A new Australian documentary about a group of inspiring young performers with Down syndrome premiered this week as part of the Down Syndrome Awareness Week celebrations.
The 50-minute film called Enter from the Wings follows the journey of 15 dancers from Melbourne’s e.motion21 dance studios as they travel to South Africa to perform at the World Down Syndrome Congress.
According Cate Sayers, founder of e.motion21 – a dance and fitness organisation catering exclusively to those with Down syndrome – the response to the documentary has been overwhelming.
“When we spoke to 50 Kaliber about making the film, the original intention was to inform and educate broader society about Down syndrome,” said Sayers. “But it ended up speaking volumes about the diversity among individuals with Down syndrome and has really raised the bar of potential even higher.”
Down syndrome is the largest cause of intellectual disability in children. One in 800 babies born around the world will have Down syndrome, a genetic condition caused when an extra copy of chromosome 21 is present from conception.
While some degree of intellectual disability is present in all of those with Down syndrome, it affects rather than determines development and individual ability. And that’s why targeted programmes like e.motion21’s are seeing such positive results.
Challenging common preconceptions around what people with Down syndrome can achieve has been central to e.motion21’s charter of ‘moving bodies, moving boundaries’.
When Sayers saw her own daughter (who was born with Down syndrome) struggling in mainstream dance classes and beginning to lose self-esteem, she came up with the idea of dance classes designed to cater to the particular learning styles of those with Down syndrome.
In just three-and-a-half years, e.motion21 has grown from an informal dance class of six to 150 students enrolled across six studios in metro and regional Victoria. And there are plans afoot for further expansion to meet the growing demands.
“Our real point of difference is offering tailored, age-appropriate classes to cultivate peer support and social opportunities for the dancers as well as for the parents.”
The specialised syllabus is designed with knowledge of the different learning styles of people with Down syndrome.
“People with Down syndrome are very tactile and engaging with their emotions, so the way that they learn and express themselves in dance is quite unique,” says Sayers, who has a background in human movement science.
“They often struggle with having verbal directions thrown at them and are better when shown things visually,” she says. “So we use sign language to reinforce the verbal instructions, picture cues on the walls and markings on the floor that they can follow.”
“We also know people with Down syndrome learn through success not through mistakes, so we set them up to succeed by breaking the skills down into small achievable chunks.”
For many kids attending the dance classes, it’s the first social environment they’ve experienced where everyone is essentially the same as them.
“For once, my daughter is in the majority,” says Sayers. “Unlike so many other areas of her life where’s she’s struggling to catch up, here she can be the best. Here, she can shine.”
The documentary is set to screen on Qantas domestic and international flights. For more information on the documentary Enter from the Wings and the work of e.motion21, visit their website.