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Dance program offers artistic expression and support for people with Down syndrome: ‘Dance is our universal language’

An innovative dance program helps people with Down syndrome build stronger self-esteem and community through creativity, collaboration and compassion.

Annie Griffith and Sari Anna Thomas started the non-profit organization Down for Dance in 2017. It currently serves approximately 200 students in 22 states.

“I started Down for Dance because I have a brother, Sam, with Down syndrome,” Griffith said. “Growing up with him, I actually saw that there wasn’t a lot of this kind of programming for that population.”

The nonprofit, based in California, offers in-person and online programs, including a focus on dance, art and yoga.

“They love music. They are visual learners. This is what I always say: Dance is our universal language,” Griffith said. “Some may be non-verbal, but when we enter this space, we all dance and we all understand each other.

The dancers start from the age of 7. The oldest is 62.

“We don’t cover up the choreography,” Thomas said. “They’re the ones raising the bar now. It’s not me. I’m just playing catch-up. That’s what drives a lot of the work I do. I want to get them into the community, just like the world.” We must ensure that the bar is not set low.”

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Sarah Jensen’s class at Down for Dance is her favorite activity. She enjoys dancing in Broadway shows like “Hamilton,” the hit musical that the class has been learning routines from for a few weeks.

My favorite thing to do is dance 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 the age of ten. 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 entailed, I didn’t know anything about therapies, or about medical care,” Linda Jensen said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5,700 babies are born with Down syndrome in the U.S. each year. Like many babies born with Down syndrome, Sarah Jensen had to undergo multiple surgeries: twice for heart defects and twice more on her eyes. All operations took place before she reached the age of 3 years.

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“She has rheumatoid arthritis. Why does it go into remission and why does it flare up? She has thyroid issues, so it’s a matter of 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.

Data from the CDC shows that the average life expectancy for a person with Down syndrome in 1960 was ten years old. In 2007 it 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 small children, and thinks they will get married one day.

Meanwhile, Thomas has a message she wants others to know about people with Down syndrome.

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“They’re usually fearless, and they’re just willing to give 100 percent and dive in.”

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