Dance class begins at 9 a.m. in the studio. The six students disappear and are replaced by dancing cowboys, swaying and lassoing to the beat of the song.
Instructor Kayc DeMaranville leads. She helps them coordinate their bodies to the rhythm. The students are lost in the music, spinning, kicking, waving their arms. Student Eric Petersen loves to dance. He says it makes his body feel “a little bit of good.”
DeMaranville says often when students begin, they are shy and withdrawn. But something about the arts changes how they see themselves. “Students seem to just come out of their shell, and open up to people,” she says. “And it is such an incredible boost of self-esteem.”
That confidence is important for learning. Students with a wide range of cognitive disabilities begin taking classes in dance, theatre, and art, “and I see them start to read better, start to communicate better,” says DeMaranville. She says students are able to transfer those skills to independent life. Many now hold jobs and own their own apartments.
“Yeah, people learn art techniques and acting skills and things like that,” says Education Coordinator Wendy Hoover, “but they also learn other skills that apply elsewhere in their life.”
Hoover says she watches students learn how to interact better, to be on time, to take care of instruments and tools. She says through art, students learn the skills and develop the confidence to “help them gain access to other opportunities in their lives.”
Down the hall from the dance studio, a drumming class is in full swing. The students huddle in a tight circle, clasping the drums with their legs. They look at each other and down at their instruments. Their expressions vary between intense concentration and bliss. The group sound meets somewhere in between. They look completely content with the chaos. Because as twenty-two year old Kira Roberts explains, it’s not about perfection—it’s about trying. “I learned that I can do a lot more than just…what I’m used to doing. Like I found this one phrase that I made up: keep going and keep trying.”
Roberts has been at the Cooper Center for a little over a year, and she says the arts have changed her life. Her favorite class is theatre.
“Because I can actually get to do acting,” she says “and actually get to be me.”
Kira Roberts’s classmate Eleanor Verley, feels the same. “When I’m acting, I just feel confident.” Verley has acted since she was in high school. She’s been in every Cooper Center production since the program began in 1999.
The Center puts on two shows every year in its theatre. Education Coordinator Wendy Hoover says this kind of program is rare.
“I think that the fact that we have the black box theatre and we put on public performances and that we have artists that are working artists selling their work…that is unique to Wyoming.”
Along with acting, student Eleanor Verley also paints. There’s an art gallery in the lobby of the Cooper Center…with students’ work for sale. When Verley sells a painting, she feels “Proud…it just makes me so proud of myself.” She has sold some of her acrylic work, and has three more pieces up for sale now. One painting depicts a purple waterfall. “Instead of having just blue, why not purple?” she asks.
Why not purple? It’s this freedom of imagination that has the power to transform these students’ lives.