We had the good fortune of connecting with Yağmur Halezeroğlu and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Yağmur, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I am from Istanbul, Turkey. I grew up in a family of four, with my mom, dad and my older sister. I also have four cousins and two aunts from my mom’s side of the family who I am very close with. I grew up in a family that was very hardworking, my parents are both physicians. And kind of unconsciously and somewhat consciously, my sister and I also loved studying and learning. That is what we saw from our parents and it felt like the right thing to do. I also had a nanny who took care of me from the age of zero to eighteen while my parents were at work. We saw her as part of the family and aside from my biological family, she has been someone who played an important role in my life. Growing up in Istanbul, you are always surrounded by conversations on politics, mainly in the Middle East but also in the world. Whether you go to a cafe to drink tea or Turkish coffee with friends or you get together for a dinner, the conversation always comes to politics. Although my family didn’t like to talk about politics too much, I was exposed to it at school and from my friend groups.
It wasn’t until I came to the U.S. for my undergraduate studies that I realized how lucky I was to grow up in Istanbul, in a city surrounded by history and years cultural exchange in every corner. And its hard to say how exactly it has impacted me, but it continuous to give me a magical feeling every time I wonder around the streets of the old city and watch the seagulls fly across the minarets of mosques built during the Roman Empire.
Growing up in Turkey and my upbringing was also centered around music, dance and arts. I found arts to be a sanctuary from everyday life and it continues to give me the sense of freedom I need everyday. And though we do have a lot of artists and musicians in Turkey, I also saw how they weren’t respected or acknowledged as much as engineers, politicians or doctors were. They also struggled to find job opportunities, so it made me feel less inclined to consider these hobbies as my work. Though I still find ways to bring these creative forms of expression into my work whatever I do.
Growing up in Turkey, I mainly spoke Turkish and interacted with Turkish and Kurdish people. I grew up in a culture that I saw as my own, which was a great privilege and it gave me a sense of belonging. However, I also noticed how my freedom and opportunities were limited in certain ways but especially as a woman. I enjoyed living in Turkey, but I wanted to experience something new, push myself to grow and therefore found myself in the U.S. for my undergraduate studies. My family supported me in many ways which I’m grateful for everyday and they continue to be one of my main sources of support. I think no matter what I do, no matter where I go, I always look for and find joy in that sense of family, love and belonging.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Currently I am a medical student but for the last two years before my medical studies, I was the Executive Director and co-founder at Dance for All Bodies, a non-profit organizing virtual and accessible dance classes for people of all abilities. In June 2021, I stepped back from my role as the co-Executive Director of DfAB to a Board of Directors role, with a strong confidence in our new disabled leadership. With the current leadership, we are able to serve our community much more effectively while staying true to our mission of dismantling ableism.
The inspiration behind Dance for All Bodies (DfAB) came from a one time dance class I organized for an amputee support group as a volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital. I left this class in August 2018 feeling a beautiful spark in her heart. I saw people enjoying moving their bodies, being creative and connecting with each other in new ways. Participants left the event asking when the next dance class would be and thus, I hatched a plan to satisfy this demand. I quickly realized that I needed an accomplice who shared my desire to make dance a more inclusive art form. This brought Tess, a close friend of mine who is also a dancer, into the project.
After some research, we learned that there were no organizations that focus on organizing all bodies inclusive dance classes in the Bay Area. As two dancers without disabilities who have the privilege of extensive dance training, we decided to make what was available to them available to people with disabilities too. Thus, to make high quality, inclusive dance classes a reality we started working with experienced dance teachers with physical disabilities or who have worked in such spaces, making the dance class a positive and encouraging environment. In the earlier part of 2019, we organized 5 more dance classes which were taught by dancers involved with AXIS Dance Company, a physically integrated dance company in Oakland. With mentoring from Marc Brew, AXIS’s Artistic Director, they were awarded 2nd place in the Arts & Social Change Category of Big Ideas, an early stage social impact contest.
Since August 2018, we have organized more than 100 virtual dance classes and impacted more than 1200 individuals thanks to funding from ZSFGH, Big Ideas and individual donors. After a year of organizing in person classes in the Bay Area, we have transitioned to organizing classes online through the Zoom platform due to COVID-19 pandemic. Through virtual classes, we have been able to reach people from all over the world – US, UK, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, Canada, Belgium and more.
Starting and leading DfAB has been challenging, rewarding and humbling. I feel proud to see that people believed in my ability to turn an idea into reality. I feel humbled by how much more there is for me to learn as a nondisabled ally and leader in the non-profit space.
While building DfAB from the ground up with my co-founder, we ran into challenges in funding and failed to find physically accessible dance spaces. These challenges stifled our motivation to keep going. Eventually, after several moments of despair, we realized that we needed to assemble a team to help us build the DfAB we envisioned. So, we channeled our energy into recruiting volunteers. Expanding our team from two to eight members this year has been one of the best outcomes we’ve had as leaders. Having a team to rely on has allowed DfAB to expand its programming and reach a wider audience. This experience also taught me the importance that community has in building resilience and motivation, a valuable lesson for my future career as a physician.
Another challenge I faced as a leader was understanding the reasons behind the low participation in our classes, whether in person or virtual. Although I had done extensive research and organized pilot classes, it wasn’t until I began educating myself about disability justice that I recognized how, as a non-disabled individual, I hadn’t fully comprehended the everyday challenges people with disabilities faced. One of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, is seeing how much more there is for me to learn, to never make assumptions about anyone and to always keep an open heart.
What I want the world to know is art is healing. Dance, music, creativity in all forms is healing. And always remember this: If you have a body, you can be a dancer! So play some music and dance wherever you are, no matter how you feel or how you look. Have fun and keep sharing your joy with others.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I would take my friend on a hike up on UC Berkeley’s campus, where I used to run as an undergrad with one of my close friends. I would take them to the apartment I lived in for three years, the performance center I worked in as a student and a lot of restaurants — especially for Ethiopian, Thai and Indian food. I would introduce her to my close friends in the area. I would take them to Lake Merritt and the building where I used to go swing dancing every week. I would also take them to the beautiful parks of San Francisco and then to do waterfront, because my best friend and I love walking by the Bosphorus in Istanbul, so it will be a similar experience.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
– My family; my parents, my sister, cousins, aunts – My friends who continue believe in me and listen to me with empathy
– Dance for All Bodies team who has allowed our non-profit to create a sense of community and create an impact larger than we could have imagined
– My mentors, advisors, teachers and physicians who support me in my medical education and my social advocacy work
Image Descriptions (1) The first image is a photo of a sunrise, with the sun hiding behind low mountains and bright redish-orange sunlight tones shining through. The colors of the orange sunlight and the blue sky reflects on a calm, silky sea water with small ripples. The sky is clear and is soft blue at the top, transitioning to white and a bright orange color towards the sunlight. Image Description (2) This is a painting of a man leaning on one leg bent and woman in a wheelchair with their arm reaching towards the man’s face. He wears a black suit and she has short black hair and wears a mini dress with ruffles. The painting is bordered by purple paint and is filled in with green, yellow and pink highlighting. The quote “You are your own worst critic. You are doing amazing. Remember you are doing differently, not less.” is placed on the upper lefthand corner and is highlighted in pink.