It’s hard to miss Sharon Cooper on the dance floor. Her expression is almost always wide-eyed, focused and intense. Even her slowest movements carry urgency.
But then there’s Cooper, the pediatric nurse. With her young patients, she’s smiling, animated and tender.
“I’ve always been interested in it, and always very interested in the body and the way it works and muscle systems,” Cooper said of nursing.
When Cooper put herself into nursing school at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, her daughter was just one year old, and Cooper worked at places such as Belk and Little Caesars pizza to make her way. There was a four-year span when she didn’t dance at all.
“It was just overwhelming, just that it was a life-changing situation, not knowing exactly what I want to do and just trying to figure out the next step,” Cooper said of putting herself through nursing school while parenting alone.
“Never dancing again just wasn’t an option for me,” she said. “Just for my sanity and well-being, I had to do that. It’s such a big part of who I am and what makes me feel fulfilled.”
Cooper grew up in Winston-Salem and studied dance throughout her childhood. She remembers her father, David Cooper, opening his own realty business in the early ‘70s after white-owned companies wouldn’t hire him. Both of Cooper’s parents are the soul of Cooper Realty today, and they long ago gave up hopes their daughter would follow her older brother into the business.
“I’ve been pretty successful at this dance thing. We’ve performed in Cuba and Mexico, and that still doesn’t get a lot of respect,” she said. “But this is who I am. This is what I do.
Cooper has danced with Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre since graduating UNC-Charlotte’s dance program and moving to Asheville 18 years ago. For the company’s upcoming program, June 8-10 at the BeBe Theatre in downtown Asheville, Cooper created a solo titled “Hands Up,” inspired by the litany of stories around the country and close to home of unarmed black men killed in interactions with police. During rehearsal, Cooper is rolling, crawling on the floor, lunging, grasping at the air.
“I think if I were in that situation I would feel totally alone, so I just wanted to focus on that alone feeling and focus on what’s in that person’s head in that moment,” she said. “That also leads to the movement that developed. I have a lot of shaking and being pushed around and reaching.”
Susan Collard, founding artistic director of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, remembers Cooper’s audition with a laugh.
“She auditioned with this really awful two-dimensional piece of choreography,” Collard said. “But she was so happy and pleasant and tall and wonderful and beautiful, and I said ‘There’s our Judith Jamieson.’”
Collard sees “Hands Up” as an artistic milestone both for the dancer and the company.
“She has been developing powerful pieces over the years, but this one was totally over the top,” she said. “She showed the piece to us and we all said ‘Wow, this is the best we’ve ever seen.’ Her piece is so emotional and honest and powerful that we were just blown away.”
It’s all still somewhat of a surprise for Cooper, who has always regarded herself as introverted and shy. She said she has always been more comfortable expressing herself through movement than with words.
“Even if I’m just in a wheelchair holding up my arm and crawling across the stage, I feel I have to, for my happiness and sanity, until I can’t anymore, be creative and moving in some way,” she said.