Dancing With Downs October 19, 2018 00:00 2 Comments

A dear friend of mine who I greatly admire for many reasons, recently blew my mind when she announced she was teaching dance to people with Down syndrome. She went on to explain how incredibly rewarding it was and how much she had learnt.

I remember feeling a sense of awe at this since I was so ignorant of what I thought must be insurmountable challenges. 

So in light of it being National Down Syndrome Day tomorrow, I've asked her to share her story.


Joanne's Story

I am so happy to share my story of how I started teaching dance to children and young adults with Down syndrome. This journey has changed me forever…

A few years ago, I was teaching at a dance school in Washington State. Each Saturday I would teach an open class for anyone to join. One day a boy named Dylan who had Down syndrome came in to dance. He was so passionate about dance and was really quite good, most definitely good enough to keep up in the class.  Dylan had some triggers I was not aware of and I had no idea how to handle them or him in the class. Weeks past and he eventually left. I completely failed him.

I never felt ok that he left and that I had no idea how to include him in the class. I had no one to turn to for advice or training, and wished he did not have leave because of my inability to teach him.

But life is a funny thing. A year later I moved to the UK, and would you know it, one mile from my house was an organization called Gloucestershire Dance that specialized in inclusive dance. They gave inclusive classes for all disabilities and able-bodied dancers. They believed everyone could dance and no one should be left out. I offered myself as a volunteer teacher in exchange for training, and that’s how it all began.

The first step was getting over my belief that only young, able, strong bodies could dance. I had to start looking at why people danced, not at their body make up to dictate if they could dance.

We would have all teenagers in one class, some who had Down syndrome, some were deaf, some in wheelchairs. All of them dancing because IT FELT SO GOOD! Even if it did not look the same on everyone the effects were the same. Dance was forever changed for me in those months.

GDance, as they are known, had me in schools with children in wheelchairs, some none verbal, some autism and Down syndrome. One day there was a boy, Daniel. I will never forget him as long as I live. We would go in once a week and set classes on a theme. Each week we would teach the children a combination and add one step a week to the final dance. Daniel had severe autism as well as Down syndrome (DS-ASD) where he could not connect with anyone. He had no eye contact and was always in his own small world. But one day (luckily the day his parents came to watch) HE CONNECTED! He looked them in the eye and danced for them. He smiled, laughed and remembered all the steps from the previous weeks. He connected with his Mama!

The tears still flow as I write this, because that had to be one of the most worthy times of my whole life. I got to see it, and more than anything else, I got to feel it. His mom was a crying mess along with his teachers and the rest of us. From that moment on I knew I would give my time freely to feel the feeling of true miracles.

Walking miracles really – I believe children with special needs and those with Down syndrome were put on the earth to teach us all a little something. The problem is most people don’t stop to hear the lesson they have to share.

While living in Virginia I got to work with an amazing organization in Norfolk called MixMo (Mixed Abilities in Motion). It was an 8am class on a Saturday morning that brightened up our whole weekend. There were many volunteers of all ages from 15 years old to us 40 somethings. It was a buzzing hive of parents, siblings, volunteer drummers, doctors, all coming together to dance. Children with Down syndrome from 3 to 42-years-old participated in three classes each set to their age group or levels.

In those classes I discovered the following:


To let go of the ego

They genuinely do not care what others think about them. They really live the quote 'dance like no one’s watching'. If we could just harness even a bit of this super power they all have, I guarantee we would all be much happier.

To love freely

You will find they look you in your eyes: no judgement - no preconceived ideas of who you are - then give you a big hug. They do not hide love, control it, or hand it out in little bits.They just express it as it flows out of them.

To own it

If they do something and you praise them on a good job, the normal response is, 'I know’, or they just fully own a great job done.  For them the ‘doing’ is their focus, not the ‘what will others think of me if I do it’.

Give yourself what you need

They give themselves what they need when they need it. If they need a break they take it, if they need to do double what was asked, they do it!  

Real greetings

Saying hello and goodbye was my favorite part of my Saturdays. Each hello and goodbye is so heartfelt, so real, and so open. They are events! Imagine we could make a greeting the highlight of someone’s day.

Celebrate all victories

Nothing is too big or too small to warrant a high five to everyone in the room, a happy dance, a big hug or a nose-to-nose precious moment.


Imagine we could all live like this, how free would we all be? How loving would the world be?

I walked out each week feeling like a fraud to say I teach them. It's they who are the teachers.

And, even though I feel like I failed Dylan, I think the gift at the end was for me to start this journey … Thank you Dylan!