Dancing Divas and Dudes

Choreographing Confidence: .ORG Has All the Right Moves for Special Needs Dancers


Choreographing Confidence: .ORG Has All the Right Moves for Special Needs Dancers

The legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”

Dancing’s ability to express emotion non-verbally is one of the reasons why Elizabeth Graham Pistole, president of Dancing Divas and Dudes, is glad she created the organization. “Sometimes people with special needs have difficulty putting their feelings into words,” says Pistole. “A mother of one of our dancers, and active member of our board, tells me her daughter can show sadness through dance in a way she couldn’t otherwise,” she says.

Pistole’s sister, Natalie, 18, has Down Syndrome. Growing up, Pistole witnessed first-hand Natalie’s loving and charismatic presence, as well as her challenges. “Down Syndrome can be very limiting in many ways,” says Pistole, who wanted to find ways to dispel the stigma surrounding individuals with special needs. Herself a competitive dancer for more than 13 years, Pistole understood the joy, discipline, and feelings of belonging that dancing with a team could offer—dance can push you to be a better, more confident version of yourself.

Pistole co-founded Dancing Divas and Dudes along with her mother, Caroline, in 2015. Dancing Divas and Dudes incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in 2018. Pistole, now 21, says she strategically selected .ORG as the group’s online platform.

“I think the biggest thing for me, being young and uncertain when I founded Dancing Divas and Dudes, is that .ORG added validity and a sense of professionalism not only to me but the whole group.”

Dancing Divas and Dudes participants pay a nominal fee to be on the team and are also supported by scholarships. There are three Dancing Divas and Dudes teams, each with a different focus. The goal-oriented Pink Team develops dancers’ technique and strength and competes in four regional competitions per year. The Gray Team is non-competitive and moves at a slower, more nurturing pace. This team performs locally in Tennessee along with the Pink Team and The Dudes, a hip-hop and R&B team for boys and men with special needs.

Practices begin with “circle time” where dancers share about their lives in a supportive environment. Next, the Divas and Dudes stretch and work on their physical fitness. Balance, technique, and strength are improved through the team’s warm up. Finally, the team spends time learning and perfecting routines for performance.

As for Pistole, she is focused, like any good dancer, on next steps. At 21, she is not only running a successful organization, she also is a full-time college student pursuing multiple degrees. For her, a self-described “type-A, who comes from a type-A family,” that’s all in a day’s work. Work that is paying off with visibility and opportunities for growth. Dancing Divas and Dudes was a finalist for two .ORG Awards this past year, Non-Profit of the Year and Rising Star. The organization has expanded its program into Alabama, hoping to eventually be nationwide. The organization’s bucket list also includes a White House visit, performing in Iceland, and appearing on The Ellen Show, according to their website.

Dancing Divas and Dudes need studio space, scholarship supporters, and more staff to reach these goals. The non-profit raises money on its website through individual donors and via its annual gala, the first of which was held this November. Featuring a silent auction and inspirational speakers, the gala was a huge success, raising $25,000, $7,000 in ticket sales alone, and smashing the organization’s goal for the event.

Raising funds and changing lives is gratifying, but Dancing Divas and Dudes never veers far from its core, destigmatizing disability through dance. After all, as Pistole’s sister, Natalie, says: “Special needs kids are similar. Everyone has feelings, emotions, desires, and dreams.”

“We’ve made a great impact, and I’m proud of that. But there is still a lot of work to be done if we want to ensure that people with Down Syndrome are fully valued and celebrated in our communities.”, says Pistole. “I’m committed to making the world better for my sister Natalie and all people with disabilities.”


Dancing Divas and Dudes promote equality and opportunity by disproving stigmas attached to individuals with special needs.