The Lowry Arts Centre in Salford played host to an extraordinary sell-out event in February when Lancashire-based charity DanceSyndrome celebrated ten years at the forefront of the disability arts movement with a retrospective showcase from their extensive repertoire.
The company was founded by Jen Blackwell partly out of frustration due to her experience of discrimination and a lack of equal opportunities. Jen, whose number one passion is dance, has Down’s Syndrome and struggled to find opportunities in the world of community dance that were accessible to people with learning disabilities.
DanceSyndrome’s ethos is that disability should never be a barrier to following your dreams. All DanceSyndrome sessions are co-led by people with learning disabilities, who take visible dance leader roles to inspire people so they can see what can be achieved when we all become more inclusive. The charity offers inclusive dance workshops and leadership training both in communities across the North West and online via Zoom.
After a decade of surviving hand to mouth, DanceSyndrome has successfully applied to become an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, securing £300,000 to grow and develop the company over the next three years.
Since its inception, the company has run hundreds of fun, inspiring and accessible dance classes, worked with various NHS trusts, taken shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and made dance films. During the Covid-19 pandemic many of the core company members needed to shield, however they didn’t let that stop them – they carried on dancing, taking their classes on-line.
A recent innovative partnership, forged with Community Rail, has seen the company perform at railway stations, encouraging participation from travellers. Train Station Takeovers across Greater Manchester and Blackpool are due to continue this year with the next one taking place at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station on Saturday 25 March as part of the national Down’s Syndrome Awareness Week campaign which, this year, has a theme of ‘With Us Not For Us’.
Campaigning for disabilities
As well as their artistic aims the company campaigns on a wide range of disability issues.
DanceSyndrome wants to change the way that people think about learning disability by encouraging people to see the skills and talents that people with learning disabilities have rather than focussing on the disability. To this end they created a series of videos demonstrating the many ways that people with learning disabilities can lead fulfilled lives, contribute to society and become visible leaders, performers and advocates.
Jen was named Inspirational Woman of the Year in the 2015 Enterprise Vision Awards and has been picking up accolades on a regular basis. Most recently, along with her supporter mum, Sue Blackwell, Jen won the Charity Champion Award at the National Best Business Women Awards. Meanwhile, Artistic Director, Sophie Tickle, was honoured to receive a Chief Nurse Silver Award for Adult Social Care from The Department for Health and Social Care.
Strictly star becomes an ambassador for DanceSyndrome
On the 5 February at The Lowry, it was announced that Italian professional dancer and star of Strictly Giovanni Pernice, had joined DanceSyndrome in an ambassador role:
The DanceSyndrome team first met Giovanni at Plungington Community Centre, Preston, in June 2022 during filming for the Channel 4 TV lifestyle show Steph’s Packed Lunch. Giovanni spent the whole day with DanceSyndrome learning about the company’s inclusive dance approach. He was so impressed that he approached the team regarding the possibility of an ambassador role.
Giovanni’s own journey regarding disability awareness and the importance of inclusion began during his award-winning partnership with the deaf performer, Rose Ayling-Ellis, in Strictly Come Dancing in 2021. He subsequently became determined to do more to raise the profile of inclusive dance.
“DanceSyndrome’s sessions are exactly what dance is about, having fun and enjoying yourself,” says Giovanni. “Dancing is a way to express yourself using music and everybody has to be allowed to do that, no matter what. DanceSyndrome is a beautiful group. I loved meeting everyone. Together they show that, whatever your ability, anyone can and should share in the passion for dancing. I love this message and am proud to be an ambassador for their incredible work.”
“Everyone at DanceSyndrome loved meeting Giovanni. He was so supportive and inclusive in the way that he worked with us, everyone felt really valued… Obviously, as a small charity we need a lot of support with fundraising and increasing our profile, but this means so much more to us.
“Many of our dancers with learning disabilities have faced barriers when trying to access mainstream dance, so it is a real boost for them to meet such a high-profile professional dancer who understands the quality and value of our work. We can’t wait to see where this partnership takes us!” – Julie Nicholson (DanceSyndrome Managing Director)
To find out more about how you can support DanceSyndrome visit the company website.