Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Zazel Chavah O'Garra, Dancer, Tells Her Story

I became a disabled 13 years ago. Up until then I was a dancer, actress and model, appearing in musical theatre productions, featured on covers of Essence magazine and acting in numerous commercials. One day I noticed a series of unexplained strange symptoms beginning to emerge ... my handwriting started changing, I was constantly fatigued and I started having seizures. I ended up in the emergency room and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor. The aftermath of the surgery left me partially paralyzed and needing to wear a leg brace to walk.

In order to accept my disability, I had to transform my thinking so that I could face this new life. A year into rehab, I saw that I still had the talent, energy, and drive to continue my life as an artist. And, I realized I could show other disabled individuals that they could live joyful, creative, expressive and meaningful lives. So, proving the system wrong, I became a disabled performer and teacher despite my disability.

I share my resurrection as a disabled artist by giving motivational speeches and teaching creative movement classes spreading the words “with faith everything is possible”, demonstrating that physical challenges need not limit your passion for living.  I strive to convey an upbeat energy to provide everyone moments of pure joy.

In 2011, I competed and was chosen to be one of 25 National VSA (Very Special Arts) Teaching Artist Fellows with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Through their training, I refined my capacity to design and deliver highly engaging, effective expressive-movement programs for disabled individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Rehearsing for the DVD

That work eventually led me to create a DVD called Dancing Beyond Disability, a fun, jazzy, funky creative-movement DVD produced for disabled and able-bodied individuals. The sequences presented are designed to increase participants self-confidence and self-awareness, improve muscle coordination, enhance motor skills and balance for all abilities.

I ignore the changes in my body … 
the fact I have a “damaged” brain … 
and I am disabled. 

Instead, I value each and every day of my life. Dance has given me the power of living life through hope. Dance helped me when I was in the rehabilitation facility trying to face the complete change in my being. Through dance I have gained a deeper understanding of the path that has shaped my creativity, and me.

And, the journey continues. In 2013, I started ZCO/Dance Project, a dance company comprised of ten artists “dancing beyond disability” with pure joy! We perform jazz, modern, African dance, ballet and creative movement with passion, energy, skill, technique, and soul!

ZCO Dance Project Dancers

At times, I have noticed we are not treated as professionals because of our disabilities, which causes me to work even harder. Educating people on the importance of accepting everyone and seeing beyond their disability is my mantra. I don’t believe that our differently abled bodies should overshadow our talents and steal our humanity. Each time we have a sold-out performance and people come on stage to dance with us, I know my work is making a difference.

ZCO/Dance Project is valuable to everyone because, at its core, it is about expressing our humanity and embracing the spirit of our circumstances.  We, as artists, want people to realize that everyone can feel and dance despite their physical and emotional challenges. 

ZCO Dance Project Dancers

Our first performance was held last fall at the Dixon Place Theatre in New York City and was a huge success! We had a sold-out standing room only audience! We are currently rehearsing for our spring performance entitled Celebration to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)!  If you are in the New York area and would like to see our performance this spring, please see my (soon to be completed) ZCO website for details.

Note from Brenda:  Zazel is currently serving as the Ambassador for Voices Against Brain Cancer. She is a sought-after participant in the annual New Jersey Disability Pride Parade, as well as a motivational speaker, social worker and teaching artist. Her work can be seen on her ZCO website,, and her personal site, You can purchase her DVD on either site, if you like.

Zazel Celebrating Life!

This is Week 9 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Zazel’s post today!

No comments:

Post a Comment