Smiles spread across the faces of the dancers as they pop and lock to today’s hits. Their pure joy and pride in the performance shows how dancing transcends beyond words and morphs into a unique form of communication. This dance studio may seem like any other, but it indeed is far more remarkable than most.
Down for Dance strives to create a safe space for dancers with disabilities. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the studio is still moving forward virtually.
The Southern California nonprofit provides classes for students of all ages with disabilities. Classes include hip hop, ballet, musical theatre, yoga and pilates.
Co-founder Annie Griffith’s brother has Down syndrome. Living in Southern California where arts are held in high esteem, she noticed a loose end in the local community: dance studios for students with disabilities. She began Down for Dance to create a space for high-quality arts for those with Down syndrome, among others.
“Our mission is to empower individuals with Down syndrome to build a stronger sense of self ,” Griffith told ABC7.
In her interview with ABC7, Griffith shared how the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise. She had always wanted to make classes nationally available, and now with COVID-19, virtual classes are spreading in popularity. Even her brother is now able to take classes, despite living in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
How dance makes a difference
Emma Everts, an 18-year-old ballerina with the Milwaukee Ballet, is from Los Alamitos, California and has been volunteering with Down for Dance since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Everts got involved after her mother started to volunteer.
“I would say it’s about 99% [students] with Down syndrome,” Everts said. “They’re really challenged to learn more to step out of their comfort zone and be more open. It also helps with different learning skills and talking skills.”
A study published in the International Journal of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education found dance was highly beneficial to those with Down syndrome. Following dance classes, it found its participants showed observable improvement in mobility, locomotion, communication, cognitive function and psychological adjustment.
“Dance has the peculiarity to integrate body and mind, promoting creativity, expression and communication, self-knowledge and self-confidence,” said researcher Lays Nevercia Silveira de Faria. “Dance is an educational appliance that facilitates the development of social possibilities. Dance has a motivation effect and it works to improve the functional independence in [Down syndrome].”
Everts’ mother, Danielle, is a former professional dancer and now teaches at Down for Dance. The other teachers have taken notice of her kindness and her ability to connect with the students.
“My mom started volunteering, and the teachers and directors really saw something in her to be more than a volunteer,” Everts said about her mother. “I heard so many great things from her, and that’s why I started.”
To be a volunteer at Down for Dance, Everts participated in studio training. The teachers worked with her to understand how to best help the students. Being a volunteer entails helping deescalate situations when students have high emotions. For example, if a student becomes frustrated or overwhelmed, Everts will take them aside and work with them to create a safe environment and feelings of comfort.
Adapting to COVID-19
Additionally, in a pre-coronavirus world, the volunteers help students with hands-on corrections. Stretches that require a lot of coordination can often require a volunteer veering off from the group to manually help a student. Everts’s most meaningful reward as a volunteer is watching the students achieve their goals.
“In Down for Dance, they’re challenged to learn more and to step out of their comfort zone,” Everts said. “It helps with different learning skills and talking skills. I’ve seen a lot of growth in so many areas that have so much more to do than just dancing.”
Adjusting to Zoom lessons has been tricky and has required a few curriculum changes. Instead of the usual hands-on adjustments, volunteers have become technology wizards, helping students make sure the application and class are running smoothly.
“[My mom] said it’s not the same as a class,” Everts said. “She can feel the energy of the kids. They want to be back in the studio. It just depends on how things are progressing.”
In 2019, the students had a performance at Pacific City mall in Huntington Beach.
Everts has made many personal connections with the families of the kids she teaches. They mean a lot to her. She shared how endearing the performance was to her.
“I think about them a lot when I’m dancing in [my] studio,” said Everts. “They dance however they want to, they don’t feel any kind of pressure. They dance to the beat of their own drums and they love what they’re doing every step of the way. For me, that’s been super inspiring to see.”