I am Down For Dance!, Monday, March 26, 2018

On Sunday, February 25, I braved the freeways and made my way to West Los Angeles. My destination was the Los Angeles Ballet. The event was a reception hosted by the Susanne Thom Physical Therapy center. I was there to see the featured performers for the evening, the spirited dancers from Down For Dance.
Down for Dance (DFD) is a dance program for people with Down syndrome (DS). It began a mere six months ago and was started by Sari Anna Thomas and Annie Griffith, and in that time has already expanded from its humble origin in Orange County to classes at another Orange County location and at Elevation Studios in Signal Hill.


Sari Anna Thomas

I don’t know much about Annie, and have never formally met her, but I do have an acquaintance with Sari. Sari Anna Thomas is originally from Seattle and migrated to Los Angeles in 2000 on a scholarship to Edge Performing Arts Center. She danced professionally for several years and moved into teaching dance in 2005. Almost 5 years ago she began assisting with a noprofit program that provided movement and social opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome, and then last summer taught a class for an organiztion named PALS. According to their website, “Our mission is to create immersive experiences where individuals with Down syndrome and their peers have fun, grow as individuals, and build transformative friendships.”

Tres Amigas

Tres Amigas — The original three

Three years ago Sari began working on a private basis with several young ladies with Down syndrome, and that eventually led her to start her own program. Unfortunately, none of the existing DFD sites are geographically appropriate for her original trio as they are in El Segundo and points north, but that will likely change in the future given the current rate of growth and the apparent need. Currently there are over 30 dancers with Down syndrome participating in the program along with approximately a dozen volunteers who work with the dancers, often on a 1-1 basis. Current participants range in age from 7 to 36, and have a wide range of functional abilities.

I got a pretty good idea about how the program works by watching their performance at the Susanne Thom Physical Therapy gala. The dancers involved were all taking hip-hop classes, and there were just under 20 dancers taking the floor for the opening number. The dancers participating in the DFD program have a wide range of functionality and experience, and that was apparent in this performance. The dancers in the front were the more independent, higher-function dancers who have mastered the routines.

The dancers were first marshaled into their starting positions by the volunteers, Sari spent a few seconds warming them up, and then they were off. Interspersed among the dancers and trying to keep a low profile were a number of volunteers. Their role was to help in modeling the choreography for dancers who have not yet mastered it, and even to physically steer dancers who have become confused back on track.

After the opening number there was a dance by Sari’s original three dancers, and then all dancers took solo turns on the dance floor, hip-hopping to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. Here again I had a chance to see the different abilities of the participants. Some of them were fully independent, champing at the bit, and sometimes reluctant to yield the floor. Others were more diffident or confused, or some combination of the two, and needed to be led onto the floor and sometimes jump-started by a volunteer. Whichever category they fell into, once they were wound up they were all ready to dance!

There were several dancers who showed some real creativity and talent, and Sari was quite excited when I informed her that plans are afoot to add Dance to the Special Olympics. Dance was included on a demonstration basis in the 2017 Winter Special Olympics, and I had read that 2020 was the target for full inclusion. We may have some future Olympians among us!

On Thursday, 3/23 I went to one of the DFD classes at Elevation Studios, where in addition to teaching classes Sari works as the Assistant Director. This was the first meeting of the Thursday class; the Tuesday class has become so popular that they were having to turn students away. On this first day there were only three students, which gave me a great opportunity to focus in on the process without too many distractions.

For this class Sari was assisted by volunteer Dani who was on just her second assignment, her first having come in the Tuesday class. The three students provided a very nice sampling of the spectrum of abilities that must be accommodated in the class. First, there was Robin, an adult male who was quick to invite me onto the dance floor. Robin is the class clown; he wants everyone to partipate, loves being center stage, and he loves to be in charge. Next was Emily, a young lady who loves to shake it, but tends to wander off and needs a lot of direction to keep her on task. Finally there was Diana. Diana is new to the program and needed some coaxing to get her to participate. She was not a fan of hip-hop, but after class she retired to a corner of the room to work on her ballet which is where her aspirations lie.


Dani, Emily, Diana, Robin, and Sari tuning the choreography

Quite a bit of the instruction for the students is on a one-on-one basis. According to Sari, “There are definitely a number of dancers in our program who don’t need that assistance, where I kind of like to push their independence more. … There’s definitely some dancers who would not be successful in class without a volunteer, and those people just get the one-on-one.” Diana was a perfect example of a student who needed a lot of support, and Dani was assigned to be her special friend for the class.

Red and Blue

You put your red foot in, you take your red foot out…

Sari has a lot of experience working with this population, and it was very enlightening to watch her at work. One of the first tasks was the labeling of limbs; much like myself, keeping track of right and left is difficult for some students. Sari’s solution is to use red and blue duct tape on the right and left toes of the students’ shoes, and red and blue wristbands. I am kind of hoping that she would use that method for her classes that I take! I have also take Sari’s classes as a student and was very impressed to see the modifications she has incorporated to make sure that people of all abilities can participate. She pours an incredible amount of energy into her teaching, as do her volunteers! The energy and support of those volunteers is crucial to the success of the program.

Speaking of those volunteers, Sari can always use more “dedicated and committed” ones. It is a difficult job and requires fitness and endurance, but it is also a very rewarding job pretty much guaranteed to result in life-long relationships. Both the performance and the class that I observed were permeated with a tremendous feeling of love and good will. The real concern I have is for Sari. The program is growing so fast that if she hasn’t already cloned herself she needs to do so soon. Maybe she can find a ballet teacher who is willing and able to work with dancers with Down syndrome so Diana can pursue her aspirations.


Status Report, Monday, March 5, 2018

The other day Facebook reminded me of a post from exactly five years before, March 4, 2013:

“Another good day. Yoga class this morning, and then an 11 mile hike in Chino Hills State Park. My reconditioned right ankle is making excellent progress. Back when I started yoga just over 18 months ago I noticed that, as my friend Jim Jones would have said, that I “have a little hitch in my git along”. My right foot refused to go over the toe, and instead my foot would automatically swivel, turning out so instead of rolling across the ball and over the toe I would be pushing off from a turned-out position. When doing paschimottanasana in classes I noticed that as soon as I began to hinge forward my right foot would flop over to the side. I have been working on correcting that and discovered that there was a lot of tightness on the inner side of my right leg, and have been working on loosening that up at the cost of much protest by tendons and ligaments that had not been used properly. Over the last few weeks I noticed that with a bit of effort and attention I could now walk properly, and today I managed to keep it up over the entire walk and that doing so is no longer effortful. Upon some reflection I realized that the genesis of the problem was the 2003 LA Marathon, where I managed to finish the race despite having badly turned my ankle at about mile 11. So now I am finally recovering from a 10 year old injury. Feels good!”


Rambling in Portuguese Bend

More perspective, and perfect timing too! It is now five years later, and I feel that I may have finally turned the corner on that “reconditioned right ankle”. The intervening years have seen a process of “two steps forward, one step back”. Or, maybe, sometimes “one step forward, two steps back” like when hubris got the best of me when I decided that kicking off my return to running by going 6 miles on concrete wearing Vibram 5 Fingers shoes. Tendinitis! Who would have thunk that? Or that a 50 yard sprint to beat a flashing WALK signal was a good idea in December, 2015. It felt really good to be up on the balls of my feet, but my left meniscus had a different perspective when I stopped!

In retrospect, the silver lining was that the Physical Therapy for my knee (avoided surgery!) finally put me firmly on the path to addressing the deficiencies in my support systems. Now the task is to avoid making the same mistakes again!


Nike radar installation on Mt. San Vicente

I have used a combination of mindfulness, yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics, and dance (ballet and swing) to finally get to a point where I can make the transition from reconditioning to maintaining that ankle. Just in the nick of time, as I am registered to do an ultramarathon in April and need to be able to cover 31 miles in 10 hours.

The big problem in former rounds has been that the basic structural problems had never been resolved. I was also handicapped by my move to Long Beach. Five years ago I was living in Placentia, with the drawback of a 30 mile commute, but I also had easy access to Chino Hills State Park. It was nice bike ride or a ten minute drive. I could get home from work in the afternoon and still have time to get in a “proper trudge” (PT), indicating 10K distance and 1000 feet of elevation gain. I could even get one in after work on the shortest days of the year. I never replaced that in Long Beach (Signal Hill, yuck) and I think that was to my detriment.


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Now I think I finally have the structural problems resolved enough to proceed to real training. I did a month or so of running on the treadmill to try to dial in my gait. Three Sunday’s ago I did some running on hills in the Portuguese Bend area of Palos Verdes. I did a total of 6 miles with 1000 feet of gain, running only about a mile or so and only on the uphill sections and sticking to the vehicle grade roads. Two Sundays ago I did another 6 miles there and ran the foot trails. I ran about half of the uphill and virtually all of the downhill. My average speed going up was 3.2 mph, and down was 3.5 mph.

Midweek I took a 1.5 mile run up Signal Hill and averaged 4.0 mph, and then averaged 4.4 mph on the downhill. I also did a 4 mile run on grass on Friday.


Sunday I drove up to one of my old haunts, Westridge Rd above Mandeville Canyon. I went up the fire road all the way to the Nike Base and ran most of the mostly uphil 3.5 miles and averaged 3.7 mph. Started running down, and the first couple of miles were partially uphill and mostly on the Mandeville Canyon side of the ridge. After two miles the road was all downhill and always on the Sullivan Canyon side of the ridge.

That was a concern because of my still sensitive right ankle. The very wide fire road has a very pronounced slope from outside to inside. Coming up that slope went down from left to right, and when running on it my right ankle was downhill and canted in the direction that it tends to do anyway. On the reverse trip, however, that cant was reversed, and now that ankle was taking a beating.

If I had not received the omen that took me back to my earlier oversteps I might have decided to try to tough out that situation. Instead, I opted to walk the rest. Even that had its positive side–usually when I walk down I am one of the slower walkers, but this time nobody passed me and I passed several other hikers. Have I truly learned a lesson? Only time will tell!