’13 BFA Dance, BA History
College of Fine Arts Alumna of the Year
Most toddlers have to be dragged kicking and screaming to watch a ballet in a theater — and that kicking and screaming usually doesn’t stop until the final curtain drops.
Clearly, Cooper Rust wasn’t like most toddlers. When her parents took her to see The Nutcracker in their South Carolina hometown, 2-year-old Cooper not only was on her best behavior throughout the performance, she became mesmerized by the artistry she witnessed onstage.
“Every day since,” she said, “ballet has been the force that makes my heart beat.”
That force would carry Rust to New York and Florida (where she trained in pre-professional programs starting at age 12), then west to Las Vegas (where at age 18 she signed her first professional contract with the Nevada Ballet Theatre), then halfway around the world to Nairobi, Kenya. It’s there where Rust, in 2015, founded Dance Centre Kenya, a studio where young children with a passion for dance receive professional-level instruction, regardless of their economic situation.
Oddly enough, her decision to trek to the East Africa nation initially had nothing to do with dance.
“That first summer after graduating, I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’” Rust said. “So I went to Kenya with the intention of teaching math and English, but pretty quickly I found myself teaching kids ballet after they got out of school. We did it in unfinished classrooms with no floors, barres, or mirrors, but the kids absolutely loved it. I came back every summer for the next few years, then decided to stay.”
Today, about 1,800 youngsters attend classes in one of three Dance Centre Kenya studios, as well as through Artists for Africa, a U.S-based nonprofit foundation that Rust founded to provide arts education funding for Kenyan children. Rust’s hard work on and off the dance floor was recognized last year when she received the Royal Academy of Dance’s Community Engagement Dance Teacher Award.
What advice would you give to the current UNLV fine arts student who might someday be offered the opportunity to work abroad?
Do it! You can always go home, but if you don’t try it, you’ll look back the rest of your life and wonder what life could’ve been like somewhere else.
Drawing from your experience, what three attributes should every dancer strive to have a boundless supply of?
The first thing is determination. The dance world is hard, it’s competitive, and it’s often heartbreaking. People judge your body, your technique, your artistry, your age, your natural talent, your training — the list goes on. You have to have that determination deep in your heart to make it happen, no matter the obstacles.
You also need an abundance of energy — getting tired isn’t an option. While I was studying history at UNLV before I started with the dance department, I worked eight hours a day at Nevada Ballet Theatre, went to school for two hours at night, then shined shoes at the Venetian on the weekends to pay rent. When you reach the point when you feel like it’s not worth it — and you will — take a deep breath and keep going, pushing against any boundaries that stand in your way.
Lastly, look ahead to what’s next, because eventually the day will come when you have to hang up those performance shoes and find a new career. It’s still painful for me to go to the theater and watch others do what I love, but getting to teach the next generation of dancers makes it hurt just a little less. So be excited about the chance to try something new, and consider something that can really make a difference.
How does the phrase “Rebel spirit” apply to the dance world?
Dancers are rebels through and through. We start by defying gravity with our every move and graduate to taking our audience with us in our defiance. In the words of the late, great Martha Graham: “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” It’s the willingness of dancers to put that passion on display for the world to see that reveals our individual Rebel spirit.