Ever since she was a little girl (with type 1 diabetes), Elizabeth Forrest has had a love for dancing. And at just 11 years old, she had an idea to combine that love with awareness and fundraising for diabetes.
Now a twenty-something in Central Florida, Elizabeth began her program almost two decades ago, and it's evolved into a full non-profit organization called Dancing For Diabetes.
Along with their annual year-end show, the org now offers free dance classes for T1D kids and teens, year-round activities for families, and most recently launched a new Touched By Type 1 conference focused on women's issues in diabetes.
We think Elizabeth fits perfectly into our "Amazing Advocates" series here at the 'Mine, and she certainly deserves props -- not to mention congrats on her recent marriage in May! This young woman has quite a lot of awesomeness going on, and we're excited to share her story today.
Q&A with Amazing D-Advocate Elizabeth Forrest
DM) First, can you share your diagnosis story with us?
EF) Back in 1999, I was 10 years old and diagnosed with type 1 after being out of school sick for a month. And me being sick as a child was very strange, because I never got sick and even if I had the sniffles, I fought my parents to still go to school even though they’d want me to stay home and rest. So that was a strange time and a red flag. After a month of symptoms and my family not knowing what it was and doctors saying it was just a cold, I was finally diagnosed. I was the only one in the family, though at the time my paternal grandparents had type 2 diabetes and that was our only understanding.
Later on, my dad told me that his initial true response to my T1 diagnosis was, “How can Elizabeth have diabetes? She’s nothing like my father" – referring to him being older, overweight, and not healthy – when I was a 10-year-old, 20-pound underweight child who never cared to eat sweets. That was the sort of understanding of diabetes my family had at the time.
That was in the fifth grade, and the next year I was going to a performing arts middle school and everything took more shape with dancing.
You were so young... Can you talk about your early years in dancing?
I started when I was young and loved it, and once in high school it became more intense as my dance team is one that is very well-known in the dancing world. Going off to college, my perspective started to change. I’d still go to dance competitions to watch and observe and support the teams, and started having more of an interest on the production side – putting the shows on, getting involved in sound and lighting and sound. The overall experience of the show became more of my focus.
Dance is such a great art form to be able to express themselves. Dancers can be incredibly creative and it’s certainly a sport, one that is not an easy task and is a lot of sweat and athleticism goes into being a dancer. My love for dancing grew as I got older, and I love going to different performances. Watching them inspires ideas in me for future productions, and it’s just so fun and inspiring to watch – especially with Dancing for Diabetes where these 350 dancers come together for one night.
How did Dancing For Diabetes begin?
In the middle school dance department, we put on a small performance for our parents, in a really beautiful new theater that was just built to fit 500 people.
That’s when I thought: Why can’t we put on our own show? We’d do the same thing where it’s dance routine after dance routine for parents and friends, and then we could charge a few dollars and send the money to one of the great diabetes organizations. I was 11 at the time (in 2000) and we were home for the summer.
So I brought it up to my parents and found the email address for my school principal, and he loved the idea and suggested that when school was back in session, we could talk about it. I have this very vivid memory of sitting down in the school conference room with the high school principal and all these administrators, talking about this idea I had. All the faculty was really familiar with me, because my parents did a fantastic job of educating everyone about type 1 and what they’d need to know. So when they heard my idea, they were so on board with it and we moved forward right away.
All of that at age 11 – amazing! How was that first year when this was just starting?
We had maybe 100 people at our first show. That continued, and I went on to high school and the dance team there wanted to be involved. Then the dance studio I was involved with wanted to be involved too. It all grew from there. When I started this in middle school, and continued it through high school and college, this was all on the side as a fun hobby. My family has, of course, been very involved and supportive. I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville, so a few hours away from home, but am still putting the show on in the Fall.
Fast forward many years and here we are now – we had our 16th annual show this past November, and the past several years we’ve sold out our theater of 850 seats in advance.
Wow, that’s pretty cool! Can you describe the show itself?
Now, we have 350 dancers in the show and counting everyone in the audience, volunteers and production, it’s over 1200-1300 people present.
The show is kind of Broadway-style running for two hours, with intermission in between. We have dancers who’ve gone on to So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Broadway, Rockettes, and more. These dancers have some incredible talent, and it’s very inspirational to see.
We haven’t publicly announced it yet, but we will be moving into a beautiful new theater in downtown Orlando (as opposed to being 20 miles north of the city), and that will have 2,400 seats to accommodate the fact that we’ve been selling out. Now we can have more people attend, raise more money and just reach more people.
Do the dancers have type 1?
Not all of them. There are some in the various dance groups that do have type 1, but for the most part they don’t -- which I think is really interesting. Many have been performing in our show for years and their connection to diabetes has truly been just being a part of the show. It really did start with the groups I danced with, and spread by word of mouth through the dance community -- and I think it’s inspiring in itself that they've built this connection to something they don’t personally live with.
How is diabetes a part of the show?
At the very beginning of the show, I do a quick intro welcoming everyone and talking a little about diabetes. I try to be up there for maybe 4 minutes, because it’s really the show everyone is there for.
Then right after intermission we air a 5-minute diabetes awareness video. We try to have a different video every year, centered around, “This is what diabetes really is.”
Last year, we did something different with that video for the first time. Months before, we flew out to Utah and met with the Terry Family of Kisses for Kycie, and did a very touching piece on Kycie’s story and tried to have a positive spin as much as you can. It was a longer video and we decided it was worth not cutting out the details, so that way this group of 850 people could see how serious diabetes is and can be. During dress rehearsal, we had all the 350 dancers watch this – that’s not something I typically do, but it was a pretty impactful moment that set the tone. It’s the worst-case scenario, but we were here so that no other family has to go through something like this.
It was a big motivator, and after at the video we have the kids with type 1 come out because they’re always first after intermission. I love these kids, and a lot of them I’ve known since they were five years old.
I truly believe that if someone enjoys the experience, they are more connected to what you’re doing, and... they’ll be intrigued and captured enough to come back.
How do you navigate the dancers' own diabetes during the show?
There is awareness that happens backstage, for sure.
The dancers with diabetes have their devices and their procedures all checked out backstage before going out on stage, to make sure they’re OK. We have all the kids test 30 minutes beforehand, and watch their CGMs, with a few chaperones backstage who also monitor their devices. We put the kids with diabetes in the room right behind the stage, so it’s a quick walk out to perform.
For those dancers who are not in the kids’ classes but have type 1, their teams learn more about diabetes to help watch for warning signs -- so it creates another opportunity to meet our goals of spreading awareness.
Do you donate money to any specific diabetes groups or causes?
Yes, for many years, funds were donated to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). For the past few years, we’ve been donating to the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) and Florida Diabetes Camp, as well as funding our own programming of Dancing for Diabetes year-round.
It all really started evolving after you graduated from college…?
I went to a Master’s program in Orlando in Public Administration, and started a job as well. So it was in 2011 that I started taking it to a whole new level. It started truly growing, selling out every year and that's when I applied to become a 501(c)3 non-profit, raising a lot more money and beginning more programs.
I wanted it to be a whole-year experience, because people with diabetes live with it 24/7. We’re now offering the kids’ classes, and also traveling to diabetes camps in the summer to teach dance, to the Children With Diabetes Friends For Life Conference the past couple years, and we host summer activities and a bowling event at the beginning of the year for the families to stay connected.
So you do all this in your "free time"? What do you do professionally?
While I was taking night classes for my Master’s, I started working at a law firm and have been there now for six years. I’m the firm director, managing human resources and a lot of different things. We’re a big, personal injury firm with six different offices around Central Florida with 180 employees, and I stay very busy. I’m one of the original employees and the firm’s been very supportive of Dancing for Diabetes over the years.
And now you’ve expanded those dance classes for kids with type 1?
This is our fifth year doing that program. Our program is currently serving kids and this year we are including teens. Throughout the Fall, we have free dance classes for T1D kids and teens ages 6 through late teens. It’s open for any child or teen with type 1 in Central Florida.
We have class every Saturday, where the kids learn a routine and perform that during the December show. This is usually an introductory dance class for them, and it’s about connecting with others who have type 1 in a dance-camp type experience. Every Saturday, they have two hours with kids who are just like them. The kids are just immersed in an environment where everything about diabetes is normal, and parents get to hang out in a room nearby – where they can connect with other parents going through the similar struggles and getting that network.
We hear you’ve also just started a new women’s conference called Touched By Type 1 too...?
We really branched out this past summer, starting this for the first time. Touched By Type 1 was an all-day conference on Saturday, June 24, and we had about 20 speakers and 30 volunteers, and about 70 people attending from all around the country (but mostly Central Florida). I’ve been to other diabetes conferences that are wonderful, but wanted one that was specifically focused on women’s topics.
We brought in amazing women to speak, including Christel Aprigliano, and we covered the whole spectrum from research, technology, exercise, pregnancy, complications and going off to college. And we had performances and singing and dancing too, of course.
Sounds very similar to what Diabetes Sisters does with their events… have you had a chance to collaborate with any other groups?
Not yet. We do work with diabetes camp organizations, and CWD on FFL, and I’d love to be able to connect with others in our community. We’re all doing such great work, and some things are similar and some different, but the goal of helping and connecting people is something we share.
Amazing work, Elizabeth! We look forward to hearing more about your dance and women's events, and whatever else you may have on tap.