For Barbara Allegra Verlezza, art is about acceptance and empowerment. The Kent State University Associate Professor of Dance has focused much of her career on using her art form to promote artistic growth and physical and emotional wellness in her students with and without disabilities, believing that a disability shouldn’t prevent a person from enjoying dance.
“The improvement for participants is the self-identification,” she says. “They identify themselves as dancers. For those who just want the opportunity to be in the room, that’s true equity; to gain confidence in their bodies and to feel beautiful when so often they are told they are not.”
As the current Associate Director of Verlezza Dance and former co-director of Dancing Wheels, Barbara has worked with individuals with disabilities for over 20 years, including senior adults through the HELP Foundation, Inc. and the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Barbara has built a career based on inclusion in the arts for people of all ages and abilities.
While she began a successful dance career in New York City, Barbara has called Kent State University her home since 2003.
“I came here originally as guest faculty and loved the university atmosphere,” she says. “Kent called in 2003 with an open position and I never left. I was embraced as an educator right from the get go. I love the intimacy in the School of Theatre and Dance; everyone knows each other. We support each other and our students, which is so important in the performing arts where every victory and every failure is public.”
Through Kent State, she also found a place that honors this goal of acceptance, which she’s felt through her own experience and that of her son, Sabatino A. Verlezza ‘12, who struggled with depression and its unhealthy remedy of self-harm.
It’s at KSU that he found a safe place to distance himself from these destructive habits. In this environment, he flourished as a healthy, engaged and productive young adult. And it’s also where he grew as a professional. Following in his parents’ footsteps, he now is a full company member with RIOULT Dance NY.
“My time at Kent State helped develop me not only as an artist and a person, but as a young professional entering the field of dance,” he says. “I built a family of friends, a wealth of knowledge, and a network of tools that will never leave me."
Understanding the financial barriers involved with higher education, and the arts, Barbara has established the May O’Donnell Memorial Dance Award Scholarship Fund* to help students like her son pursue their dreams.
“I wish I could do more. I have met so many students who have the talent, who have the passion, who have the rigor it takes to make it, but they don’t have the funds they need to succeed. It is crucial to find a way to support our students financially,” she says.
(*To give to the May O'Donnell Memorial Dance Award Scholarship Fund, use the link above or the Give Now link below, select "Featured Fund" as the Gift Type, then choose "May O'Donnell Memorial Dance Award Scholarship Fund" as the Program.)