Dancing becomes more than movement, more than an art form, more than a passion, for one local performer. At the young age of 19, Brenna Cope faced the reality that a rare chronic diagnosis leading to brain surgery could steal her dream right out from under her. The Gov. John R. Rogers High School graduate, knew something did not feel quite right during her sophomore year in high school. By her freshman year at Cornish College of the Arts, the daily headaches, turned into painful “surges,” eventually momentarily robbing her of feeling in her right hand and right foot, impacting rehearsals, but never her drive.

Upon diagnosis of Chiari Malformation, this dancer destined for greatness says one thing never changed. “I can’t let go of it. I can’t let the statistics get in the way of what I was originally dreaming,” Cope says of her determination to become a professional dancer.

Brenna Cope
Brenna Cope at 9 years old, preparing for one of her first lyrical performances. Photo credit: Tony Gamlieli.

Growing up in Puyallup, Cope remembers loving gymnastics as a four-year-old. Her parents enrolled Brenna in regular classes after an early diagnosis of genetic anxiety disorder. An outlet through physical exercise was the prescription that would one day lead this gymnast to the stage. By the age of seven, Cope’s family discovered Elite School of Dance.

“She was very, very timid and shy, very soft-spoken,” says studio co-owner Heidi Gamlieli of her now student, turned teacher and inspirational motivator. That shy seven-year-old danced her way onto the competitive team at Elite School of Dance by the age of 12.

Gamlieli says once Cope put on those pointe shoes and directed her focus to the art of ballet, it was clear there was something special. As just a sophomore in high school, Cope started sharing her talent, by not only dancing at the studio in her hometown, but by becoming a teacher, as well.

“She is confident and hard working. In so many ways, for me, giving a class, she would be honest in correcting students. She would not be one that would overlook anybody. She would see every child in the classroom,” Gamlieli says of Cope as she transitioned from student to teacher.

Brenna at Cornish Broadway Performance Hall
Brenna Cope performs at Show 2 with the Bachelor of Fine Arts students at Cornish Broadway Performance Hall, February 27, 2016. Photo credit: Jazzy Photo.

Upon high school graduation and enrollment in Cornish, one might think this young artist had the world by a string. No one could see her pain, when watching her on stage, no one could possibly be aware of the “surges” spreading from the back of her neck to the front of her head. But, by winter of her freshman year in college, the surges were too much and Brenna remembers her right arm and right leg going completely numb in rehearsal.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) results finally revealed answers. March 28 of this year, Brenna heard the words Chiari Malformation, rare disorder, brain surgery and the whirlwind began. “I stopped immediately, I set my phone down and I prayed,” Gamlieli recalls the exact moment of receiving word.

September is Chiari Malformation Awareness Month. The neurological disorder causes the cerebellum, the bottom part of the brain, to descend out of the skull and crowd the spinal cord. What makes it so difficult to treat is the fact that it affects each of its 300,000 patients (in the U.S. alone) differently.

Brenna in Physical Therapy
Shoulder strengthening exercises are a difficult task, but she sees improvement daily. Photo credit: Shannon Carr-Cohen.

“I am sick. I will be sick until the day I die. I have to say it. I have to tell myself that in order not to get depressed about it,” Cope reminds herself regularly. However, with sophomore year underway, this dancer’s future appears brighter than ever.  “I’m almost four months post-op and I’m driving and going back to college and dancing,” Cope proudly states as she celebrates her 20th birthday this month too.

Brenna’s class-load focuses more on academics this year. Her fewer dance credits will allow her to stay on track toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts, while spending time on physical therapy and her new goal of raising awareness of this rare disorder, and keeping her eye on the prize of dancing professionally.

“I wanted to go professional. I wanted it to be possibly a contemporary/ballet company. I didn’t care if it was small. I didn’t care if it didn’t make a name for itself. I just wanted to dance,” Cope recalls before ever knowing what Chiari Malformation even was. “I still have that hope. I just know it won’t be as long of a period. It will probably be short-lived,” Cope says.

Elite School of Dance Class
Brenna Cope’s students thank her after their final Lyrical class in the Spring of 2015. Photo courtesy: Elite School of Dance.

One of Cope’s academic courses this fall is creative writing. She may even pursue a Master of Arts in Communications, for the sole purpose of educating and helping others facing Chiari Malformation. She is off to a great start with a blog about her surgery, about perseverance, and now returning to Cornish to succeed through an arts school with accommodations for her disability.

“We are really thrilled to welcome her back for fall semester,” Cornish Dance Department Chair, Victoria Watts, Ph.D says of Cope. “There has been no hesitation from anyone in finding flexible solutions for Brenna to continue her education with us. We are preparing them to be good citizens, innovators, change-makers,” Watts adds. It seems Cope remains on track to do just that, one plié at a time.