Sari Anna Thomas, originally from Seattle, moved to LA in 2000 after receiving a scholarship to EDGE Performing Arts Center. She then went on to dance professionally for 6 years, and has since turned her focus to teaching & choreographing. She has been on faculty with Los Angeles Ballet since 2012 and is also currently the Assistant Director at Elevation Studios. It is here that she learned of Free 2 Be Me Dance through one of her students, Hope Wills, who encouraged her to volunteer for the program. This line of work quickly became Sari’s biggest passion and finds this to be the most important work in her life.
Free 2 Be Me Dance is an adaptive ballet class for kids with Down syndrome living in the Los Angeles and Orange County area. It began as a labor of love by Colleen Perry, former ballet dancer and current Marriage and Family Therapist. Having always felt an affinity for kids and adults with Down syndrome, Colleen found her connection when she read an article about the Boston Ballet's adaptive dance program in conjunction with Children's Hospital Boston.
Through careful guidance and lots of attention in the classes, the kids learn dance movements, coordination, and how to follow directions. It is a chance the dancers to feel accepted all the while having fun, building confidence, strength, and forming meaningful relationships with their fellow dancers as well as with their teachers and their "special friends."
The following are some of the outcomes we intend for our dancer as he or she participates in Free 2 Be Me Dance:
Appreciation of music, building self-confidence, enhanced self-esteem, learning how to work together as a class, learning to help and encourage one another, following directions, learning left from right, separate upper and lower body movements, coordinating movements to stop and start on cue, improving focus, adding movements they have invented, improved balance, coordination, posture and alignment, and increased pride in their accomplishments.
(Courtesy of Boston Ballet's Adaptive Dance Program)
Each Free 2 Be Me Dance class follows the same outline, providing stability for the dancers and helping them mature in their skills. Here is an example of some of the things we do in class, and why they are helpful for your child:
The Welcome: Each child is greeted by name with enthusiasm so they know that they are special and that they are welcome. This is meant to establish good feelings, warmth, and emotional safety for the dancer, and is designed to make their transition to group work easier.
Following warm-up exercises and stretches, the children then move on to Barre Work:
The dancers take their place at the ballet barre using visual cues to increase understanding of "where" to stand in order to reduce anxiety and distraction. The teacher makes sure she has the students' attention on her (increasing mental attention) before asking for volunteers to demonstrate the movements that were learned the previous week (increasing memory recall). The teacher then does the movements with the dancers so that they have visual and auditory cues while performing each movement, all the while being supported physically by their "special friend" to be sure the proper technique is acquired and reinforced. This portion of the class requires maximum amount of self discipline. Next we are going to allow the dancer to release some of the energy that has built up.
Cool Down/Relaxation: Relaxation activity is meant to be used ritualistically as part of the closure of the class. Dancers are asked to lie on a mat and "visualize" their favorite part of class. The teacher gives some suggestions to cue the dancer i.e. seeing their friends, learning a new ballet step, free dance, animal soup, etc. Visualization helps the dancer to "cement" new learning or pleasurable feelings into the neutral network of the brain. Also, it helps the dancer to focus in a more relaxed way.
Colleen Perry is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California (MFC38937). Early in the year 2009, Colleen read an article in People magazine about an amazing program at the Boston Ballet teaching dance to children with Down syndrome, and was immediately inspired to fly to Boston and meet with the director of the program. She is thrilled to bring this unique and special class to Los Angeles, combining her love of dance and her special affinity for children and adults with Down syndrome.
The mission of Free 2 Be Me Dance is to bring the joy of dance to individuals with Down syndrome. The program began with just one group of 12 students and has grown to five year-round classes as well as several summer classes.
Since opening it’s doors, the program has served dozens of children and young adults with Down syndrome in Los Angeles County. The company has performed in several recital shows, at the Special Olympics in Long Beach and at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. Our goal is not only to teach dance, but also to empower the children in our programs and increase their self-esteem with challenging movements and by developing deep friendships.
In addition to running her non-profit, Free 2 Be Me Dance, Colleen volunteers her time with The Soldier’s Project, and organization which provides free therapy to combat veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq war. She is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post on social issues and mental health issues. Colleen shares her life in Venice Beach with her partner, Bob, and her dog and therapy companion, Murray.