What is Your Passion for Dance?

 This project is currently on hold until later in 2016.

By Amy Meisner-Threet, SAG-AFTRA, MSW

To dance or not to dance? That is not even a consideration for many despite what may appear to others to be obvious obstacles. By creating the full length documentary film A Passion for Dance, Dancer Donna Russo and Choreographer Tam Warner are determined to change the conversation about what it means to be a dancer. The Indiegogo campaign, launched in an effort to gather enough funds, interest and momentum to take this message worldwide, will end on Sunday, December 6. Now is your chance to support the film and make an enormous impact on the lives of dancers with disabilities.

Where the Passion Began

Donna Russo and a Passion for Dance

In March of 2014 at the Abilities Expo in Los Angeles, California, producers Lew Shomer and David Korse, were particularly struck by a dancer named Donna Russo. Donna, a woman who had been a professional dancer her entire life, quietly took center stage after walking out using a cane, clearly experiencing some mobility issues, and sat on a chair.

The music to "I Won't Give Up," began to play and two able-bodied female dancers joined Donna. The effect was astounding. Moved by this performance, which was choreographed by Tam Warner, Lew and David saw a story that needed to be told. They saw an opportunity to share not only Donna's journey, but also to explore the lives of other dancers with disabilities through a full-length documentary film. Director Abbi O'Neill joined the team, and A Passion for Dance was born.

Donna Russo: The Journey of a Dancer

Donna's early diagnosis of a chromosomal anomaly called Turners Syndrome was the first challenge to her passion for dancing. Even though it affected her height, it turned out to be no match. In fact, Donna's diminutive 4'5" stature is something that would ultimately make her quite employable. She makes it clear that everything she does is perfectly in proportion!

Donna's parents gave Donna, her brother and two sisters piano lessons, but Donna felt the urge to explore other arts early on. She convinced her parents, after considerable begging and support from her sister Marie, to enroll her in ballet, tap and, finally, acting lessons. She recalled that she would use her completed homework assignments as a bargaining chip to attend dance class.

Donna Russo and a Passion for Dance

Donna quickly realized she had an affinity for performing. "I loved the connection with the audience. It takes me somewhere else," she said. Following high school, she became a dance major at Mercy Hurst College in Philadelphia. She studied many styles of dance--including modern (i.e. Jose Limon and Isadore Duncun) and classical ballet--and enrolled in improvisation classes. The artistic world as her oyster, she relished the freedom to explore.

Her early auditions made it apparent that she would be typecast by her stature. She danced with a few companies in the Philadelphia area and subsidized her passion with the requisite "survival jobs," such as waitressing and teaching aerobics. Determined to forge her dreams into a viable career, Donna headed for the West Coast and turned her size into an employable commodity.

Donna moved out to California and in with her sister Marie and brother-in-law, Frank, both musicians. While she continued to teach aerobics, and had success in landing costume character work. She loved it, but continued to hone her craft though acting improv classes. She played monsters, aliens and joined productions of Alvin & the Chipmunks.

Somehow she managed to squeeze music videos, the soap opera Passions, industrials and a wide variety of roles including a leprechaun and Alice in Wonderland for private parties.

At this time, she began to notice that her muscles were becoming weaker and that her range of motion was becoming more and more hampered. The FSH Muscular Dystrophy diagnosis would become another hurdle for Donna to clear as she continued to pursue her passion. She discovered Career Transitions for Dancers, where she met Tam Warner.

Tam Warner: Passion for Life

Tam Warner, choreographer of Donna's initial performance, is a seriously trained dancer. Due in part to the constant encouragement and support from her mother, Tam earned a scholarship with famous dancer/choreographer Bella Lewitsky and studied classical ballet. She later added modern, jazz and tap to her repertoire.

Donna Russo and a Passion for Dance

"There was a lot of work for dancers in TV specials, industrials, etc." Tam recounted. A testament to her presence and prowess, Tam was hired at the very first audition she ever attended even though she was only there to accompany a friend. Jaime Rogers, one of the Sharks from West Side Story was choreographing, and singled her out to come in and audition. The rest evolved into an incredible 25-year career.

When asked what some of her favorite memories are, she remarked how much she enjoyed working as a dancer on the Andy Williams Show. She mentions being pregnant with her son Drew and later bringing him to rehearsals with magician David Copperfield when he was only two. Tam recalled her work with Tony Bennett and what a nice man he was. Once when her son was crying, Tony said, "bring that kid over here" so he could comfort the boy.

Tam began to find a niche as an assistant choreographer and worked extensively with female choreographer Tad Tadlock. Tam said she had the sense to realize "you can't dance forever and so I fell into jobs assisting." While she had a gift for this often challenging role, Tam echoed Donna's mantra of "hard work, determination and never giving up" as the key. In the 80s, she became known as "the stage choreographer."

Meeting of the Minds and Passions

When these two extraordinary women met and bonded over their passion for dance, their stories began to overlap. It was a fortuitous encounter for them both. Tam wanted to start a program for older dancers that incorporated both writing and movement. Donna was seeking to increase her range of movement and explore other creative outlets.

As a result of their strong connection, Donna asked Tam to choreograph something for her. Though the challenge was energetically accepted, the project took time to get off the ground due to Tam's health issues. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and what followed was nothing short of a nightmare. Five bypasses and an open heart surgery were followed three years later by a diagnosis of giant cell arteritis. She required two stints and androplasty to close one of the arteries that had opened.

Taking travel risks

Those trials strengthened Tam's resolve to continue her work. And the ensuing "I Won't Give Up" performance only whetted Donna and Tam's appetite to make an even great impact on the world of dance. Through A Passion for Dance, this dynamic duo is committed to showing the world that "dancers with disabilities still have something to offer."

"I can't wait to get in the studio with other dancers and create," says Donna. "I want to open the doors to be all inclusive."

Will you help create a documentary film that shares the challenges and triumphs of dancers with disabilities? Please contribute what you can you to A Passion for Dance Indiegogo campaign before December 6. You can also follow the film on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About the author:

Ms. Amy Meisner-Threet (aka Amy M. Threet) has a Masters Degree in Social Work, is a professional dancer/actress and a published writer on disability issues and the arts. She can be reached at flowslaw@yahoo.com, on Facebook and through online searches for her articles and interviews.

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