The Mind controls the Body…
Meeting Zazel, an actress, model and dancer, it is not immediately obvious that she has a physical disability. Her exuberance and colourful taste in fashion makes her light up any room; a witty character full of life and charm, she has a dazzle to her smile that further compliments her persona.
This New Yorker, originally from Montserrat, a small Caribbean Island also popularly known as Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, was diagnosed with a benign meningioma, a brain tumour, 12 years ago. This diagnosis, following a previous health concern, was threatening to unravel Zazel’s career but she had other plans!
Embracing a New Life.
Throughout the early ordeal with her illness, the doctors diagnosis was pretty grim, to say the least. She was told the tumour was big, approximately 4.5 inches long, and that it sat precariously behind her ear lobe. She was told her best option was radiation therapy because the tumour was too large to take out. Another physician she consulted agreed the tumour was large, but that surgery would be possible, but difficult. She was also warned the surgery may result in her paralysis.
Though the prognosis was gloomy, Zazel never feared she would never be able to dance again. All she wanted to do was get better! With the immense support of her friends and family, and the acknowledgement that God is good, she made it through. After a series of occupational, speech and physical therapy, Zazel begin to pick up her life again.
She asked her friends to “Stretch me, stretch me!”, and within days of her surgery, she got movement back in her limbs. Within weeks, she was fit enough to take a trip to the Caribbean Island to recuperate, a time she felt was crucial in her long road to recovery. Time that eventually helped her find a path back to life, a new life embracing Dance.
One poignant incident Zazel remembers was when a friend told her she needed a jazz dance teacher, and though she had only just recovered from the surgery, was encouraged to take on this new challenge. This turned out to be an amazing opportunity. Her dance sessions were a great success and only after so many sessions did someone ask why she walked with a limp. Incredibly, all this time no one recognised she was partially paralysed!
Question: What has been your single greatest inspiration for your form of performance art?
“African Culture and the African dance experience has been my biggest Inspiration. I studied dance throughout my life, both in the US and in Europe, and being true to my art form continually inspires me to explore this dance form even further.”
The renowned African-American choreographer and dancer, Alvin Ailey (1931 – 1989) influenced Zazel’s early interest in Dance. His dynamic, vibrant blend of ballet, modern jazz and African dance was a huge inspiration and she continues to follow this legacy. Still slightly paralysed on one side, Zazel demonstrates and performs movements using the art forms from a chair with the same style and authenticity.
Her favourite dance routine is Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”, his most popular and critically acclaimed work from 1960. Ailey drew upon influence from African-American spirituality, the blues, and gospel songs, and also his blood memories of Texas, exploring places of deepest grief. He said one of America’s richest treasures was the African-American cultural heritage – “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.” This sounds to me very much the same spirit Zazel operates in, experiencing triumph where trials previously prevailed.
Question: Do you feel well-received by the dance community in-spite of your physical challenge?
“The dance community continues to embrace me because I offer challenging, inspiring classes and performances, demonstrating directly that physical challenges need not limit anyone’s passion for living. I convey an upbeat energy and provide individuals with moments of pure joy. I feel it is important that the audience is able to respond to the performance, and that’s where the energy I get back becomes a reflection of the love I respond to.”
The “work-in-progress’ dance presentation which Zazel held in November 2013 went extremely well. See an example of her work in the video below.
dance frees her, helping her express beauty and gratitude through the performance.”
I find this dance routine and performance truly catching! Watching this, one can feel her sense of freedom, especially from any physical disability. The energy, exuberance and physicality she displays captivates and almost mesmerises her audience. It is my assertion that her dance frees her, helping her express beauty and gratitude through the performance. I think, that in itself, is a powerful message!
Question: What part has faith played in your capacity to use your “alternate ability”? (I use the term “alternate” to represent the great abilities people with physical disabilities have, use and manifest).
“I always tell myself that “The Mind Controls the Body”. And as my journey continues, I embrace an inner peace. My life reflects God’s peace within. My Faith means I believe, and my conviction is for a new and better life ahead.”
A poem Zazel wrote embodies her response to her physical challenge, and this renewed approach to life.
I have made a new life through dance,
I have risen above my body’s deficits,
And have embraced a new beautiful body and the illumination of a life force!
I have recreated myself through dance,
Movements entice me and excite my soul, triggering passion,
Love, fulfilment and Joy.” – Zazel-Chavah O’Garra
Zazel-Chavah O’Garra, MSW
Performer, Motivational Speaker.
John F. Kennedy Center National Teaching Artist Fellow