The founder of a local dance charity recently received a British Empire Medal (BEM) which she was awarded for services to disabled people in the first King’s Birthday Honours last June. Here we discover her inspirational journey
Jen Blackwell is 42 and lives in Chorley. Her greatest passion in life is dance. Jen also has Down’s syndrome but has never let her disability stop her from living life to the full. After she left school, Jen and her mum, Sue, spent 10 years searching for the right dance training opportunities that would allow her to follow her dream to be a dance leader and performer. After all those years of searching, they couldn’t find anything that was accessible for Jen because of her learning disability, so in 2009 they took matters into their own hands and set up their own organisation, Lancashire-based charity DanceSyndrome.
DanceSyndrome’s ethos is that disability should never be a barrier to following your dreams. All DanceSyndrome activities are co-produced, with people with learning disabilities taking visible leadership roles to inspire people to see what can be achieved when we all become more inclusive. The charity offers weekly inclusive dance workshops, their own accredited leadership training, and high quality and exceptional performances at a variety of events including the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
After 14 years of striving to inspire people in all areas of life to become more inclusive, Jen was recognised in the 2023 King’s Birthday Honours List. As announced on the 17th June, Jen was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM). which recognises an achievement or contribution of a very ‘hands-on’ service to the community in a local geographical area. This often takes the form of sustained commitment in support of very local charitable and/or voluntary activity or innovative work that has delivered real impact.
Presentations of BEMs are made locally by The Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire and Jen was invited to the prestigious ceremony at Lancaster Castle, where the newly installed Lord-Lieutenant of Lancashire, Mrs Amanda Parker, presented medals to Jen and other recipients, on behalf of His Majesty The King. Amanda was appointed to the role of Lord-Lieutenant of Lancashire by King Charles III following the retirement of Lord Shuttleworth after 26 years in the role. She officially took over the role on 2nd August 2023 becoming the first female Lord-Lieutenant of Lancashire in almost 500 years.
This is not the first time that Jen and the DanceSyndrome team have been recognised for their work. The charity has been the recipient of many local and national awards over the last 10 years, most notably receiving the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE equivalent for volunteer groups, in 2019. This prestigious honour recognises the exceptional contributions made to local communities by groups voluntarily devoting their time for the benefit of others. Jen was thrilled to be invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate achieving this award.
Jen said: “I’m amazed to receive this honour for what I love doing. I’m proud of who I am and the achievements of DanceSyndrome. It’s an honour to inspire others to dance and live a life of their choosing. I believe that everybody can dance and do things they love no matter how other people define us.”
The DanceSyndrome team strives to continue to provide new and exciting opportunities for people who may otherwise be excluded from mainstream dance. They believe that everyone has the right to follow their own interests and passions – whether they have a disability or not. They work with learning-disabled and non-disabled company members, and we provide inclusive dance and leadership opportunities for people who believe disability need not be a barrier to living life to the full.
In 2024, the team will be focusing on delivering their work as an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. In March, they are looking forward to an incredible showcase event called EXPRESS ’24 at Blackburn Empire Theatre, which will see all their different community groups from across Lancashire coming together to perform at one big event, with climate and environment as the theme.
They are also planning a tour of ‘SENse’ the performance piece which the company took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2023 and are currently looking for theatres across the North West who might be interested in booking the show in the early part of 2024 so they can share this beautiful, thought-provoking performance piece. This will be the first time DanceSyndrome has toured a piece in this way, so it’s a very exciting prospect for the team. Jen said: “We can’t wait to go on tour. My dream is to get the world dancing so I love to dance for new people. Dance is a vehicle, it’s a driving force and I really believe that.”
The DanceSyndrome Collective performance company has 20 dancers, with and without disabilities. Over the last year, they have had 311 people participating in the co-led community inclusive dance sessions and have engaged with more than 3,000 people through community outreach work.