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DanceSyndrome: the dance charity taking steps to change lives

18th June 2020

The face of Richard Jinman

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

DanceSyndrome is a truly inclusive place where people of all abilities work together to create inspiring performances.

Two people (Jess Reid and David Corr) rehearsing at DanceSyndrome, Preston, England
David Corr and Jess Reid at DanceSyndrome, Preston, England

If David Corr gets angry or frustrated he knows what to do: turn up the music and dance. “It just makes me happy – I love it,” says the 20-year-old catering student from Preston in Lancashire. “I feel like I’m escaping.”

His sense of freedom is shared by 16-year-old Jess Reid who is devising a duet with David for U.Dance, a national dance competition for youth. “I can dance any bad feeling away,” says Jess during a break from rehearsals in a sunlit community hall in Preston. “It makes me feel amazing really.”

David and Jess, who both have Down’s Syndrome, are members of DanceSyndrome, a pioneering Lancashire charity funded by The National Lottery. Since the first draw took place on 19 November 1994, more than £40 billion has been raised for good causes in the areas of arts, sport, heritage and community.

DanceSyndrome was founded in 2009 by the dancer and musician Jen Blackwell, who also has Down’s Syndrome. It is a truly inclusive place where people of all abilities work together to create inspiring dance performances.

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival they performed a work called Lit adrift that was inspired by the death of David’s grandfather.

“It hurt me in my heart,” he says of loss of his relative. “And the best way to express that emotion was through dance.”

A group of people from Dance Syndrome rehearsing
Members of DanceSyndrome rehearsing in Preston, England

While the moments in the spotlight are exhilarating, they are only one way the group is changing lives by using movement to obliterate conventional notions of ability and disability.

“Dance is the vehicle we use to overcome social barriers,” says the managing director of DanceSyndrome, Dawn Vickers. “When people walk through the door they’re a dancer – other concerns are left behind.”

The group’s weekly rehearsals and regular performances have done wonders for the confidence of DanceSyndrome’s core group of 22 dancers and the thousands of people they meet each year via outreach sessions at schools. “When people develop confidence, they take better care of themselves and get more independent,” says Dawn. “We’ve seen people move into their own accommodation and start using public transport for the first time.”

None of this would be possible without funding from The National Lottery. “It’s essential, absolutely essential,” says Dawn. “More than 85 per cent of our income comes from government funding.”

The model DanceSyndrome is pioneering in Lancashire is so successful it is being used as a blueprint for similar projects in Nottingham and Oldham. Using money provided by The National Lottery Community Fund’s Reaching Communities fund, DanceSyndrome is working with two organisations – Pulp Friction and Funky Fitness and Fun – to replicate its life-changing programs.

David’s mother Jenni says DanceSyndrome has had a profound effect on her son. “It’s everything to him,” she says. “He’s always wanted to be a dancer, but regular dance classes never suited him. Four weeks after joining DanceSyndrome he did a performance at [Manchester art space] The Lowery and that was it – he was off.”

The members of DanceSyndrome and their parents have developed strong bonds – this is a community as well as a dance company. Jess says the other dancers are “like brothers and sisters”; the other parents are “like mums and dads.” If someone is struggling with something – on or off the dance floor – the others are quick to offer help.

Dawn says some of the greatest moments are walking into the dance space and seeing “the smiles and the connections that are being made. You can feel the happiness,” she says.

Dave agrees. “Without DanceSyndrome I’d still be dancing in my house,” he says. “Without these people life would be hard.”