Location: Lancashire | UK
Jen Blackwell is Director and Founder of inclusive dance charity DanceSyndrome. 38 year old Jen, from Chorley, Lancashire, has Down’s syndrome but at no point has that got in the way of her aspiration and determination. She always wanted to be a dancer and nothing was going to stop her!
Jen went to mainstream school and whilst there she realised how much she loved to dance and decided that she wanted to become a community dance worker. After leaving school in 1999, Jen found herself in the frustrating position of not being able to fulfil her ambition because there was no suitable training for a person with a learning disability.
In 2002 Jen and her mum, Sue, were invited to give a presentation at their first national conference, Dancing Differently?, which was organised by the Foundation for Community Dance to celebrate dancers with disabilities. There were over 200 community dancers at that event who all confirmed that the training they sought simply did not exist.
Jen's response to this was "I live for dance, it's my passion and my life. I have a right to a life of my choosing. My future lies in dance." She persisted in looking for appropriate dance training, but after 10 years of unsuccessfully searching she took matters into her own hands and DanceSyndrome was formed in 2009.
The following year Jen advertised for dancers and got over 100 enquiries! She selected 14 dancers to work with, half of whom had learning disabilities. Together they have grown into a dedicated, inclusive group of learning-disabled Dance Leaders and performers.
If you ask Jen why she started DanceSyndrome, the answer is simple “I've always wanted to share my passion for dance with others and to get everybody dancing. I want to lead workshops, choreograph and perform with other dancers.”
Essentially, that is what DanceSyndrome does; in addition to performing on stage at events and conferences, the charity now provides five community workshops that are all fully inclusive, allowing anyone, regardless of age, race, gender or disability, to come along and join in at a pace that suits them in a supportive environment. The workshops are designed and co-led by a learning-disabled Dance Leader and a supporting Dance Artist and many participants have described it as inspirational to see a dance activity that is led by a person with a disability.
When Jen says “I am changing people's lives through dance”, she is 100% correct! Research with participants in DanceSyndrome workshops showed that they report many improvements in their lives after a workshop, including feeling physically fitter, having improved mental health, feeling that they have a better social life, having a sense of belonging and being included, being more able to communicate and ultimately just feeling happier.
Inspired by the fantastic response to the workshops, DanceSyndrome developed a unique training course called Dance By Example which provides dance leadership opportunities for people with learning disabilities, or anyone who wants to support people with learning disabilities. The course empowers people by developing their skills and confidence and enabling them to deliver dance workshops and work with people with a variety of different needs. This course has proven to be really successful and some participants who have completed the course have gone on to follow in Jen's footsteps and lead their own community dance workshops with DanceSyndrome.
It is amazing for Jen and Sue to see how much impact DanceSyndrome has on people's lives. Sue is incredibly proud of what her daughter has achieved “Jen has always been focused on sharing her passion and getting others dancing and she has proven that together we can make people all around sit up and take notice”.
People have certainly started to take notice. In September 2015, Jen won “Inspirational Woman of the Year” at the Enterprise Vision Awards, which celebrate women in business across the North West. On winning the award Jen said "Winning this award shows that people with learning disabilities can do amazing things with their lives if given a chance.”
The award opened doors for Jen and DanceSyndrome. In 2016, Jen was featured in an independent documentary called "Superabled", the charity gained Art's Council England funding for a performance piece and this lead to their debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017, with a second appearance in 2018! The team were chosen as winners at the 2016 and 2019 Learning Disability and Autism Awards, Not For Profit of the Year at the 2017 Red Rose Awards and another documentary about DanceSyndrome's work, "Dream, Believe, Achieve", was the winner of the 2017 Mencap Broadcast Journalism Award. In 2018 they were chosen as Charity of the Year at the E3 Awards and Jen personally received a Points of Light Award from the Prime Minister as well as being included in the Power 100 list of influential people with a disability, which was repeated in 2019. In 2019, DanceSyndrome achieved their greatest accolade yet with a Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, the voluntary group equivalent of an MBE! Jen was also recognised by Lucozade Sport and the Independent on their inaugural Movers List, a list of 50 inspiring people in the world of sports and physical activities. The response to all of these events has been incredibly positive, everywhere the team goes, people just love DanceSyndrome!
DanceSyndrome also successfully secured major funding from both Spirit of 2012 and The Big Lottery Fund. This has made it possible for the charity to empower more people, challenge audience perceptions of disability and has provided the freedom for the charity to branch out further with projects such as a new inclusive street dance crew, the development of which has been completely led by people with disabilities at all stages, from its inception, through to logo design and uniform selection.
DanceSyndrome Managing Director Dawn Vickers says “Jen is a huge inspiration to everyone involved with DanceSyndrome. It’s such a privilege to support her and her peers to achieve their ambitions. We have so many individual success stories from dancers that Jen has helped to empower along the way.”
Jen's life could have potentially been limited by learning difficulties, but thanks to her enthusiasm and determination she is living a fulfilled life, immersed in her passion for dance. Her work with DanceSyndrome is now providing opportunities to other people, with and without disabilities, enabling them to explore their potential as leaders, dancers and valued contributors to society. By following their dreams the dancers have become role models for others, sharing DanceSyndrome's philosophy that in dance, and in life, learning disability, inclusion and equality should be the norm.
If you are inspired by Jen's story, visit www.dancesyndrome.co.uk to find out the many ways that you can get involved with DanceSyndrome's work.