Afro-Caribbean artist with disability heads dance company

Zazel-Chavah O’Garra.  Biviana Sanchez
Zazel-Chavah O’Garra.
Biviana Sanchez

Zazel-Chavah O’Garra is the founder and artistic director of ZCO/Dance Project, a physically integrated dance company whose goal is to create performances that are “witty, soulful, intelligent, powerful and intriguing.”

“ZCODP seeks to encourage the integration and inclusion of people with disabilities in dance and in society, to present new, exciting, challenging, and inspiring contemporary dance performances to the widest possible audience,” O’Garra told Caribbean Life.

A native New Yorker, of Montserratan parentage, O’Garra attended the University of Michigan and Empire State College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in dance performance.

A Presidential Arts Scholar, she received merit scholarships at Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem and performed with Mark Dendy Dance Company, as well as performing Off-Broadway and in numerous musical theatre stage productions in the US and abroad.

She has also served as movement coach for “As the World Turns.”

As a professional model, O’Garra has appeared on two Essence Magazine covers and several other print and runway jobs.

She also appeared in national, regional commercial industrials and supplied voice overs for several ads.

In December 2001, O’Garra discovered that she had meningioma, a benign brain tumor, which proceeded to paralyze her right side and resulted in a slight speech impediment and cognitive loss.

After receiving extensive treatment at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation (East Orange, NJ) and NYU Langone Rusk Medical Center, O’Garra said she was able to overcome the speech impediment, cognitive loss, and wears an AFO brace for support.

Consciously deciding to make best use of this debilitating circumstance, O’Garra said she transitioned into teaching dance as a healing form to the disabled and non-disabled alike, continuing to share her infectiously positive and fun spirit with others.

Her objective is to give those with disabilities a vehicle for self-expression, help them build a sense of self-esteem and self-reliance, and provide them with opportunities for community recognition and acclaim.

She is also passionate about raising public awareness about the challenges facing and the gifts offered by those with disabilities.

O’Garra can be heard on numerous podcasts, webinars and TV shows including the National Foundation for the Arts, Preparing Students with Disabilities for Careers in the Arts, Voyage LA Magazine, Roll with peace in mind, Dancecast and was featured on the Dr. Oz show to share her life as a brain tumor survivor.

She is the recipient of the VSA – John F. Kennedy – National Teaching Artist fellowship and was named the inaugural member of the White House Disability Liaison during the Obama Administration.

Turning setbacks into comebacks, O’Garra has performed 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, Disability Unite,

ARTS4ALL Florida 40th anniversary ADA Celebration and wanting to share her story, O’Garra performs Inside/Out (voices of the disability community), directed by Ping Chong, nationwide.

Proving that beauty never dies, O’Garra said she was featured in New York Fashion Week modelling smart adaptive clothing for persons with disabilities.

Sharing her gifts as dancer and educator, Zazel has taught numerous teaching workshops which include, YAI, INCLUDENYC, AHRC, Mount Sinai Hospital-Rehab, Spina Bifida Resource Network, Zucker Hillside Hospital, Downtown Brooklyn Rehearsal Residency,

Her professional affiliations include: Arts and Education Committee-Board of Education, Disability Task Force, DANCE/NYC, Ambassador-Voices Against Brain Cancer and the Divaswithdisabilities Project.

O’Garra holds a Masters degree in social work from Fordham University and is a member of SAG-AFTRA, EQUITY.

She is represented by Gamut Talent Management.

“Dance is the public expression of pleasure and freedom,” O’Garra said. “Dance shouldn’t be restricted to people on feet, people who can see, people who are young, thin and popular.

“Our bodies in motion insist that the terms dance and dancer be redefined,” she added. “Our audiences are all dance enthusiasts, who are concerned about disability, dance, and artistry in the community.”

O’Garra said she has been a resident of Brooklyn for more than 15 years.

“I have been immersed professionally and politically performing at festivals in Brooklyn, teaching dance to special education students in District 75, and assisting my sister (Judge Kathy King) in her run for the seat of Civil and Supreme Court Judge,” she said.

“I strongly believe that art is therapeutic,” she added. “I believe we have to have art, we have to have creativity, and with art we can turn our setbacks into comebacks.”

At ZCO/Dance Project, O’Garra said, “We encourage people of various abilities to partake in dance classes.

She said the company consists of dancers who have cerebral palsy, spina bifida, osteogenesis imperfecta, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord Injury and people with no disability.

“Building an integrated dance company removes attitudinal barriers, reduces prejudices, and stereotyping, increases self-esteem and equips the company members with valuable life skills that many people with physical limitations do not experience in the world of dance,” O’Garra said.

“Dance is in my blood, and I needed to bring the joy of movement to people with disabilities,” she said. “ZCO/Dance Project aims to make dances that are clever, profound, insightful, ground-breaking and interesting.

“Our organization is committed to changing the lives of people with mental and physical disabilities through dance, providing opportunities that empower them to gain confidence and independence,” O’Garra continued.