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Meet Zazel-Chavah O’Garra

Today we’d like to introduce you to Zazel-Chavah O’Garra.

Hi Zazel-Chavah, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I am a maker, a doer, a thinker, an African American disabled dancer, eternally entangled with the form. I work with the moving body as it relates to a myriad of variables, among them space, time emotion, sensation, and energy. As a disabled artist, I want to show our vulnerabilities and strength. How we fall and recover, how we treat the parts of ourselves that love us, support us, the parts that we attempt to correct, chastise and obscure.

I created ZCO/Dance Project in 2013 with the goal of encouraging the integration and inclusion of people with disabilities in dance and in society. Since that time, we’ve had amazing opportunities to present our work to the community.

18 years ago, I was diagnosed with a meningioma brain tumor, the effects of which left me partially paralyzed. The struggles I faced in overcoming this setback were numerous. I could have quit what I love and moved on with my life. Instead, I decided to “turn a setback into comeback. Exploring the possibilities of our individual bodies, using dance as a means of personal expression and empowerment, and encouraging others to seek out their own power has been my obsession. As founder and Artistic Director of ZCO/DANCEPROJECT, I have helped in creating a community for disabled dancers and an opportunity for all people to use their bodies in new and exciting ways.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
It has been a rocky road redefining myself as a disabled dancer/artist. I’ve proved Dancing as person with a disability is no more difficult than for a person without a disability. However, as I work to create a more inclusive dance space, choreographers, dance educators, and arts administrators must work to remove all preconceived limitations. If we can learn to understand the definitions of disabilities not as labels but as guiding principles to empower dancers with disabilities, we can create more opportunities to become inclusive.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I have been lucky enough to enjoy success as a dancer, artistic director, and instructor. I am a graduate of the High School of Performing Arts (New York), the SUNY Empire State College, and the University of Michigan where I received a Bachelor of Arts in dance performance. A Presidential Arts Scholar, I have performed with Mark Dendy Dance Company and Alvin Ailey workshop II, choreographed fashion shows, and conducted master classes in Modern, Jazz, and African Dance in the United States and Europe.

As a professional model, I’ve appeared on two Essence Magazine covers and several other print and runway jobs. I’ve also appeared in national, regional commercial industrials and supplied voiceovers for a number of ads.

I’ve performed in numerous stage productions Off Broadway and Europe and was honored to tell my “story of survival” to a packed house in “Nothing like a Dame” at New York’s Schubert Theater on Broadway, a benefit and fundraiser for the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative and the Actor’s Fund featuring celebrities from stage and screen. I also had the opportunity to serve as a movement coach for the soap opera “As the World Turns” and was thrilled to receive the John F. Kennedy Center (VSA) Very Special arts – National Teaching Artist Fellowship.

Wanting to share my story, I perform “Inside/Out…Voices of The Disability Community”, directed by Ping Chong, nationwide. This desire also led to an appearance on the Dr. OZ show and worked on “Sing the body”, a documentary filmed by director Madeline Hunt-Ehrlich. The film identifies a person which has a disability and who has performed dance/ movement that deals with the body. I continue to share my disability story in Ping Chong’s “Secret Histories” in the New York City Public Schools and most recently at Lincoln Center.

I can be heard on numerous podcasts and webinars including the National Foundation for the Arts, Preparing Students with Disabilities for Careers in the Arts: Approaches for Arts Educators.

During the pandemic, I was chosen to perform in “The Bigger Plans Project”, a visual art piece which celebrates a journey of self-discovery through music, art, dance and fashion. Directed by Lachi (legally blind recording artist, writer and co-produced by Angela Bianchi (Italy)—founder of Virgoimage consultant.

Recent performances include: This/Ability-Samuel Beckett Theatre, Theatre Breaking Through Barriers, Undesirable Elements-Lincoln Center, Bodystorming Access Cooper Hewitt Museum, Respectability-Positive Exposure 109, Judson Memorial Church, Secret Histories -NYPL Lincoln Center, Imagining an Accessible NYC.

What sets me apart from others; I share the resurrection as a disabled artist by creating customized movements for persons with mixed abilities; demonstrating directly that physical challenges need not limit a passion for living a fulfilling life. I’ve refined my capacity to design and deliver highly engaging and effective expressive movement that’s created from the heart, emphasizing to everyone, “I have a new life through dance, rising above body deficits, embracing a new body and the illumination of a life force.”

Is there any advice you’d like to share with our readers who might just be starting out?
Never say you can’t make it! The sky is the limit! Always reach for the stars.

I wish someone would have told me it’s not showbusiness but BUSINESS/SHOW! You have to know about conducting your business, i.e., agents, managers, photographers, classes, auditions before you attempt to pursue the arts.

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Image Credits:

Rick Guidotti Beowulf Sheehan

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