Our newest company member Gemma Freitas Bender made her debut with GroundWorks during our Summer Dance Series at Cain Park in July. The Buffalo, New York-native, 23, and 2014-15 recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace USA Award, is thrilled to call Cleveland her newfound artistic home.

A graduate of the Juilliard School of Dance, Gemma has studied a wide variety of styles ranging from repertoire by Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Eliot Field and Murray Lewis, as well as new choreographies by Monica Bill Barnes, Emery LeCrone, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Larry Keigwin. She has performed as part of the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process, at The Chicago Dance Festival, and the Dizzy Feet Gala in LA.

Before joining GroundWorks, Gemma danced with Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal and traveled throughout North America, Europe and Asia. In 2017, she created and performed an original work at Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks alongside Blake Krapels and former GroundWorks dancer Michael Marquez.

Tell us a little bit about your dance background. Was pursuing a career in dance inevitable, being the daughter of a ballerina?

My mom was very serious ballerina growing up, seeing photos of her makes my heart so happy, she was beautiful! But she suffered from tendonitis and realized that pursuing a career was not in her heart. Though she loved ballet she didn’t have enough passion for it to push through the pain. A few years later, she met my dad and then got married.

She put me and my sister in dance mainly for the discipline and structure it provides. I don’t think she necessarily thought we would pursue it professionally. When I was two years old I took jazz and tap and combo classes. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I started taking my technique and ballet training seriously.

I’m from a small town outside of Buffalo, New York. I grew up in a competition background, performing at local and national competitions. When I was little I didn’t particularly have the “ballet body” (I was a bit pigeon toed and chubby). However, I had a ton of personality, I loved being on stage, and I had a drive that wouldn’t back down.

In middle school I grew and my body lengthened. I began to attend summer programs and truly set my mind on dance as my future. I realized how much I loved telling stories through my physicality. This art form gives me an outlet to express something greater.

How did you first hear about GroundWorks?

Michael Marquez [former GroundWorks dancer] was my classmate at Juilliard. He invited me to take ballet with GroundWorks. I really enjoyed getting to know the company. Then when Lauren Garson left, David (Shimotakahara) held a few auditions and asked me to participate. My husband, who got his graduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, is connected here so it made sense. I’m so happy to have an artistic home. I’m grateful to be working and doing what I love.

What do you look forward to contributing to the company?

I have never been in this small of a group. Having people like Damien, Felise, and Annika, who are so intelligent and seasoned in their careers, it’s so nice to be around them.

I love that we are all so different and that we bring unique strengths to the company. Every day, I am trying to bring my full self in order to contribute physically and verbally. However, I’m also mindful about stepping back to recognize how this experience is different than others I’ve had.

What do you think makes GroundWorks unique?

I think it’s amazing that David has established a living and breathing company in a world where it’s difficult to keep the arts alive. He’s provided a dance home and opportunity for many, and in a city that’s livable. I think it’s great that he’s remained in Cleveland to navigate and contribute to the dance scene here. That’s beautiful because why wouldn’t people in Cleveland want to experience dance? We shouldn’t feel as though New York and other big cities are the only places art thrives. I feel fortunate to be in a city like Cleveland where I get to do what I love without hustling to make ends meet.

What makes you unique as an artist?

I love to perform. I know that technically there’s always going to be somebody better. But I love learning and I love figuring out different ways to shape myself as a physical being. As an artist, I love that I get to do something that is relatable to all people. Dance is a universal language. For me, the end goal of dancing is giving a gift in performance. Sometimes, I feel like what I do is selfish because the amount of work we, dancers, do in order to maintain our bodies can feel excessive. But I have to constantly remind myself that ultimately it’s about the act of giving. That is my goal always – give to people, maybe even to help them love deeper, to see things a different a way, or just simply, to enjoy.

How do you prepare for a performance? Do you have a daily routine? Any good luck traditions?

The day of a performance, in the morning, I always eat my breakfast, drink my coffee, and journal. I love having that quiet time to journal. I also do a warmup in my living room, to set my body in the right frame of mind. Sometimes I do yoga before a show. I like to come to the theater somewhat warm. I love bananas and dark chocolate (dark chocolate with sea salt – 70 percent or darker). Before, during and after! For some reason, those two things have been the perfect combination. It’s enough sugar and energy to give me the boost I need. I usually eat a banana and have some chocolate an hour before a performance and then during intermission. And I always pray before a performance. I need my quiet time. It helps me to not make the performance the same as the day before, in terms of presenting my intent. Of course the steps and the counts and the accuracy needs to be the same, but the way it’s delivered can be different.

You’re fairly new to Cleveland. What have you enjoyed exploring? Do you have your favorite spots?

I love Chagrin Falls. My husband and I love to go there on Sundays and walk around. I love to go to Blossom. My husband has played there a few times with the Orchestra. In terms of restaurants, Town Hall and Greenhouse Tavern are my favorites. I’m also obsessed with Mitchell’s ice cream. I love the vegan sea salt caramel.