Owner of Oak Park’s Academy of Movement and Music and founder of the MOMENTA dance company, Stephanie Clemens is as self-deprecating, funny and cracklingly intelligent as she is devoted to the work of spreading her love of dance far and wide. Decades into an effort to include the full spectrum of differently abled in her programming and repertoire, Clemens has been a lynchpin and driving force for physically integrated dance in the city and beyond. We recently sat down to discuss her history, goals and the bonds of friendship that have developed over her years of collaboration with others.
Tell me a little about your background, how you first became interested in dance and how you established your Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park.
I have been dancing all my life. I grew up in Hollywood, California and lived next door to the great Diaghilev dancer Adolph Bolm, who suggested to my mother that I study ballet. I had been taking dance informally at the one-room school house I attended as a child, and began formal ballet training at age eight. However, my babysitters when I was very young were dancers with the Ruth St. Denis Dancers in California and, at age seven, I made a dreadful stage debut with them in “Samson and Delilah.” Since I did not know the bible story and had no rehearsal, but was simply asked to take a man to the middle of the stage, I was horrified when the pillars fell and all the dancers dropped to the floor—except me. I started crying and saying I wanted to go home. I started teaching in my living room in Oak Park in 1971, I also taught in the homes of some friends and at a couple preschools. I then shared space at a Tai Chi studio still on South Boulevard, then in 1973 moved into a little storefront next door. The school was first called the Academy of Creative and Corrective Movement and, using my background in anatomy and therapeutic floor exercises, incorporated this into training young dancers with and without disabilities. I was joined by two other teachers, lifelong friends. Larry Ippel had worked with students with disabilities, and from the beginning, we welcomed kids who had challenges. The school grew and was incorporated in 1977 as the Academy of Movement and Music. When I bought the old Bishop Quarter building from the village of Oak Park, we incorporated MOMENTA Dance Company in 1983, as the space had the potential to be developed into a performance space.
What has traditionally been the focus of the curricula you offer, and why?
The Academy is an institution that offers 1) a preschool for children twenty-two months and up—it is a preschool based in the arts and teaches very young children movement, music, visual arts, stories and S.T.E.M. activities—preschool A.R.T.S (arts readiness training school) prepares children for kindergarten and for continuing to discover the world through the arts and 2) a dance program that is grounded in a developmental curriculum for classical ballet, codified modern techniques like Graham, Humphrey and jazz. The dance program is closely tied to MOMENTA and our faculty choreographs and performs, as well as coaches and stages historical repertory. Since we have our own performance space we have a number of school recitals each year, and MOMENTA transforms our big gymnasium space into a black-box theater that seats 175 people. MOMENTA does about twenty performances a year. MOMENTA’s mission is to produce excellence in dance, and to do that, we embrace four goals: first, to stage important historical repertory—ballet and modern—this means staging Bournonville, St. Leon, Petipa and Fokine, side by side with Oak Park native Doris Humphrey, and other great moderns like Graham, St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Charles Weidman and Loie Fuller; secondly, to commission contemporary choreography primarily by Chicago-area artists and to collaborate with Chicago-area musical and visual artists; third, to train young dancers in performance skills; and lastly, to incorporate dancers and choreographers with disabilities into our repertory and performances. We have been doing physically integrated dance for almost fifteen years now, and this makes us one of the oldest dance companies doing this work in the US—along with AXIS Dance Company in San Francisco, Dancing Wheels in Ohio, Full Radius Dance in Georgia, and Heidi Latsky in NYC. We also offer workshops, called Everybody Can Dance, throughout the year for dancers with and without disabilities, and we have for the past eight years co-produced Counter Balance with Access Living in Chicago. Counter Balance is a dance festival for physically integrated dance (PID).
How many students are currently enrolled and where do you see the academy going in the future?
We have just over 600 students currently enrolled; many of them come multiple days a week. We have had an initiative for the past three years to make the old building more sustainable so we can be more energy efficient, and have been improving the building with tuckpointing and a new roof with insulation, energy efficient electrical fixtures and circulating fans, thermostatic valves on radiators. All of this is to make it possible for the younger generation of teachers to be able to continue the missions of the Academy and MOMENTA going forward. The Academy and MOMENTA are important institutions in the Oak Park-area community and the Oak Park-area community is a great home for the institutions. I am a founding member of the Oak Park-area arts council, and have always felt that the arts organizations in this area are good for business, good for the economic development of the community and, most of all, good for the children of this community.
How did you initially become aware of PID and what drew you to incorporating it into your work with MOMENTA?
From the get-go in the 1970s we accepted children with cognitive and physical disabilities; we incorporated them into our preschool and dance classes and, since 2003 have incorporated dancers who use wheelchairs into our performances and classes. Initially all our students with disabilities had to be able to walk pretty well, but now, since we wrote grants and raised funds totaling $150,000 to make the building accessible with a ramp, lift and accessible bathrooms, we welcome many different kinds of disabilities. We are currently working with someone who is deaf and learning to work with ASL interpreters in class and performance.
You work with a number of organizations, including Backbones, run by Reveca Torres—tell me about them and how that and similar partnerships have come about?
The disability-culture community in Chicago has a central hub at Access Living—Ginger Lane, who was one of our first PID dancers, happened to have her grandson at our school. We invited her to dance with us, and through her, and Kris Lenzo, we have become part of BOW (Bodies of Work) and gotten to know many different people who are artists with different kinds of disabilities. Kris Lenzo is a double amputee who is/was primarily a wheelchair-racing and Chicago Bulls athlete—he once told me that most of us are TABS (temporarily able-bodied), when we are young, but as life happens to us, we become disabled in different ways—as I get older I realize how true this is. I met Reveca through Access Living, through the Midwest convening for PID and through BOW. Reveca is the founder of Backbones, an organization primarily for people with spinal cord injuries, and through her, we have done one workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and now will do another. These workshops are like our Everybody Can Dance that we have here at home, but have also done at Misericordia and at Shriners. It is all a matter of being open to inclusion and networking. Incidentally, the Academy also employs people with disabilities—including an aide with cerebral palsy and a pianist on the autism spectrum. Most recently, one of our alums, Jessica Martin produced her own PID dance concert at Links Hall. Jessica has studied dance at the Academy and performed with MOMENTA for ten years. At the last Backbones-sponsored workshop at the Old Town School we discovered a wonderful new dancer Vincenzo Tufano. Vince uses a chair since an injury, but was an actor/singer as a child at Lyric Opera and worked as a dancer at Disney World. Ginger Lane and I immediately recruited him for MOMENTA and he performed wonderfully in our March concerts. We are excited to do the workshop for Backbones on April 22.
Backbones and MOMENTA Dance Company’s Dance Revolution 2 takes place at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, (773)728-6000. $10, tickets are available at oldtownschool.org/classes/detail/?courseid=5595. For more info on Academy of Movement and Music, visit academyofmovementandmusic.com.