Autism News

How A Dancer On The Spectrum Landed A Spot In The Super Bowl Halftime Show

by Gabrielle Calise, Tampa Bay Times/TNS | February 12, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — When people see Joshua Felder bust a move, they usually assume that he’s taken dance classes. Despite never being formally trained, the 23-year-old Tampa native can freestyle just like his heroes: Michael Jackson, Usher and Chris Brown. Over 96 million people watched him dance in a red suit and mask of bandages alongside the Weeknd during the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday.

Felder was one of about 200 dancers who took the field alongside the Grammy award-winning singer. It wasn’t just an honor of a lifetime to dance for viewers around the world.

“The real truth is, I was born with a photographic memory, along with high functioning autism,” he said. “With my photographic memory, I can remember the steps from watching the dance videos off of YouTube.”

“I want to prove to everyone that you don’t have to let your disability define you if you want to do something great in life.”

For 13 years, Felder has been a participant in Best Buddies of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that aims to spread inclusion and independence for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Felder is now a global ambassador for Best Buddies, traveling around the country to spread the group’s message, advocate for others and meet the occasional celebrity (including Tom Brady back in 2019).

It was a Best Buddies networking event in December that brought him to the Super Bowl.

Morgan Heartsfield, deputy director of development of Best Buddies of Tampa Bay, introduced Felder to a radio station manager who set up a virtual audition.

“We make it a goal to try to have our participants talk to people at these networking events, and really self advocate for themselves in a way,” Heartsfield said. “And Josh really did an incredible job with facilitating this conversation with this gentleman.”

Felder sent in a video of himself freestyle dancing. Within a few weeks, he heard back. He was going to the Super Bowl.

Preparations took place in secret for the two weeks leading up to the game. Dancers took mandatory coronavirus tests and attended six-hour practice sessions at Steinbrenner Field and Raymond James Stadium.

The performers were unpaid. But Felder said it was worth it for the once in a lifetime opportunity — especially when he learned that he would get to keep his outfit.

“Lots of people are thinking to wear it for Halloween,” he said. “I would wear it sometimes for special occasions.”

Due to pandemic precautions, dancers weren’t allowed to get too close to the Weeknd during practices or take photos with him. Felder remembers seeing the singer surrounded by four or five bodyguards. He also said every practice session felt like going to a free concert.

Felder could barely sleep the night before the Super Bowl. He and the other dancers met at the Yuengling Center, where dozens of masked men got dressed in a cramped bathroom. Then it was time to load onto school buses and head to the stadium. Flashing police cars escorted the performers.

“I felt like a celebrity right there,” Felder said.

Then he was lining up on the field, mentally preparing to dash into a tunnel of lights next to the Weeknd.

“The moves took over. I felt I was in the movie ‘Step Up,’” he said. “In my head, I was saying ‘let’s make history tonight.’”

Even though Felder’s face was covered in white bandages, his mom, Mary, who had driven him to practice every day, recognized him by his eyes. She started to cry. Then she got up and danced, too.

“He executed those moves like he was a Chris Brown backup dancer,” she said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He hit every move. I’m thinking, ‘This dude is on his way. And I am so proud of you.’”

“It’s a different world out there,” she continued. “It’s very competitive. But Joshua has shown me, ‘Look, I can compete with the best of them and still come out on top, regardless of my disability’ … his abilities have taken him to places that no one would ever expect them to go. Except, he expects to go there. He says, ‘Nothing can hold me back.’”

Felder and the other dancers weren’t allowed to share their role in the Super Bowl with others until after the third quarter. As soon as he posted photos on social media, his phone blew up with notifications. He gained over 1,000 new followers on Instagram.

Heartsfield was sitting on the couch watching the game when she saw his Instagram post.

“We were all screaming. We were so excited for him,” she said. “I have never seen such an outpour of encouragement from all of his friends and the Best Buddies participants. And honestly, he’s probably the most deserving human being I’ve ever met in my entire life.”

Felder said his life has already changed since posting the photos. He is excited to use this moment to encourage others.

“I just want to be an example to everyone with a disability that you don’t have to feel isolated … Believe in yourself. Just go for it.”

And of course, he’s still basking in the joy of performing.

“I feel like ‘Blinding Lights’ is going to be stuck in my head forever.”

© 2021 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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