'Fairy lady' helps peninsula dancers stay on their toes

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

The room is open, airy.

Mirrors cover one side of the room, while wooden bars line the other walls.

Piano music streams from a nearby CD player, and five high school girls, sporting leotards, skirts and ballet shoes, spread out, stretching.

"Keep your shoulders over your hips, back straight," instructs Norma Cooper, owner of the studio. "And point those toes."

Muscles are certainly a necessity in this pastime, but as the girls arch backward, arm over head and leg in the air, one wonders if bones must be abandoned.

The girls are a picture of grace and flexibility. Their heads are high, their limbs controlled and elegant, their very being poised.

Norma is even more amazing.

She has been called the "fairy lady," for her collection of winged sprites. The name fits.

A tiny woman with more than 50 years of dancing under her belt, the graceful red-haired teacher very well could have fairy blood running through her veins.

She stands at the front of the studio, carefully observing her charges, demonstrating each move she asks her dancers to perform and correcting their posture when needed.

"I'm not a whip-wielder, but I get my point across," she said. "I've never believed in yelling at kids. They're doing this partly for fun, it should be fun."

But it also should be correct, she said, noting that ballet especially is a gradual art that can cause injuries if not practiced with care.

"Ballet is about developing the body, learning posture," she said. "If you're trying to do something the body isn't ready for, it kind of ruins the point."

 

Norma Cooper has been a dancer for more than 50 years.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Norma should know. She has been dancing since she was 7 years old.

Born prematurely, Norma said she was tiny as a child, causing her mother to worry. A doctor suggested dance lessons to build Norma's strength. She got a taste of dance and never looked back.

By 14, she was teaching others.

"It sounds presumptuous, but when I was 14, I lived in a town so small, I really did know more than anyone else," she explained.

Her parents helped her set up her first studio in their living room, rolling back the rug, putting in a bar and hiring a pianist to accompany rehearsals.

As a teen-ager, she spent several weeks in New York each summer taking all the lessons she could and dancing all day.

Later, she worked her way through college as a professional dancer tapping in night clubs. She earned a degree in physical education and taught for 20 years, sometimes simultaneously teaching in schools and running a studio.

As an adult, she took time off to get married and have children -- to whom she passed on basic dance training. When her husband died, she went back to teaching dance to support her family.

"I wind up teaching whatever I'm doing," she said. "I wouldn't be happy sitting in the back running the studio. I have to teach. That's why I do it."

Now she runs two studios, one in downtown Soldotna and one on the outskirts of town near Sterling. She teaches a range of classes, from tap and ballet to Irish, Scottish and American-style clogging, and serves students of all ages.

 

Norma Cooper watches as Marcia Dutton and other students rehearse ballet moves at Cooper's studio in Sterling.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"They start at 3, up to no limit," she said. "I have a lot of adults. You'd be surprised how many come back after dancing as children. It fell by the wayside, but they get back into it."

Many of her younger students, she said, start dancing because their mothers wanted to be dancers.

"I think it's an experience most children have. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they sort of like it, and sometimes it just isn't for them," she said.

Sometimes, she gets lucky, finding what she calls her "ultimate dancers."

Sondra Mize, for example, has been studying with "Miss Norma" for about 12 years.

When Sondra and her older sister first started dance lessons, they spent two weeks with a different teacher, but didn't like the experience.

"Then we came to Miss Norma, and I felt really comfortable there," Sondra said. "She's the motherly type as well as an excellent teacher. And I loved tap."

While Sondra is in Norma's advanced ballet class, her primary focus has been tap dancing.

In the fall, she will head to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas to pursue a degree in dance.

"That's what she wants to do most," Norma said. "We're trying to prepare her for the courses she'll be taking."

But while Norma is supportive of Sondra's aspirations, Sondra insists Norma is more than just a dance coach.

"She's taught me more than dance. She's taught me poise and grace," Sondra said. "I've gone on to compete in and even win beauty pageants, and I attribute that all to her."

Fourteen-year-old Heather Paxson said Norma helps integrate her passions.

A home-school student, Heather takes dance lessons as a physical education class. But Norma also helps Heather, who dreams of becoming a professional violinist, integrate motion into her love of music.

"You have to do the steps to the music. I like how it's related," Heather said. "She teaches you the steps, and she's fun to dance with."

Heather's zeal for music is one Norma well understands. In addition to her love of dance, Norma also plays the piano, flute, harp and a number of other instruments that are scattered around her house.

But dance will always be her first passion, and one she hopes to pass along to her students.

 

Students rehearse pointe combinations during a class last week.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

She keeps classes small -- six students are the maximum for young children -- focuses on posture, expression and accomplishment and practices having fun.

The response to her teaching tells her she's doing something right.

"Most people go to the nearest studio. Their criteria is "How close is it, how much does it cost and how convenient is it for me?'" she said. "When I get people from the North Road, from Homer, then I feel like this is good. I even have students in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass. They impress me with how regularly and faithfully they show up."

And even if her students don't spend their lives dancing, Norma said there's plenty to gain from learning.

"Dancing is a natural thing. People have rhythm, music in them. You've heard the saying, 'Dance for joy.' Well, people do," she said. "It's great for kids -- they learn good posture, working with a group, taking directions, thinking for themselves. If you get into it when you're young, you never really lose your legging."

And, she added, it's great for health.

"I can probably do physical things a lot of people my age can't, simply because I've been dancing all my life," she said. And she plans to continue for a very long time.

"People often fear I'm too old to dance or that I'm going to retire," she said. "That's not going to happen. I can't imagine not teaching. I'll die on stage."



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