Cleveland’s feminist chorus, Windsong, is celebrating an anniversary almost as old as modern-day feminism itself. This little-known cultural gem began 40 years ago with just a few members and has grown into a thriving arts mainstay since becoming official in 2002.
Now 45 members strong, the chorus is helmed by artistic director Heather Russell, pianist Karin Tooley, and narrator Argerie Vasilakes—and its diverse set of members believes Windsong’s bold, unapologetic feminist moniker is as relevant as it was back in 1979.
“Windsong is Cleveland’s loudest cultural voice specifically for feminism,” says member Elaine Schleiffer, “and we’re proud to bill ourselves as Cleveland’s ‘Feminist Chorus.’ We offer a space where woman-identified people from all backgrounds and experiences can relate and connect.”
Windsong’s history as a choir is as storied as the history of second-wave feminism. A few participants started the chorus in 1979 under the name “Cleveland Women’s Chorus” before landing on Windsong, Cleveland’s Feminist Chorus, in 1996. While sometimes controversial, the label of “feminist” had long been a key aspect of the choir’s mission.
“We’ve marched and rallied and been very much a part of Cleveland’s feminist scene across the decades,” says Schleiffer. “Some of our founding members still sing with us and helped us grow into the community that we are today.”
Today, the chorus includes both singing and non-singing participants and is supported by a volunteer group known as the Grace Notes who assist with making performances run smoothly. And over time—just like the faces of feminism—the chorus has become more diverse, according to Schleiffer: “Our choir members come from five counties, different generations, and use lots of different words to describe their age, gender, and sexuality.”
Another aspect of fulfilling Windsong’s feminist mission has been embracing accessibility in the arts in all its forms. “We are a non-audition choir, which means that all are welcome no matter their history or experience with reading music, performing, or singing in a choir,” she explains, adding that the choir also offers scaled membership dues and seeks out ADA-compliant venues to remove barriers to participation. ASL interpreter Dwana Crawford also provides her services at major Windsong concerts.
One of the choir's goals for the future is to participate even more immersively in the community. “Windsong has a long history of performing in the community, from Hessler Street Fairs in the 1970s and 1980s to protests for women’s rights across the past 40 years,” says Schleiffer. Now, that legacy continues with participation in Cleveland’s Pride events and arts festivals, pop-up concerts in the Metroparks, and collaborations with other area organizations like the Columbus Women’s Chorus and the North Coast Men’s Chorus.
“We want to continue to…[engage] with people who are open to a dialogue about the importance of feminism, the right of all people to express themselves, and the beauty of performing diverse music from a variety of writers, lyricists, arrangers, and composers,” says Schleiffer.
In fact, she shares, the most rewarding aspect of owning the word “feminist” has been the community conversations and dialogue that have arisen out of it. “What we’ve realized in conversation with audience members and community members,” she shares, “is that calling ourselves a feminist chorus has been an opportunity to talk with folks about what feminism means to them, their own experiences of feminism or sexism, and how each and every one of them is welcome in our feminist community. So while there are challenges to taking what some might call a political stance, there has been a lot of joy in it for us, too.”
Up next for Windsong are several celebratory 40th anniversary shows. On Friday, May 3, Windsong’s Bold.Brazen.Brave at the BOP STOP“ will "showcase the strength, perseverance, and determination of women from all stripes of life through music, video, storytelling and live performance,” according to the event press release. This performance will be “more intimate,” says Schleiffer, and serve as “an opportunity to mingle with Windsong chorus members, long-time supporters, and other community members.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday, May 5, Windsong singers will share their talents at “Are We There Yet?,” a full-length spring concert at the Near West Theatre.