The atmosphere in the room as the Larondina Dance Company step onto the stage is electric. The group of nine dancers move with such elegance, poise and grace, and the crowd erupts with cheers as they take their bows after a truly moving performance at the Move It dance festival at the London Olympia.
Four members of the group, David Simpson, Martin Wright, Rebecca Blackwell and Barry Bacon are from Croydon. The dancers, all in their thirties and forties, have Down’s syndrome, and are eager to put themselves on the map and raise awareness for people with learning disabilities.
The group were performing on the same stage as the likes of ex-Pussycat Doll and Got to Dance judge, Kimberley Wyatt, and Britain’s got Talent’s dance group, Twist and Pulse, at the Move It event last weekend.
But this was not their first public performance this year. They hit our TV screens in February when they appeared on Sky One’s fourth series of Got to Dance under the temporary name of Dance for Joy.
They stormed through their audition, impressing judges Aston Merrygold, Kimberley Wyatt and Ashley Banjo, by getting three gold stars and becoming the first performers with Down’s syndrome to reach the live semi-finals of the contest.
Aston, the JLS pop star said: ”It was truly truly moving. I’m just so impressed.”
Kate Powel, 34, member of the group said: “I felt on top of the world. I wasn’t expecting it – as it [the gold stars] came up I was just full of excitement. I wasn’t nervous at all; I just wanted to be confident.
“The judges said so many nice things about us, and we are so proud of ourselves.”
But besides dancing the group have another message for the public. Angelina Alessendre, artistic director and dance teacher says :“It is to show the people behind Down’s syndrome – to show they’re no different from anybody else. You know, they have feelings like everybody else. All our dancers have jobs, and they’ve been to college.”
Kate is a cheeky yet confident character. She currently works at the Down’s syndrome association as an information assistant, but has been dancing since she was a little girl. “I like to show people that we can do it [dance]. We just want to be out there, we want to be noticed by everybody,” she says, with a constant smile on her face.
Angelina adds: “I wanted particularly to do Got to Dance because I thought even just a short time on television would show the public first of all the artistic talents, but also that. Though we might learn a bit more slowly we’re all the same. I wanted as many people as possible to see that and Got to Dance was a huge opportunity.”
Elisabeth Blackwell, director of communication, says that the group is about a dual purpose.
“One is to give them a purpose, and to follow their lead. They like music and movement and so we’re giving them that – what they need. They also want community and they have that too. At the same time we can delight people with some entertainment – who doesn’t want entertainment?
“It is also to prevent prejudice. They are like ambassadors for their own cause, for Down’s syndrome.”
The dance group have performed all over the world, from London’s West End, to Russia, France, Germany and Florida.
Angelina says: “We always travel to show their potential, their talents, and to break down barriers, really, because even in this country people don’t always understand what it means to have a learning disability.
“We were in Moscow working with an English charity, because at that time a lot of babies with Down’s syndrome went into orphanages where they died very young because the care wasn’t very good. We did a huge show on a stage for doctors, heads of orphanages, midwives, families with young children, and it was to show them what could be changed.
“DVDs of our work are shown in some maternity hospitals so when new Down’s syndrome babies are born, doctors can say to new parents, ‘your children can achieve, they are not going to be vegetables’.”
Kate adds: “I love travelling! We get to be together as a group; we all get on together like a family.”
Rebecca and David, two members of the group, are engaged. Elisabeth, who is also Rebecca’s mother, says: “They love dancing together; he is attentive, brings her flowers and chocolates – all the things that a boyfriend should do.”
Next week the dancers are performing at a charity event in Chelsea for rare genetic condition Prader-Willi syndrome, and comedian Jo Brand will be hosting.
The Larondina Dance Company formed 21 years ago and still practice every Thursday evening in Battersea. Elisabeth says a lot of this is also down to the dedicated parents of the dancers.
Angelina and Elisabeth are extremely proud of the group’s achievements. Angelina says: “We think they are amazing. It is 100% harder for them to achieve what they do, they have to work on their memory, posture, co-ordination – all these things. Concentration is very difficult for them, so I think they have to work doubly hard.”