Since its founding in 1971, the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park has been dedicated to teaching students across the entire range of physical and mental abilities. During the last six years, their "Every Body Can Dance" workshops have attracted dancers who face intellectual and physical challenges, in addition to able-bodied students.
One of the workshop's newest instructors, Sarah Cullen Fuller, is not only an alumnus of the Academy; she gained experience working with physically-challenged dancers through Hubbard Street's Parkinson's Project.
"It's quite a wonderful job," Fuller said of the workshops at the Academy of Movement and Music. "It provides an avenue for disabled dancers, while inspiring dancers without disabilities." The workshops are held from 1-4 p.m., the third Sunday of the month, from September to May. This year the program has attracted 15 dancers, from teenage to middle age.
"It's very individualized," said Fuller. "Each dancer said what they wanted to work on. They talk about finding their strengths and identifying areas where they need improvement."
The workshop includes dancers with intellectual as well as physical disabilities, including a participant with cerebral palsy and a double-amputee.
"When we're teaching, we always look for possibilities, rather than what they can't do," Fuller said. "We're always raising the bar." Besides learning to dance, the program also offers opportunities to choreograph.
The Sept. 9 session started with warm-up exercises during which the dancers were encouraged to improvise. "This turned into a group dance," she observed, "and finally a mini-performance. It was very collaborative. The advanced dancers there were learning just as much as the disabled ones."
"I don't know of any other school that does this," Fuller continued, "but there's more and more need to bring the arts to everybody."
It's not only the students who benefit. "At the end of the day, they're teaching us," she said. "I've learned so much more movement vocabulary that I can incorporate into my choreography."
Besides learning to push themselves as dancers, the students form some solid friendships. "Some have been dancing at the academy since they were 3 years old," said Fuller. "It's a familiar, safe environment. The staff at the academy is incredibly dedicated to providing space for people to dance and express themselves."
The workshop also gives students opportunities to achieve beyond the academy's walls. The dancers will get a chance to perform at festivals for dancers with disabilities in Chicago and St. Louis. Another highlight will be a joint workshop at OPRF High School in conjunction with the Best Buddies organization.
"We're expecting 60-70 participants," she said. "We'll pair up people with similar mental and physical abilities."
Fuller herself started dancing at the academy at the age of 6 and starred in productions of The Nutcracker at the Arie Crown Theater. She toured the world with the Hubbard Street Dancers before taking on the joys and responsibilities of raising two young boys. She is currently teaching ballet as an adjunct professor at Loyola University.
"I love to teach and being part of the process of becoming a better dancer," she observed. "It's incredibly rewarding."
Fuller described longtime teacher Kris Lenzo, a dancer with a disability for whom the term "wheelchair bound" is highly relative, as one of the catalysts of the workshop. Lenzo returned the compliment.
"Sarah choreographed a duet for me. She's a great dancer and an awesome teacher."
He first became involved with the academy a decade ago when his daughter, Olivia, enrolled there as a pre-school student. "I suggested to Stephanie [Clemens, executive director] that they install a ramp for the disabled. I didn't want to crawl in," said Lenzo, a bilateral, above-the-knee amputee. "A year or two later, she raised the money. She put in a ramp, a lift and handicap-accessible bathrooms."
"To commemorate making the building accessible," he continued, "a composer wrote a piece for disabled dancers." Although he had no background in dance, Lenzo agreed to perform. Five-year-old Olivia was also on board. It helped that her teacher, Larry Ippel, was the choreographer.
"I really enjoyed the process from idea to dance," he said. "We performed it in November 2000 — a live performance with original music."
Lenzo, a championship caliber wheelchair athlete, later starred in a duet called "Ashes." The piece called for him to be strapped upside down in an apparatus 8 feet off the ground and perform lifts of his partner, Sandra Kauffmann. "It was a really challenging 9- to 10-minute piece," he recalled. His firsthand knowledge of the difficulties facing disabled dancers made him a natural to become a teacher with Every Body Can Dance.
Lenzo's wife, Sheri, has also been a tremendous help. "She's a physical therapist with 30 years' experience working with kids and adults with disabilities," he said. "She knows what moves are feasible and understands how it works. She helps us tailor our instruction, warm-up and choreography.
"At the workshop, everyone gets an opportunity to create a dance and perform it," Lenzo added. "We can have a 16-year-old ballerina who's top-notch or a dancer with a severe disability who can barely move their extremities. Everyone benefits from the workshop. It's productive, fun and engaging and leads to different performance opportunities."
These include participating in dance concerts each November and March for Momenta, the adult troupe that includes older academy dancers plus alumni and special guests.
"We've also performed at the Disability Pride Parade for several years," Lenzo noted. "I'm thankful that I got involved in the workshop. It's gratifying in several ways. It mixes able-bodied with disabled dancers and fosters a better understanding between the groups."
In the future, Lenzo hopes to perform for disabled vets at the VA to introduce them to dance.
Inclusion of dancers of all abilities has been academy director Stephanie Clemens' goal for four decades. After all, the building is handicap-accessible, she said, thanks in part to Lenzo "growling" at her. They received $75,000 from HUD and matched that grant to complete the modifications. "It's been our mission from the beginning to accommodate dancers with disabilities," she observed.
Clemens doesn't teach at the workshop. "I'm a facilitator. I kind of hover, open the door, and serve the snack." She's committed to coming for all the Sunday sessions, as is her partner Mike Dutka. "It's such an extraordinary thing. It teaches understanding and compassion. One dancer can be in a wheelchair and the other able-bodied, but they're just a couple of teenage girls."
One of the workshop's longtime teachers was Ginger Lane, who was injured in a skiing accident in her 40s. "Ginger and Kris were our first two wheelchair instructors," she recalls. "Kris is so strong and athletic. He's capable of making moves that make me feel disabled." Lane was also a trouper but physical difficulties and a long commute led to her retirement. Clemens misses her. "She adored the music and the teaching."
The journey has been exciting, Clemens added. "It's certainly been educational for me. One of our first students had to be carried up the stairs. She was legally blind and had cerebral palsy. She did floor exercises before being helped to the bar. The teacher moved her legs through the exercises. At her last recital, she did the polka and other dances.
"Many of the dancers with disabilities have the best smiles in the world," she noted. "They're ecstatic, beguiling and contagious." Clemens was pleased to have Fuller become part of the program. "I've known Sarah since she was 6. I knew she had been working with dancers with Parkinson's."
Another workshop stalwart is Ippel, who has been with the academy for over 30 years. "We've had dancers with Down syndrome, autism, hydrocephalic," he said, "and we've mainstreamed them into the program. It helps them develop good problem-solving skills, observation skills and self-awareness. They learn to become comfortable with themselves in the arts and find the creative individual inside.
"Many of the mentally-challenged aren't getting enough exercise," he continued. "Some are frightened of physical challenges. I see tremendous growth at the workshops and how they develop social bonds."
Ippel has had an interest in art education since he was 12. "I was a Fine Art major in college when I discovered dance in my sophomore year. Dance satisfied me physically, so I gave up athletics." He went on to the California Institute of the Arts, where he taught creative movement for kids.
Over the past six years, he's seen Every Body Can Dance workshops grow. In addition to the Best Buddies partnership, the group participated in a workshop at Misrecordia that drew over 70 dancers. "Performing outside the academy is giving them more exposure," he noted. Like Lenzo, he sees dance as a creative way for disabled veterans to express themselves.
"We're looking for more adults with disabilities. It would allow them to be creative and give them satisfaction. The concepts of art don't change, but it's interesting to see how people use these concepts." He gave the example of a young woman confined to a motorized wheelchair who has choreographed two dances. Ippel believes the burden is on teachers to reach these dancers. "If a student doesn't understand, it's not their fault. I ask myself, 'How do I communicate with these students?' It's been very challenging."