World Down Syndrome Day: Meet the inclusive dance group proving disability is no limit

DanceSyndrome is a Lancashire-based dance group that meet every Wednesday in a community centre in Preston.

Like any other dance troupe, its members spend hours devising routines, running through the moves to music and performing live at venues across the UK. But it has one very unique difference from other clubs in the north west – it specialises in working with dancers who have learning and developmental disabilities, ranging from Down’s syndrome to autism and cerebral palsy.

The group was founded in 2009 by Jen Blackwell, a young woman who has Down’s syndrome, with the support of her mother Sue.

Jen is a talented dancer and teacher, but faced countless obstacles in finding suitable mainstream training and performance opportunities in her local area. Refusing to be defined by her disability, her solution was simple: to form her own company to empower herself and the many other dancers she encountered who shared her frustrations.

The group’s 15 core members rehearse for three hours together every week. As well as appearing at festivals, universities, conferences and schools, they also teach community workshops to dozens of other people throughout the region.

Performing is a huge part of the charity, and this year the group will take to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The motto of the group is: “Anything is possible, even though you have a learning disability,” – allowing everyone the chance to enjoy the happiness-boosting benefits of dancing.

“The more [our dancers] are showcased in their talents and are able to have a voice, then the more the wider public gets to meet people with Down’s syndrome and understand they do have valuable lives,” says DanceSyndrome managing director Dawn Vickers.

Rather than focusing on disability, Vickers says they maximise the potential of each dancer to challenge audience perceptions of what they can do; one member, for instance, is talented at cartwheels, so you’ll often see his flawless gymnastics in their routines.

As well as rehearsing for the Edinburgh Fringe, the group say they are currently looking for a celebrity patron to help spread the message of inclusivity in the dance world.

Having the opportunity to dance together has had a profound difference on many of the member’s lives; it’s an opportunity to express themselves creatively, meet like-minded friends and have fun without barriers or labels.

“I do have Down’s syndrome, but my disability doesn’t define me,” says Jen, “and to my fellow dancers – I owe my life.”

 

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