Sasha-Ann Simons: This is Reset, I'm Sasha Ann-Simon's when you hear accessible, what do you think of? How about accessibility and dance? Well, there are some dance companies out there that focus on creating performances that include dancers with and without disabilities. You can find one like it in Oak Park. It's called MOMENTA Dance Company. And we're joined in the studio by Sarah Najera, artistic and executive director of MOMENTA Dance. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Najera: Hi, thank you.
Sasha-Ann Simons: And also we have Ladonna Freidheim, wheelchair dancer and everybody can dance teacher for MOMENTA. She's also the founder of reinvent ability, a nonprofit promoting the joy of inclusive dance. Great to have you on Reset, Ladonna.
Ladonna Freidheim: Thank you.
Sasha-Ann Simons: So I'll start with you, Sarah. Let's start by talking about what MOMENTA is. Tell us more.
Sarah Najera: Sure. MOMENTA, as you said, is based in Oak Park, we were founded in 1983 by three individuals Stephanie Clemens, Larry Ippel and James Tenuta. And in 2003, Stephanie and Larry expanded MOMENTA's mission to include dancers with disabilities, and we became a physically integrated dance company. But today, we employ disabled staff members, dancers, choreographers and artistic collaborators, like costume designer, sound designers and musicians. Not only are we staging physically integrated works that include wheelchair dancers, or dancers with invisible disabilities, we host classes, workshops and performances that are inclusive and provide artistic opportunities or experiences for people with all types of disabilities, including individuals who are neurodivergent, or have intellectual disabilities.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Interesting. I want you to talk more about these physically integrated dances. How is it all arranged?
Sarah Najera: So I will, let's talk about rehearsals.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Sure.
Sarah Najera: The rehearsal process of creating a physically integrated or inclusive work. So what that means is we have dancers with and without disabilities that are in the piece together. And it is a different process than creating a work that does not include artists with disabilities. The first thing you have to go in as a choreographer with a completely open mind. You cannot go in with a set piece that's ready to be taught. You have to go in and you have to collaborate and you have to get feedback and input from the dancers with disabilities, on how the movement works for them.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Yeah, I want to bring you into the conversation, Ladonna. How long have you been a dancer?
Ladonna Freidheim: Since I was five years old.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Since you were five. So your parents got you started? And...
Ladonna Freidheim: They did. I have a degenerative disability. So that means it gets worse as I get older and was unaware that I even had a disability until I was in my 20s.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Okay.
Ladonna Freidheim: So I grew up a bun-headed ballerina, toddling around Chicago, and started to get injured as my body grew and my disability set in. I didn't start using a wheelchair until my late 30s I think.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Okay.
Ladonna Freidheim: And I learned to... So, I danced as a ballerina and ballet is, is not very forgiving.
Sasha-Ann Simons: So was that a difficult transition for you?
Ladonna Freidheim: So in my 20s, I started having trouble just walking. I wear braces on my legs to walk. And after surgeries that were unsuccessful, it became clear that, that I did not have a future in ballet. But I wanted to just at least keep taking classes. It was my whole life, my identity. What I thought I'd be when I grew up. And what I heard from my former teachers was that it was too depressing for the other ballerinas to see me crippled. And I really wasn't accepted in any dance studios with braces on my legs at all for over a decade. Then I met Alana Wallace, who founded Dance Detour, the first integrated dance company in Chicago. And just a pioneer in the field doing this when very few people thought it was even possible. And she taught me to dance in my wheelchair, which I do not use all the time. I still get around with crutches and a cane and braces on my legs.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Have you seen throughout your years, more of an effort to feature dancers with with disabilities in programming and performances?
Ladonna Freidheim: Yes, so we have a movement and we make progress. Progress is slow. When you've been around for 54 years, the nice thing about that is you can look back and see that while it was like pulling teeth, progress was made. So yes, you sometimes see that happen. And yes, people are more interested in hearing about what we do. But I think most people, including people with disabilities, don't know that this is an option. And that's a big goal for me.
Sasha-Ann Simons: So when you think about what accessibility means to you, right, which is a question that I asked at the top of this, this conversation, in the context of dance, what does true accessibility look like?
Ladonna Freidheim: So accessibility is a tricky term, for you, for an organization to be accessible to every single person in the room is almost impossible, because there's so many differences. The goal I think, needs to be to listen to who's in the room. Who's coming into the room? And what kind of access will support them be welcoming? Have an open mind. And for me, personally, of course, the wheelchair access is big. Yeah, that's something everybody should have a handle on the ADA has been law for a really long time. But surprisingly, you know, ramps don't get shuffled, elevators are locked. If you're not in your wheelchair, you get shamed for asking where the elevator is, those kinds of things are easy to fix. I think also, wheelchairs are obvious. But we forget about hearing and vision and sensory overwhelm. I mean, people hear a lot about autism. But how to accommodate someone is much trickier. It's not as obvious. But I shouldn't say it's tricky here because it because it's not, it's really about keeping an open mind and being willing to work with people.
Sasha-Ann Simons: In an ideal world, do you think that every dance school in every studio would offer classes to people of all abilities, Sarah?
Sarah Najera: Yeah, I think, you know, dance should be accessible to everyone. Everyone has a potential for creative movement. And so we don't want to have barriers to that. We want that to be accessible to everyone. So that definitely could be a goal.
Ladonna Freidheim: I agree. Well, everything should be accessible to everyone. I mean, we're all people, and we should all get to go places. I think there's a lot of fear, just from a lack of knowledge about well, what will be do I have to know how to accommodate this person. And yeah, don't be so scared. I also hear a lot of well, what about my floors? When I talked to gym teachers? Or did studio owners? Well, if those wheelchairs come, what about my floors? You don't actually get to discriminate against someone, because of your floors. But also, it'll be okay. So things like that, right? Should they all be accessible? Well, yeah. Anybody should... If you find that something's not a right fit for an individual, then a discussion about how to make that possible, or where might be a better fit? But there should be no barrier otherwise.
Sasha-Ann Simons: This is Reset, I'm Sasha and Simon's and we are talking about accessibility in the world of dance. To learn more, we are joined by Sarah Najera, artistic and executive director of MOMENTA Dance Company, and Ladonna Friedheim, wheelchair dancer, and everybody can dance teacher for MOMENTA. She's also the founder of ReinventAbility – that's a nonprofit that's promoting the joy of inclusive dance. I want to build on that point that Ladonna just made Sarah about just fear, right? From the perspective of the dance school, right? The administrators. You, Sarah are not living with a disability. So I wonder from your perspective, if there's ever a worry about perhaps choreography that might come across as offensive. You know, maybe making a dancers wheelchair feel like a prop of some sort, and how do you avoid something like that?
Sarah Najera: Yes. So as a choreographer who does not identify as a person with disabilities, as I mentioned before, I first make sure that I go in with a very open mind, and I'm ready to collaborate with the dancers. I might have a general outline of what I want or I know how I want a phrase to begin or end. But then I work with the dancers to get from one place to the next and in movement that works for them. I also try and not take an ableist approach to choreography. And an example of that would be that because I don't have a disability, and I'm working with dancers, who also don't have disability or dancers who do that I focus first on the non disabled dancer, and I teach them the phrase, and then always leave the disabled artists to translate the movement. Always leaving the responsibility of doing that to them. So I try, and although I don't have lived experience as a disabled person, when I'm creating choreographic phrase, I can consider that wheelchair dancer for example, first, and we create movement together and set that.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Yeah.
Sarah Najera: And then have the artist who does not have disabilities translate the movement to their body.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Ladonna, you are now a teacher for MOMENTA's everybody can dance program. Can you tell us about that? And who can join?
Ladonna Freidheim: Everybody!
Sasha-Ann Simons: Everybody can dance!
Ladonna Freidheim: Well, we do have zoom, and we'll be restarting in person. So really, it's open to people, not only in Chicago, but from all over. You know, we're inclusive, because we really welcome everyone. And we watch and listen to what they're, what people are able to do, what they're interested in doing, what they like. These classes are meant to be fun and help people's bodies feel better, feel well. As opposed to say, I don't mean to disarm ballet. I love ballet. Ballet is very structured.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Ballet is what started it for you.
Ladonna Freidheim: And I can adapt ballet, but right that's that's a very specific skill. The classes we have anyone could join and adapt and feel comfortable.
Sarah Najera: Can I add to that? Sure. So, we... That those everybody can dance is an inclusive creative workshop movement, we teach from a seated position. And we'll do exercises and warm ups. And then, we have a community question that's based on a theme. So for example, maybe we're talking about the elements. So we'll ask our participants, what's your... What element are you feeling today? And they might say fire. And then we invite them to create a gesture based on their answer. So it might be fingers flickering, and we invite everyone to do that. And then they've all contributed movement, and then we'll put that together and create a dance.
Sasha-Ann Simons: So everyone gets to be a choreographer.
Sarah Najera: Everyone is a choreographer and a collaborator. And we do it all together.
Sasha-Ann Simons: I love that. Well, you know, Ladonna, you started out by telling us about some of the challenges just throughout your dancing career, just because of lack of access, discrimination, right? s your body began to change, and your ability to move began to change. How does it feel now to see more people with disabilities being given the opportunity to just dance? You're like grinning from ear to ear.
Ladonna Freidheim: It's, it's such an accomplishment to go from... After a show that I did with a dance school, and I had an adult part in their kids production. And one of the little girls I danced with was walking past me with another little child and said, "That's the lady who dances in her wheelchair." And the other kid said, "you can't dance in a wheelchair." And this first little girl went on with such pride in her knowledge, that, Oh, yes, you can. You know that, that makes me happy and makes the world better. It means people who come after me will suffer less. Right? Laws are necessary. But if you don't change people's minds and hearts, well, they build ramps that don't lead to an accessible door here, things like that.
Sasha-Ann Simons: What would you want one of our listeners who may have a physical or an invisible disability. What would you want them to take away from today's conversation?
Ladonna Freidheim: Come dance with us. Right? Come dance with us. There's, there's people out there advocating. There's, we'll throw a family dance party for your whole community. Show up, people are not going to start. And this isn't just for the people with disabilities out there. If we don't ask a venue or you accessible before we book an event, well, why should they ever care? Right? We need to show up. We need to ask to be led in. And, yeah, to kids with disabilities. It's hard to advocate for yourself. But you can do it. And you can find my website and email me if someone's mean.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Sarah, what do you have to add to that? What should folks listening take away from today's conversation?
Sarah Najera: Well, as a director of a dance company, what I am hoping for is that people recognize physically integrated or inclusive dance as its own art form. Not just making that accessible for our dancers and our staff members and collaborators, but we make our events accessible for audience members who have disabilities and maybe don't want to be dancers, but want to enjoy the arts and see people who look like them on stage. So, when we do events, we make sure that our performance the theater is fully accessible that our guests with disabilities are entering in the same door as our guests who do not have disabilities. They're not asked to go around to the back. The theater has ample seating for wheelchair users. We provide American Sign Language interpreters, CART, Captioning, Audio Description, large print program so you can bring a service dog.
Sasha-Ann Simons: Wow, also important. And how can folks reach you?
Sarah Najera: MOMENTAdances.org. Sasha-Ann Simons Beautiful. That's Sarah Najera, the artistic and executive director of MOMENTA Dance Company, and Ladonna Freidheim, a wheelchair dancer, and everybody can dance teacher for MOMENTA. She's also the founder of ReinventAbility – that's a nonprofit that's promoting the joy of inclusive dance. Such a pleasure talking to you both. Thank you.
Ladonna Freidheim: Thank you.
Sarah Najera: Thank you.
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