Dance program provides artistic expression and support for people with Down syndrome: “Dance is our universal language”

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An innovative dance program is helping people with Down syndrome build a stronger sense of self and community through creativity, collaboration and compassion.

Annie Griffith and Sari Anna Thomas started the nonprofit organization Down for Dance in 2017. It currently serves about 200 students in 22 states.

“I started Down for Dance because I have a brother, Sam, who has Down syndrome,” Griffith said. “Growing up with it, I really saw that there wasn't a lot of programming like that for that population.”

The nonprofit organization, located in California, offers in-person and online programs, including focuses on dance, art and yoga.

“They love music. They're visual learners. That's what I always say, that dance is our universal language,” Griffith said. “Some may be non-verbal, but we, when we enter this space, as we all dance and understand each other.

Dancers start at 7 years old. The oldest is 62 years old.

“We're not cheating on the choreography,” Thomas said. “They're the ones raising the bar now. It's not me. I'm just catching up. That's what drives a lot of the work I do. I want to get them out into the community, like out into the world. You have to see that the bar is not low.”

Sarah Jensen's class at Down for Dance is her favorite activity. He enjoys dancing to Broadway shows like “Hamilton,” the hit musical that the class is a couple of weeks away from learning routines for.

My favorite thing is dancing to my favorite songs, like Beyoncé, and musical theater,” she said.

But there was a time when people like Sarah Jensen weren't expected to live past 10 years. Her mother, Linda Jensen, said when she gave birth to Sarah 21 years ago, there was a lot she didn't know.

“I was pretty naive about what it involved, I didn't know anything about therapies or, you know, medical care,” Linda Jensen said.

About 5,700 babies are born with Down syndrome each year in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like many babies born with Down syndrome, Sarah Jensen had to undergo multiple surgeries: twice for heart defects and twice more for her eyes. All the surgeries were before he was 3 years old.

“She has rheumatoid arthritis. Why does it go into remission and why does it flare up? She has thyroid issues, so she's just juggling all the different things that come up,” Linda Jensen said.

But thanks in part to early intervention, medical advances and the growth of support networks like Down for Dance, Sarah Jensen and others in the Down syndrome community are now living much longer lives.

CDC data show that the average life expectancy for a person with Down syndrome in 1960 was 10 years. In 2007, he was about 47 years old.

Thanks to a strict schedule of strength and training classes, speech therapy and community college courses, Sarah Jensen lives without inhibitions. She met her boyfriend, Mason, when they were kids, and she thinks they'll get married one day.

In the meantime, Thomas has a message he wants others to know about people with Down syndrome.

“They tend to be scared, and they're just willing to try to give one hundred percent and dive in.”



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