Inspirational People Interview – The Incredible Jen Blackwell

Jen Blackwell is the founder of Dance Syndrome and inspiration to members of her dance group in Lancashire. Jen has Down’s Syndrome but has never allowed this to stop her from achieving her goals.  Her group has performed at many prestigious venues including the Edinburgh Fringe and even the Houses of Parliament!  Her troop’s vision is to empower learning-disabled people through inclusive dance without fear of discrimination or lack of accessibility.  Jen’s story inspired the lottery grant awarded to her charity which was presented to her by her idol Alexandra Burke. Jen is a multi-award winner including the Inspirational Woman Award at the EVA’s in 2015. We are grateful to Jen for taking some time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.

It’s hard to imagine Jen, that you have ever experienced self-doubt.  Have you always been self-confident? 

I have always had belief in myself. I’ve always been a dancer and I knew that I could achieve my dreams, but we had to work very hard. Dance and DanceSyndrome in my life gives me confidence.  When I dance I feel like I am flying. DanceSyndrome is my everything. I love my job with DanceSyndrome. I love to be respected for who I am.   It gives me opportunities, it gives me a voice to be heard.  It is my right to live a life of my choosing but I couldn’t have done it without the support of my parents.  They are my rock and have stood beside me every day for all of my life.

Most people would recognize that confidence comes and goes….How do you maintain yours?

My Dancing Family at DanceSyndrome are always there for me, they lift me up, they give me my life in dance. If I feel scared or down I can talk to my fellow dance leaders and they make me feel better, we all support each other like that. And I practice every day. I feel most confident if I know exactly what I’m doing, if I’ve done it over and over at rehearsal or at home, I know I’ve got this.

Sometimes life can be a challenge. Sometimes I get stressed. I try to be the best that I can be but when it’s not working so well there’s always a reason.  My awesome support team and my parents sometimes need to help me to work things out but my dancing family DanceSyndrome is there to help everyone when they are down.  We help each other out and together we are stronger.

These days due to an increase in Dance shows on the TV, we are more aware of the dance opportunities out in the community.  But your early experiences of joining dance groups did not work out for you.  How did you overcome these setbacks and begin your own dance group?

I have always had just one aim, to share my passion for dance and get everyone dancing.  My mum says that this is what makes her most proud, that I have kept that focus no matter what.  We turned over stones together for more than ten years looking for appropriate training for me to become a community dance worker.  Eventually we just decided to do it our way.  If it needs doing just go for it.  DanceSyndrome was founded in 2009 but best of all for the first time ever I was in control. I could choose the dancers I wanted to work alongside.  That was amazing.  It’s really important because DanceSyndrome is inclusive but is led by dancers with learning disabilities like me.  Being in control of your life makes all the difference.  When you live where you want to live with people you want to live with, can choose your carers, live the life of your choosing, then things can really hum.  All it takes is for people to listen to you and gIve you appropriate support.  That’s what happens at DanceSyndrome.

Have you ever felt nervous about teaching or performing?  If so, How did you overcome this?

I’ve always wanted to be a leader but I do get nervous before a performance. It’s all about preparation.  If you’re well prepared and know what you’re doing it will be fine.  My work experience workshops were 15 minutes long but took hours of preparation with mum because I didn’t have any dancers in my life at that time.  Now that I’ve done the DanceByExample training course and have dance buddies and lots of experience it’s all much easier. Performing is what I do best.  I really can’t explain it but I am in another world.  The spotlights come on and the house lights go down and it is magical.  I feel free like a butterfly.

I am aware that you were awarded with lottery funding and this was presented to you by the wonderful Alexandre Burke? Why does she inspire you?

Alexandra Burke has always been my idol.  I love her voice and her songs and that she is such a lovely friendly person. Her music connects with me and I feel it in my heart.  I  choreographed a dance to her Hallelujah years ago.  It is my party piece and I love that everyone else loves it too. I usually reduce the audience to tears and get standing ovations but as a result people see me, Jen the dancer. That means the world to me. When I got to perform that dance for Alexandra all my dreams came true.

What would you say to Confidence Guru followers out there who are struggling to develop their self-confidence, are experiencing barriers or setbacks and struggle with self-doubt?

I would say life is for living.  Surround yourself by people who believe in you for who you are, who will stand beside you even when the going gets tough.  We all need support to be happy and fulfilled, people with disabilities are just the same as everyone else.  If I feel nervous or lose confidence, my Dancing Family and my support team are there to help. They say kind things, let me know they are thinking of me, and we are all in it together. Sometimes a big hug helps. Being afraid makes me feel small, dancing makes me feel unstoppable. So I choose to dance! Do what makes your heart fly. That’s a good start.

Wow Jen, you really are inspirational!  I know your ‘can do’ attitude is something many of our followers could learn from your example. Please keep dancing, keep inspiring others and keep loving what you do!!

If you would like to know more about the work of DanceSyndrome or donate to this fantastic charity you can do this at www.dancesyndrome.co.uk

Photos courtesy of the National Lottery, Points of Light Awards, Nicola Selby and Suzie Q Photography.