Daniel Cooper: Shutting up and taking to the stage

“Shut Up & Dance” is turning 21! The annual event, which benefits the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutritional Alliance, takes place 8 p.m. March 23. Tickets are also available for a pre-performance party with catered food and an open bar.

For those of you who don’t know, “Shut Up & Dance” was founded during the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, a group of dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet wanted to do something for their friends and associates who were dying of the disease. They decided on a benefit performance and choose MANNA as the beneficiary. Some of you may remember that, back then, the stigma and ignorance about AIDS meant a lot of people were without care from family, friends and even service providers. MANNA volunteers stepped in and provided love, care and regular meals. Today, MANNA is still hard at work serving men and women who are at acute nutritional risk and battling life-threatening illnesses such as AIDS and cancer. This week, we grabbed dancer Daniel Cooper between rehearsals to find out what his participation in “Shut Up & Dance” means to him.].

PGN: How did you get started in dance? DC:: I took my first class when I was 9 years old. It was a tap class that I convinced my parents to let me take. Then about a year later my physical-education teacher suggested to my parents that I should audition for North Carolina School of the Arts. I’m originally from Winston Salem, N.C., and they had an after-school program for local youth. I was lucky that there was a really, really good performing-arts high school near where I lived. It really helped prepare me for a professional life in dance.

PGN: Is anyone else in the family creative? DC:: I have one sibling, an older brother, and he’s a graphic designer.

PGN: Were you tight or did you fight? DC:: We were very close. We fought on occasion, as siblings do, but for the most part we were good friends. We were both into drawing before I branched into dance.

PGN: And what did your parents do? DC:: My dad is an engineer — he designs connector parts for cars — and my mom is a yoga teacher. Engineering is mathematical but I think there’s a creative side to that field of work.

PGN: That’s funny: I profiled Michael Busza last week and when I asked if perhaps there could be a creative side to his math-teacher dad, he said absolutely not. Maybe his dad was the exception to the rule. I’m inclined to think that there is a creativity to numbers. DC:: Definitely.

PGN: Tell me a favorite memory growing up. DC:: Probably going to school at NCSA. Because it was both my high school and college, I got very close to people and not just dancers — people in art programs and music and film. We all had our academic classes together before separating for our different disciplines. And when we weren’t in class, we were at rehearsal until late at night, so even though I lived off campus, I spent a lot of time there and forged some good memories.

PGN: You got to go to a school of the arts for free. Considering that the arts are often the first thing to go with budget cuts, tell me what it meant for you. DC:: I was very lucky because though I was interested in tap, I didn’t know how much I would enjoy ballet until I was encouraged to take that first class at NCSA. And now it’s my life. I enjoy the process and all the work that’s involved. It’s fascinating and keeps you coming back for more.

PGN: What else does it do for you as a person? DC:: It teaches discipline and hard work. It gives you an opportunity to travel and meet people. Dance gives you a lot. And if you’re very lucky, it gives you a career like mine.

PGN: What’s a favorite place you’ve traveled doing ballet? DC:: Well, before I came here, I was with Boston Ballet and we went on tour in Spain. That was amazing, we were there for six weeks and did shows all over the country, so we really got to experience a lot.

PGN: I was in Barcelona for a film festival and stayed at the Axel Hotel, billed as the only exclusively gay hotel in the world. In its brochures, it assures people that it’s hetero-friendly and all the cute staff members wear black “heterofriendly” T-shirts. I sound like a commercial but it was really fun. DC:: Yes, I know the place! I did a little European vacation with some friends last summer and in Barcelona we went to the bar that’s up on the roof deck of the Axel. The one with the jacuzzi.

PGN: I know it too well! When did you come out? DC:: My last year of school, I got to study in San Francisco and then I stayed there for an extra year of training before I got my job in Boston. I came out right before I left home, so I got to spend my first year “out” in the gay capital of America. It was definitely better than being in Salem, N.C., though being a performing-arts school, we had our own little liberal bubble inside a small Southern city.

PGN: What feeling do you remember from your first time in a gay bar? DC:: It was in San Francisco and I was underage, so the first feeling was, Oh my God, I can’t believe I got in! Then it was exciting and comfortable at the same time, knowing no one was going to judge you for being gay. But before going into my first gay bar, my stronger memory would be the Halloween parade in San Francisco; it starts on one side and ends in the Castro. It was really fun and kind of like Pride Day, but on Halloween and with better costumes.

PGN: Did you wear a costume? DC:: Yes! I was one of the characters from “Kill Bill,” which was out at the time. I was one of the Crazy 88 ninja assassins.

PGN: Who was the first person you ever told you were gay? DC:: It was my best friend Brian in North Carolina. He’d already come out the year before. Like most people, I knew I was gay before I “came out.” It’s just a matter of getting the courage to admit it to yourself and then share it with others. We’re still best friends. PGN: What is your relationship status? DC:: Single.

PGN: And how long have you been in Philly? DC:: This is my fifth year.

PGN: What’s a favorite role? DC:: I danced in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which was a ballet I always wanted to play. I also got to be the Phlegmatic in Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” which was my first big role and I was really surprised to get it.

PGN: Do you get nervous on stage? DC:: A little. It’s more the anticipation of going on that makes me nervous. Once I’m out there it goes away.

PGN: Biggest mishap on stage? DC:: When I was doing “The Nutcracker” in Boston, I was playing the role of Mother Ginger. The role is always played by a guy because you have to walk on stilts wearing a giant dress big enough to hide a gaggle of kids underneath. You’re basically a big drag queen on stilts. They try to cast someone 6 feet or over so that the stilts don’t have to be too big, but in Boston they had a few shorter people playing the role on different nights, so they had to make them tall. I’m about 5-foot-11 so when I strapped on the big stilts, I was really elevated. In rehearsal it went fine but on the first night, I took one step and fell in the wings. I never even made it on stage. They had to stop the show and bring the curtain down because I was on my hands and knees in the giant dress and couldn’t get back up. Someone had to go in and manually get the stilts off me. So technically it wasn’t my biggest mishap on stage because I didn’t even make it that far! It’s funny now but it was scary at the time. I was pretty high up. Fortunately no kids were harmed in the falling of Mother Ginger, and from that night on I never had a problem again.

PGN: I can picture the headlines: 12 kids smothered by giant chiffon dress in freak accident! DC:: Right! After that night, everything else has been a piece of cake. I guess that’s the beauty of getting your mishaps out of the way in such a big way. PGN: What’s the most difficult part of life as a dancer? DC:: Staying healthy. Keeping your body able to do what you need it to do. It’s a day-to-day struggle. There’s always something that hurts but you want to push through it and keep going but sometimes you can only be as good as your body will let you. You don’t want to hurt yourself more. I’ve been battling a toe problem, which is common with male dancers. It’s frustrating because you can’t rush the healing and it makes you have to hold back sometimes when you really want to go all out.

PGN: So speaking of unpleasant things … Dance is so intimate. Ever have to dance with someone with really bad breath or bad hygiene? Is that part of a dancer’s life? DC:: [Laughs.] Yeah, we get pretty close, but I think most dancers are pretty courteous about that sort of thing. I know I try not to eat any onions before I have to do a pas de deux or anything up close. We keep Altoids on hand!

PGN: What are you doing for “Shut Up & Dance?” DC:: I’m doing a few pieces. I’m helping out with the opening number, which is always fun, and a few other things we’re rehearsing. We’re still in the process of sorting it all out.

PGN: Why was it important to participate? DC:: When you join PA Ballet, this is one of the first things you learn about. It’s a great cause and another chance to dance, to perform for people. It’s a no-brainer. It’s fun because it’s our show: Everyone plays a part in it, which makes the process enjoyable. PGN: Is it gayer than your typical ballet? DC:: Oh, totally! It’s a looser format, the pieces are shorter and created for us by us and definitely more homocentric.

PGN: As a young gay person, is the AIDS crisis something that concerns you? DC:: Definitely. It’s something that I hope most young people are aware of.

PGN: I seem to find mixed messages: Some who are very aware and still fighting the fight and some who have that lackadaisical, “Eh, if I get it I’ll just take a pill” attitude, and the majority who are aware but it’s not the premier concern that it once was. DC:: I think the lackadaisical attitude is just ignorance. People are living longer and fuller lives with HIV/AIDS but there’s a lot of work and difficulties that come with it.

PGN: Have you ever been bullied? DC:: Yeah; I remember when I was about 5 years old, I was hanging out with a friend from the neighborhood. We were playing video games and we were sitting side by side. We were sitting very close to each other and our shoulders were touching, but we were just kids so there was nothing sexual about it. We were just good friends playing together, but his dad saw us and came in and started screaming in my face, “We don’t do that in this house!” and other stuff. I ran home crying and told my mom what happened. She went back and yelled at him for his reaction being out of line. At the time, of course, I didn’t know it was bullying, but in hindsight I realize his reaction was completely homophobic.

PGN: Random questions. Your least favorite chore growing up? DC:: Dusting the blinds. PGN: Favorite and least favorite costumes? DC:: I think my favorite costume is one a lot of dancers don’t like because they’re so plain. George Balanchine choreographed a lot of dances using just black and white leotards, pretty much like what we wear to class. When I wear them for a performance, it feels special to me because they’re so iconic even though they’re so simple. My least favorite was when I was in San Francisco. I was in a school performance of “The Nutcracker,” and we had these dessert costumes that were supposed to be lords and ladies or something. It was a really big production and I played Lord Cherry. We had makeup artists doing elaborate faces and a big wig and a giant cherry-sundae-looking hat. It was really painful and silly. I looked like a walking dessert.

PGN: Any hobbies? DC:: I’m really into music. I love going to concerts and really enjoy reading about music. If I were to stop dancing, I probably wouldn’t go into teaching or anything dance-related, I’d want to go back to school to study production or music journalism.

PGN: Ever play any sports? DC:: I took karate for a little bit but once I started dance, I didn’t really have time for anything else. I still don’t!

Check out Cooper at “Shut Up & Dance,” 8 p.m. March 23 at Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St. For tickets, visit www.mannapa.org/attend-an-event/shut-up-and-dance/.

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