Pauline Normandin, a retired school teacher. “I can do everything everyone else does, just in a different way,” he remarked.

Alarie was born in Montreal at a time when the integration of children with various types of disabilities into mainstream schools was not the hot topic of discussion that it is now. He attended the Institut Nazareth and, later, Institut Louis Braille; the two schools have since merged.

In terms of his life’s vocation, what is most interesting is that Alarie’s blindness proved an asset rather than a liability. For 31 years he enjoyed working for General Foods, which later became Kraft Foods, as a coffee taster. The company actually seeks out blind individuals as tasters because their blindness augments their sense of taste. It also ensures that they aren’t influenced by the sight of the oil in the coffee.

Years ago, Alarie’s adventurous spirit took him to the ski slopes. He used to participate in cross-country skiing, but stopped when it became clear to him that it was “a bit dangerous. When the guide said to veer left or right, it was tricky for me as a blind person”.

After a particularly scary fall on the ski slopes, Alarie decided to switch the focus of his life. Upon retirement from work 10 years ago, he was free to pursue his life’s passion, dancing, which his late mother had enjoyed before him. Joined by Normandin, his sighted partner in life, as well as in dance, Alarie embarked on an adventurous journey few of us would dare to take. Motivated by his experience with and love for square dancing, which he shares with Pauline, three years ago he contacted the LaSalle branch of the well-known Arthur Murray Dance Studio to see if they would take him on as a student. At the time, Alarie was particularly interested in learning salsa.

The owner of the dance studio, Harry Gregoire, explained that he had never before tried to teach a visually impaired person how to dance. Gregoire knew it would be a challenge but decided to accept Alarie into a comprehensive dance program entailing individual and group lessons, along with practice sessions several nights a week. A true devotee of his chosen hobby, Alarie doesn’t engage in much social activity besides dance because he’s busy four to five times a week high-stepping it on the dance floor.

Alarie exudes a zest for life that is infectious: he enjoys sharing with others his view of living with blindness. When asked how he would advise other vision-impaired individuals, he responds, “I would tell them not to be afraid of trying new things. When you have a passion for something you just have to do it. I’m extremely happy to have a dance teacher who has shown me tremendous patience, since it takes me longer to learn the steps than a sighted person”.

Always the optimist, and completely content with his life, Alarie says, “Everything inspires me because I’m happy with my partner. My blindness didn’t bother her or intimidate her in any way. She needed me and I needed her.”

Fortunate to have found the love of his life, Alarie is satisfied with his lot and wouldn’t change it. “Everything inspires me because I’m happy with Pauline”.