What would it take for someone to give up a promising career and a comfortable home — and move 8,000 miles from the people she loves?
For Cooper Rust, it took just one summer in Kenya. Like many dancers who grew up in Columbia, Cooper studied ballet under
Ann Brodie. At 13, she left home for professional training, then danced for companies in Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and in Columbia, with the Columbia City Ballet. She spent every offseason, at first, attending college. Once she’d earned her degree from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, she started looking for a new challenge.
She chose work in Kenya, teaching math and English at an orphanage in Nairobi. She looked for ballet classes to take while there and couldn’t find any. So she connected with Anno’s Africa, an arts nonprofit that was teaching children from the city’s poorest slums.
That’s how Cooper started teaching what she knows best — ballet — in a place she’d never dreamed of.
“I always thought my biggest contribution to ballet would be on the stage,” Cooper says, “but now I see the joy it brings to the students’ faces, and my goals have completely changed.”
Her goals have changed so much, in fact, that she’s moved to Nairobi full time, returning home to Columbia for holidays — and to raise money for her nonprofit organization, Artists for Africa.
“I called all of my fellow dancers from Columbia City Ballet and asked them if we could get together and do a performance to raise money for these classes,” she says, “and Artists for Africa was born.”
While friends and family work in Columbia to support the organization, Cooper holds down two jobs — one teaching ballet classes in the Kibera and Mathare slums, funded by Artists for Africa, and another as artistic director at a private academy. Each job offers its own set of challenges and rewards.
“No shoes, no floor, mud, rain, hungry children,” Cooper says, listing what she finds in Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. “But the appreciation of the kids is so extreme, you forget these obstacles are there. Many of them are orphans, many of them are sick and for many of them, this will be the only opportunity they will ever receive to escape that reality.”
At the academy, Cooper teaches students from all over the world. “Many of them trained in Japan, America and Europe, and their parents moved to Nairobi because of work. It’s incredible to be able to help them to continue. I even teach adult ballet classes to expats who were dancers in previous years in other countries,” she says.
Still, Cooper finds that knowledge of ballet in Kenya is not widespread. “This past year when I did Act Two of The Nutcracker, the audiences and children performing had never seen anything like it. In Columbia, I’d been doing Nutcracker since I was 2. At the same time, explaining to families the time commitment needed for training and rehearsal is difficult. They think that you can take ballet once a week and end up dancing in London for The Royal Ballet.”
Any frustrations are offset by students like Joel, a 13-year-old boy who shows tremendous promise. “He has beautiful long legs, an infectious smile and a passion for ballet that I can only compare to my own,” Cooper says. “He received a very high honor on his first ballet examination, and I think he will go far.”
Joel attends the academy where Cooper teaches, his lessons paid for by a generous family who discovered him in one of the city’s poorest schools. While all dance training requires hard work, Cooper seems in awe of the dedication students like Joel make to attend class.
She recalls driving Joel home one night after a late rehearsal: “As he gave me directions, I realized we’d gone more than five miles when we got close to his home. I asked Joel if he walked this far every single day back and forth to the studio. He explained yes –– he and his mother can’t afford the 25 cent bus fare. As I pulled up in front of a shack consisting of three unfinished metal walls, a ceiling and no front door, he told me this is where he lived.”
Cooper says that being in Africa has changed her in every way. “My priorities and concerns will be different forever. When you live with people who don’t make $2 a day, you start to appreciate even the smallest luxuries.”
She is also grateful for the people in Columbia who support her work with students they’ll most likely never get to see dance. “Through this experience, I have truly confirmed that Columbia is the best city on earth. My family and the arts community give more than I could have ever dreamed,” she says.
Artists for Africa holds two events in Columbia each year, with dancers and performers from around the city coming together for a weekend of shows to raise funds.
Cooper says she counts on Mims Cave and Ron Rust, her parents, and Brie Rust Russell, her sister, in particular, to make it all possible. Brie is president of the Artists for Africa’s board. “I come up with the big crazy schemes, and she fills in all the details,” Cooper says.
One of those schemes is to expand the academic opportunities for students she teaches through Artists for Africa and its sister organization, Anno’s Africa. “It’s our hope that we can reward deserving arts students with the chance to attend secondary school,” says Cooper, “which will not only change the course of their lives but also that of their entire family.”
She also has ambitions for ballet in Kenya. “I hope that the little civic ballet company, Ballet Kenya, that I’ve started through the academy grows to be a real jewel of East Africa,” she says.
Meanwhile, Cooper has found new opportunities for herself as a dancer. “As an artist, one of the biggest changes is all of the opportunities I have to choreograph now.”
And there are similarities to her old life in the United States that make her smile.
“The one thing that is the most fun to learn has been that artists are the same everywhere. Weird clothes, funny hair, interesting people — whether they are from Europe, America, Africa — we’re all the same, creative souls who love new things.”