Betty Sobkowich

Betty Sobkowich dancing

Eighty-two-year-old Betty Sobkowich has been running a ballroom dancing group with her husband, Victor, at the CNIB Centre in Winnipeg, MN, for the past 18 years. 

Every other week, she teaches foxtrot and waltz to dancing enthusiasts like herself. With the buoyant sounds of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as her backdrop, Sobkowich is at the top of her form, proving that just because you live with vision loss doesn’t mean you can’t really swing. 

Sobkowich first developed signs of vision loss in 1990. About a year later, with her vision quite distorted, she went to CNIB for help. That’s when a CNIB staff member discovered her passion for dance – and asked her if she would like to share her talents with others.

“I’d always danced with Vic at different legions,” says Sobkowich today. 

She met Victor after WWII, and they married in 1949. After a while they started square dancing, and in 1968 they helped to found a ballroom dance club that today numbers 200 members. 

“We are probably the oldest ones in that group now,” says Sobkowich. “There are classes at nine levels, and because we’ve been doing it for so long, we are up near the top.”

So when she was asked to help start a group at CNIB, there was no hesitation. Dancing was what they had always done together – and Sobkowich knew that regardless of vision loss, she and Vic would always continue. She said yes right away. Shortly after, the CNIB Dance Troupe was born.

“We started with just five elderly ladies in their eighties,” says Sobkowich. “Vic would dance with one, while I would dance with another. Gradually we got more people.”

A moving experience

Today the CNIB Dance Troupe in Winnipeg attracts upwards of 24 people on a good day. 

Although it used to draw an older crowd, these days the troupe seems to be reaching a whole new generation, who come to learn to dance for the first time. Most participants are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and there are usually as many men as women (“Sometimes more men than women,” laughs Sobkowich, “which is not what you would usually expect.”). Some have vision loss themselves, while others may be sighted but come out with spouses who are without vision. 

The group meets every second Monday afternoon. They start out with dancing and end with chatting over coffee. It’s the social aspect of the group that keeps people coming back.

“Some of them are lonely and vulnerable – or used to be,” says Sobkowich. “Dancing means so much to them. And it means a lot to me to help others who are in the same boat as I am.”

She’s also noticed that many of their members begin to participate in more activities after they start dancing.

“A few of them have expanded into other groups,” she says. “CNIB has a walking group, a discussion group and many others…some of them have joined those.” 

Connecting through music

Besides the social aspect, there’s also the music that brings them together. 

“A lot of them come to hear what we play, the different big bands,” says Sobkowich. “One lady likes the polka, so we play one every time we go there. She gets up and boy, she really goes. We try to cater to the crowd.”

The troupe has a track record for bringing people together, and making some of its members “partners for life” as well as partners on the dance floor.

“Some of them meet and go out together,” say Sobkowich. “We had one couple get married through the club. And some of the fellas that come out bring a lady friend with them.”

The CNIB Dance Troupe has made several appearances at long-term care facilities and hospitals in Winnipeg. It’s their way of sharing with others who have the same passion for the music and dance of the swing era.

So you think you can dance

What about the challenges of dancing with vision loss in a partner-based activity?

“It’s not too hard with waltz and foxtrot,” says Sobkowich. “You just get them going on that, and they get good. We usually pair people up where one person is sighted and one is not. When the gentleman has no sight at all, the lady will lead.”

One of their members had a daughter who was getting married. He had no vision at all. 

“But we taught him,” says Sobkowich. “When the wedding came around, he danced with his daughter. She was pleasantly surprised.”

Lifelong learning

Victor and Betty Sobkowich will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in March of 2009. Which means that as of 2008, they are celebrating 60 years of dancing together.

For almost a third of their dancing years, Betty has had vision loss due to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). And now at the age of 85, Victor is also starting to develop signs of the disease.

But it’s not going to stop them. They walk a lot, travel regularly, play bridge, make sure they eat well and are extremely busy with their three children, eight grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.

And their dancing. They keep on dancing.

“When we go to our doctors, they always say ‘Are you still dancing?’” says Sobkowich proudly. “When we say yes, they say ‘Well don’t stop! It’s good exercise.​