Anna Cooke’s (’92) life reflects her passion for movement

Professional dancer and Las Vegas Showgirl begins an encore career in physical therapy

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Wake Forest Magazine caught up with Anna Cooke (’92), a former Alumni Scholar in dance who spent several years performing as an official Las Vegas Showgirl. She recently transitioned her passion for fitness and functional mobility into a second career as a physical therapist assistant.

Anna Cooke at Wake Forest: 'I spent most of my time in the dance studio.'

How did you find your way to Wake Forest?

I came to Wake Forest as a freshman in the fall of 1988. At the time, my family’s home was in Jacksonville, North Carolina. I was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, but was raised from kindergarten to eleventh grade in Annapolis, Maryland. My mother, Bonnie Jones Cooke, graduated from Wake Forest in 1962. Just about everyone else in my family went to a school in the UNC system! I had to learn how to root against the Tar Heels basketball team; it was never hard to root against Duke!

I quickly became a proud Demon Deacon. I graduated summa cum laude with a major in English and a minor in dance in 1992 and was one of the first class of recipients of the Alumni Scholarship, that became known as the Presidential Scholarship. I received a scholarship for dance and spent most of my time in the dance studio, but I also enjoyed attending college sporting events and being involved in the theatre department whether it was onstage, behind the scenes or working for Professor Harold Tedford (P ’83, ’85, ’90) in the office.

Did you consider going to an arts school?

I tossed around the idea of going to a more dedicated arts school, but I really didn’t think I was going to be a professional dancer! I was not sure what career path I was going to take; I had no idea what I was going “to be.” I decided to attend WFU to get a more well-rounded liberal arts education that would serve me well no matter what direction I chose to go in for a career. When I visited Wake, everyone was friendly and welcoming, and I thought the campus was beautiful. The smaller size and personal feel of Wake appealed to me, and of course WFU has always had an excellent academic reputation. Besides, my mom needed some backup in the family!

'I feel like I never decided to be a professional dancer; it’s something that just happened!'

As a dancer, what were some of your greatest class/teachers/experiences in college?

When I was a student, Becky Myers (now Becky Byrd) was the head of the dance department. We formed a very close and supportive relationship; she was a very positive mentor for me. Everyone’s favorite class on campus was Becky’s social dance class!

Becky made sure that the more serious dance students had classes in many different dance styles and that we were exposed to several different teachers and choreographers. This was an incredibly valuable experience as two of the most important skills I learned and used in my dance career were versatility and adaptability. Our distinguished instructors included Fanchon Cordell, Brantly Shapiro, Trish Casey and Diane Markham; we even had the opportunity to work with Edward Villella. Some of my fondest memories are from performing in the annual dance concerts onstage in the Scales Fine Arts Center.

What was it like being a professional showgirl in Las Vegas for several years? Not all glitz and glamour, we assume!

I took my first dance class at age 2 and studied ballet, jazz and tap throughout childhood. I started dancing professionally in theme park shows as a summer job when I was 16 and continued to do theme park shows in the summers all through high school and college. I feel like I never decided to be a professional dancer; it’s something that just happened!

After I graduated I danced at Tokyo Disneyland. Then I found myself on cruise ships and subsequently moved on to Las Vegas. One job and adventure in show biz just led to another and I went with it! I would not change a single minute of my dance career because it never feels like a job when you are doing what you truly love! I was surrounded by bright, fun, crazy and talented people. The antics in the dressing room are often more fun than being onstage itself. It was rewarding to put a smile on the audiences’ faces and take them away from their everyday lives for an hour or so. I also enjoyed being a part of Las Vegas history by carrying the title of the classic Las Vegas Showgirl.

Cooke performs on 'the silks' at the Tropicana in Las Vegas.

One of the more rewarding aspects of my career came from learning aerial work. I started by learning specific bungee and Spanish web skills for a particular show I was in, and that led to learning silks, hammock, lyra and several other original aerial apparatus. I was able to supplement my dancing with freelance aerial work for about 13 years. Learning aerial acrobatics was an incredible and exciting challenge and something that I never had imagined doing.

There was plenty of glitz and glamour onstage, but there are always not-so-great experiences! Poor management, politics and catty drama-stirring castmates can always ruin what could be a great show! There is no union in Las Vegas to protect dancers, so pay can be cut, show schedules can change, additional promotional duties can be added, privileges can be taken away and people can be fired at any time and with no warning. Pay for a dancer has definitely not kept up with the times. Dancers abuse their bodies for a relatively short career and then are faced with starting over. Unfortunately a lot of dancers don’t have a quality education to build on after life onstage is over. The inevitable career transition can be very difficult and emotionally taxing.

Cooke as an 'amethyst showgirl.'

Obviously as a dancer you had to stay in great shape. Did your passion for fitness factor in your choice of a second career as a physical therapist assistant?

I have definitely always been passionate about health and fitness. I always enjoyed challenging myself physically. It was a wonderful bonus that my job was also a great workout! Before going back to school, I completed a program and became a certified Pilates instructor. I worked in a studio that was part of an outpatient physical therapy clinic. We used Pilates as part of the patients’ rehabilitation plan of care. This exposure to physical therapy led me to think I could perhaps move further in that direction for a new career.

My passion for movement and functional mobility played a great part in my choice of a second career. As a dancer I experienced plenty of injuries, aches and pains that affected my lifestyle and livelihood. It would be incredibly difficult for me to have to live a life with restricted movement or no mobility at all. I wanted to help people recover from injuries or illness that restricted their movement and therefore affected their quality of life.

Tell us about your new career.

I graduated from the College of Southern Nevada with an Associate of Applied Sciences degree. The program took two years to complete, and it was very challenging. It was tough going back to school as an adult student, facing new technology and getting my brain back into the rhythm of learning and trying to retain new information. I am currently working as a physical therapist assistant at Spring Valley Hospital in Las Vegas. I work on the acute care floors as well as in our inpatient rehabilitation wing. For some of our patients, even sitting up on the edge of the bed can be a major milestone. The most rewarding aspect of this career is seeing our patients make progress from being bedridden or needing a lot of assistance with mobility to being able to walk out our door!

'Unfortunately a lot of dancers don’t have a quality education to build on after life onstage is over.'

Do you have fond memories of Wake Forest?

I have loved following athletes through their professional careers. Special memories include seeing the Quad rolled after a big win, strolling through Reynolda Gardens and Christmas candlelight services in Wait Chapel. I have kept in touch with friends from my freshman hall as well as some of my roommates. Besides Becky Byrd, other favorite teachers from my time are Harold Tedford in theatre and Professor Ed Wilson(’43) in the English department. There was nothing better than listening to Dr. Wilson recite poetry!

I am so grateful to Wake for providing me with such a well-rounded and excellent education that gave me the foundation I needed to transition from the stage to the hospital! Everyone who attends Wake Forest is forever changed and touched by the experience. I am proud to be able to carry on the spirit of Pro Humanitate through my new career in physical therapy.

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