TAMPA, Fla. – When people see Joshua Felder making a move, they usually assume he has taken dance classes. Although the 23-year-old from Tampa was never officially trained, he can play freestyle just like his heroes: Michael Jackson, Usher and Chris Brown. Over 96 million people saw him dance next to the Weeknd in a red suit and bandage mask during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show.
Felder was one of around 200 dancers who entered the field alongside the Grammy award-winning singer. It wasn’t just a lifetime honor to dance for audiences around the world.
“The real truth is, I was born with a photographic memory and high functioning autism,” he said. “With my photographic memory, I can remember the steps that went by watching the dance videos on YouTube.”
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“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 promote inclusion and independence for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Felder is now a global Best Buddies ambassador, traveling the country spreading the group’s message, advocating for others, and occasionally meeting celebrities (including Tom Brady in 2019).
It was a Best Buddies Networking event in December that got him to the Super Bowl.
Morgan Heartsfield, assistant development director for Best Buddies of Tampa Bay, introduced Felder to a radio station manager who set up a virtual audition.
“Our goal is to get our attendees to talk to people at these networking events and, in some ways, to really stand up for themselves,” said Heartsfield. “And Josh did an incredible job making this conversation possible with this gentleman.”
Felder sent a video of himself as a freestyle dancer. He heard back within a few weeks. He went to the Super Bowl.
Preparations for the two weeks leading up to the game took place in secret. The dancers took mandatory coronavirus tests and participated in 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 found out he would keep his outfit.
“A lot of people think of wearing it for Halloween,” he said. “I would wear it on special occasions sometimes.”
Due to precautionary measures against pandemics, dancers were not allowed to get too close to the weekend or take photos with it during training. Felder recalls seeing the singer surrounded by four or five bodyguards. He also said that each practice lesson felt like going to a free concert.
Felder could hardly sleep the night before the Super Bowl. He and the other dancers met at the Yuengling Center, where dozens of masked men dressed in a cramped bathroom. Then it was time to load up on school buses and drive to the stadium. Flashing police cars accompanied the actors.
“I felt like a celebrity right there,” said Felder.
Then he stood in the field and mentally prepared to run into a light tunnel next to the weekend.
“The moves have taken over. I felt like I was in the movie ‘Step Up’, ”he said. “In my head I said ‘let’s make history tonight’.”
Although Felder’s face was covered with white bandages, his mother 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 performed these moves like he was a Chris Brown backup dancer,” she said. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He hit every move. I think, ‘This guy’s on the way. And I’m so proud of you ‘”
“It’s a different world out there,” she continued. “It’s very competitive. But Joshua showed me: “Look, I can compete with the best and still be ahead, regardless of my disability.” His skills have taken him to places no one would ever expect to go. Unless he expects to go there. He says: “Nothing can hold me back.”
Felder and the other dancers were only allowed to share their role in the Super Bowl with others after the third quarter. As soon as he posted photos on social media, his phone exploded with notifications. He has gained over 1,000 new followers on Instagram.
Heartsfield was sitting on the couch watching the game when she saw his Instagram post.
“We all screamed. We were so excited for him, ”she said. “I’ve never seen such encouragement from all of his friends and Best Buddies contestants. And frankly, he’s probably the most deserving person I’ve ever met in my entire life. “
Felder said his life had changed since the photos were published. He is happy to use this moment to encourage others.
“I just want to be an example to everyone who has a disability that doesn’t require you to feel isolated… Believe in yourself. Just do it.”
And of course he still basks in the joy of performing.
“I have a feeling that ‘Blinding Lights’ will stay in my head forever.”
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