From star pupil to director

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June 3, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Cooper Studios Dance Center will inaugurate the third artistic director in its 20 year history when Jesse Cooper, the center’s current head, passes the reins to longtime dance instructor Chelsea Lea.
The studio, originally known as South Street Dance Company, will be rechristened Miss Chelsea’s Dance Academy this month.
The change in name does not, both Lea and Cooper insist, imply a shift in the studio’s mission. The performance arts center will continue to offer a full menu of dance classes — ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip hop and more — providing one-on-one attention to budding dancers in a small-class setting.
A fixture in Iola since 1992, the dance studio was founded by Cooper’s older sister, Tasia. “She honestly opened up a new world of dance in this area,” Cooper said of his predecessor.  “And she received mass support from this community. And, really, I feel like the support has just continued on.”
Cooper, who began dancing in his sister’s studio when he was 7, assumed the directorship at 24, after returning to Iola following a period of years performing in professional ballet companies in Texas and Ohio.
“When I came back, I wanted people to know that, with Cooper Studios, we were doing the same thing as South Street did. And I want people to know that Miss Chelsea is doing the same thing that we did.”
And while, for the first time, the studio won’t bear the Cooper name or be headed by one of its limber siblings, both Cooper and Lea are dedicated to a smooth transition.
“I’m not technically a part of the family,” said the 18-year-old Lea, who began dancing at the South Street studio when she was 9, “but I basically am.”
If not a wholesale change, there is at least a shift in emphasis up Lea’s sleeve. Whereas during Cooper’s tenure much of the studio’s focus was on performance — included in Cooper’s legacy is his staging of the “The Nutcracker” at the Bowlus for the past four years — Lea hopes to reinvigorate the competition-based brand of dance that she remembers from her early years studying with Tasia.
“It means we would be traveling more,” Lea explained, “competing for judges, receiving critiques about what we need to work on, and hopefully winning some awards.”
This doesn’t mean Lea will scrimp on performances. Having sharpened her stagecraft during her years with Cooper, the new director will have no trouble committing to his high standards of performance.
According to Cooper, Lea’s skilled work was on display last weekend during the Kansas Youth Dance Company’s production of “Annie,” in which Lea made an equal contribution to the show’s choreography.
With the Bowlus just one block over, the pair agree that it would be a crime not to continue to make full use of its stage.
“It’s crucial,” stressed Cooper. “Most dance studios have to perform in the auditorium of a high school. While there’s nothing wrong with that, we’ve been able to give [our dancers] an understanding of how to perform on stage, how to present to a larger audience, how to project.”
Lea recalls performing in feebler venues in other parts of the state — including in towns larger than Iola. “Then you go back to the Bowlus and it’s like, “Wow, we are so lucky to have this here.” It’s a great aspect of our small town.”
Cooper, who will retain ownership of the studio while he pursues a pre-med track at KU in the coming years, described the rewards in store for Lea. “Being artistic director is behind the scenes. You’re not going to be the one out there taking the bow. But you get to be proud of the dancers who are out there taking it, knowing what they’ve accomplished.
The recent Humboldt High School graduate approaches every question of her artistic directorship with confidence, articulacy and a wide smile. “I have a strong connection to this place,” said Lea, who lives minutes from the front door of the studio to which she’s been returning most of her life. “I see myself as a teacher. I always have. … I know I’m young, but this has always been what I was going to do. It was always in the cards. This is who I am. I’m ready.”
The studio at 217 South St. hosts classes five nights a week. Dancers range in age from 2 to 18. Open enrollment dates for Miss Chelsea’s Dance Academy are July 26 and Aug. 9. To contact Chelsea call 620-365-7180 or, by email, at misschelseasdanceacademy@gmail.com.

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