Super Bowl Halftime Dancer with Autism Wants to Encourage Those with Disabilities to ‘Just Go For It’

The Super Bowl Halftime show is famous for over the top set pieces and fireworks, with seamless transitions between songs and costume changes. The artists go all out to demonstrate the best of their discography, and frequently bring out a swarm of backup dancers to add to the fanfare. This year’s Halftime show featured the Weeknd, with dancers clad in sparkling red suits and faces wrapped in bandages running out onto the field for the final dance number. Watching the amazing moves, you’d imagine all of the dancers are professionals, but Joshua Felder was never formally trained.

Felder is 23 years old, and this past Sunday more than 96 million people watched him dance alongside the Weeknd. For Felder, there’s more than one reason why this once in a lifetime moment was so special. “The real truth is, I was born with a photographic memory, along with high functioning autism,” he explained. “With the 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.” Felder had to face this challenge himself in order to earn his spot on the Raymond James Stadium field. He has participated in Best Buddies of Tampa Bay, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading inclusion and encouraging independence for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for the past 13 years. Now, he’s a global ambassador for Best Buddies, and is able to take part in networking events.

Morgan Heartsfield, deputy director of development of Best Buddies of Tampa Bay, was able to introduce Felder to a radio station manager while at a Best Buddies networking event in December. He was then able to set up a virtual audition for Felder, who in turn sent in a video of himself freestyle dancing. “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,” said Heartsfield. “And Josh really did an incredible job with facilitating this conversation with this gentleman.”

A few weeks after submitting his audition video, Felder was invited to dance at the Super Bowl. For the two weeks leading up to the performance, Felder underwent mandatory coronavirus testing and attended six-hour practice sessions with the other 200 dancers. Though the practices were long and exhausting, and the performers weren’t paid, Felder was nevertheless thrilled to be a part of such a unique and rare experience. Not to mention, he was allowed to keep his outfit. “Lots of people are thinking to wear it for Halloween,” Felder explained excitedly. “I would wear it sometime for special occasions.”

The day of the Big Game, Felder waited anxiously at one end of the tunnel, waiting for the dancers’ que to run out onto the field. “The moves took over. I felt I was in the movies Step Up,” he said. “In my head, I was saying ‘let’s make history tonight.'” Felder’s mom, who would drive him herself to every practice, searched for him in the crowd of dancers and, despite their faces being hidden by bandages, was able to spot Felder easily by his eyes. “He executed those moves like he was a Chris Brown backup dancer,” she recalled with pride. “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,” Felder’s mom 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.'” Felder and the other dancers were prohibited from sharing their involvement in the Halftime show until after the third quarter. As soon as he was allowed, Felder posted to his Instagram and quickly gained over 1,000 new followers.

Though life has already changed quickly for Felder, he hopes to use the momentum behind his moment in the spotlight to encourage others like him. “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.” To see more behind the scenes photos from the Halftime show, and to follow along with Joshua’s journey, be sure to check out his Instagram page!

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