She is a masterful dancer and musician who has let nothing get in the way of her dreams.
Jen Blackwell who set up her own dance company, has proved that having Downs Syndrome is no barrier to success.
Her company, DanceSyndrome, is just one of the achievements that former Denby Dale woman Jen, 33, has enjoyed in the 10 years since she was first interviewed by the Huddersfield Examiner. On a mission to become a dance teacher from the age of 19, when she left school, Jen set up not-for-profit DanceSyndrome in 2010 with the help of her parents, managing director Dawn Vickers and dance graduate Sophie Tickle.
Their mission was to help disabled and non-disabled people realise their own dancing ambitions. Now Jen — who has been vicechairwoman of Xylophone orchestra Xylosound in Slaithwaite for the last eight years — is one of the main dance leaders and helps around 50 people develop their own dance skills every week in Manchester, Preston, Chorley and Wigan.
Jen, who is also training to earn a grade four silver standard in ballet, runs the company alongside a team of other dance leaders who also have learning disabilities. It is all the result of not being able to find anything similar when she was trying to obtain training herself for more than 10 years.
It is Jen’s second big dance project, following one she set up with fellow dance enthusiast Emily Fox, who has cerebral palsy, called Dance FX in around 2005 and one that she mans from her new home in Chorley.
Jen said: “To see my dancers smiling, dancing and singing means everything to me, as does seeing them really come on over time.
“An important part of DanceSyndrome is giving those who come along a chance to lead themselves, which I hope will improve their skills to show them that this is something that they can do too.
The long list of performances by Jen’s Dance Syndrome dancers has shown how much the whole troupe has developed. Most notably, they performed at the Lowry in Salford, Manchester Day Parade and on TV with comedian Miranda Hart as part of Comic Relief 2013.
Jen said: “That show was the most emotional moment I’ve had in my life. “I didn’t imagine that I’d be dancing on TV when I was younger — it was a dream come true.”
Jen’s hard work has led to her receiving a nomination at the prestigious National Learning Disabilities Awards. She said: “It’s the most amazing feeling ever.
“Dance is my passion and I just want to be able to share it with as many people as possible and hope that Dance Syndrome will continue to grow so that one day we will hopefully be able to take what we do to other countries.”
But dance is not the only string to talented Jen’s bow. As an accomplished flautist, she has found respected places in two well known regional groups. She is the lead flautist in Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music’s Special Virtuosi orchestra. Jen said: “Focusing on the music rhythms helps with my dance skills — they’re wonderful to be a part of and I’m very thankful to everyone who has helped me achieve my dreams, such as my mum and dad, Dawn, Sophie, and support workers Victoria and Naomi.”
The determination of both Jen and her parents, Sue, 59, and Malcolm, 60, — who still live in Denby Dale — have shown that it is possible for everyone to excel, regardless of disability. Mum Sue is now launching a fundraising campaign to create a film about Jen’s extraordinary journey. She said: “It’s all unreal and I regard myself as unbelievably privileged.
“She’s thriving and living the life she wants to live and is opening up doors to others in a similar position, who normally don’t find a lot of open doors for them.
“It gives them opportunities to explore their gifts as leaders, dancers, team players, soloists and contributors to society and in so doing, they become role models for others.
“We’re trying to find £20,000 to make the video possible with the help of video producer Sima Gonsai to promote the ethos of DanceSyndrome and the demonstrable power of dance to embrace everyone in society.”
Anyone who would like to enquire about making a donation to the project can email Sue at firstname.lastname@example.org