Meet COCA’s 2022 Pre-Professional Division Seniors

Dance Program Seniors

Naomi Bentley

It’s all I’ve known. Dance is life, my art, my air, my oxygen, my H2O, my love, my best friend, and my enemy. It makes me fight for justice, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me mad, and makes me better. What I can’t say in words, my art creates, and I dance. Dance is my dance. It’s how I communicate with God. Dance has been everything, and then not enough. And when it’s not enough, I dig deeper, and I dance. I dance to bring life back into the things that have lost its beauty. I improvise to speak what people are afraid to speak. I don’t know who I’d be without dance. My mom says she knew I was made for the arts when I was a baby because I would match her pitch when she sang scales. After my first dance performance, that singer took a seat, and the dancer came forth. From that day on, I danced, spinned, and leaped everywhere…barefoot, on concrete, in the aisle of stores, and bus stops. I begged my parents to take dance classes. Soon, I began at Stages St. Louis, where I grew as a triple threat. But it wasn’t enough. And then COCA became home. While I have faced challenges, I am blessed to be able to take the level of classes offered here. But most of all, it’s being in COCAdance that has shaped, pushed, and pulled the gift of improv found in me. I have to thank my teachers and my experiences here at COCA for helping develop into the dancer I am becoming.

Zoe Clark

It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. COCA has helped me transform into the aspiring artist I am today. Through my time at COCA, I have had the privilege to work in a professional setting, to train with inspirational teachers such as Antonio and Kirven, to participate in master classes and intense residencies, and to learn what it means to use my passion to develop and fuel my performance. Life is not easy, and during Freshman year, I faced a major adversity which caused a setback in my life. However, by using my love for dance and COCA’s support, I became a stronger, more determined, and more resilient person. As we all face adversity in our lifetimes, we can use these significant changes to become stronger, more empathetic, and more understanding people. We can replace the pain by finding joy and gratitude in our lives. Dance has taught me what it means to truly live in the moment, to let go of what you cannot control, to take risks, and to be vulnerable. When working with Shamel Pitts in a COCAdance residency, he highlighted the importance of living your own fantasy. As I continue my development as an artist, I know that this is an extremely difficult career path to go down; but I want to embrace every moment and every second of it. I want to live life to the fullest by doing what I love. I want to dream, create, and give all I’ve got to give. I want to inspire others to follow their passions and instigate change in a world where change is needed, where stories are told, where people’s voices need to be heard. So for COCA students, I encourage you all to embrace every second of your time here; it flies by. Take advantage of the moment, the opportunities you are given, and the ability to create. Growing as an artist is not only for your personal growth but also for the growth and strength of the community, the community you create, the community of artists that are set out to tell people’s stories and change how society operates. As I aspire to incorporate artistry into my career, I have learned how essential it is to never let go of the joy, passion, and hope that drives my excitement for the work I do. COCA has taught me how to push past my limits and achieve the impossible through hard work, grit, determination, and incorporating my joy into my work ethic. I’m excited to announce my commitment to Point Park next year with a BFA in Theatre Arts (or Elon with a BFA in Dance and Choreography). I would not be where I am today without the help from Antonio, Kirven, Kam Saunders, Gina Bon-Perez, Kathleen, and many other wonderful teachers. Most importantly, I would not be where I am today without the loving and ever abundant support from my mom and sister. You both have given me everything I could ever ask for in life, so thank you. You have all inspired me to be the person and artist I am today, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Pathra “Somo” Dedkhad

I always knew I loved to dance, but never thought where it could lead me to. I started off as a little girl dancing to Missy Elliot music videos, playing Just Dance, and eventually going to my first dance studio. These past 5 years at COCA have been one of the best experiences of not only my dance journey, but my life. I’ve been able to learn from amazing teachers and made friends who became my lifelong family. Thank you, Anthony “Redd” Williams, for seeing my potential and giving me so many opportunities that I couldn’t have done without you. Thank you, Jasmine Spencer, for making me realize my worth as a creative and being an amazing inspiration as a young girl. Thank you, Ms. Lauren Cram, for being the person to push my fashion design path and showing support throughout my life. Thank you to my family for supporting and encouraging me at my shows and all my passions. Thank you to my mom for taking the time out of your life to support my dreams physically, mentally, and financially. I will forever be thankful for you being at all my shows, staying for long rehearsals and shoots, making sure I have meals, and taking me to dance and jobs whenever you can. Thank you to my dad for being the first person to introduce me to the dance world. Without him I don’t think the past 9 years of my life would’ve been the same. Thank you to COCA faculty for the hard work that you put into our shows and taking care of us. This fall, I will major in fashion studies at Columbia College Chicago while continuing my dance training in the city. ขอบคุณค่ะ (Thank You)

Sasha Kaslow

I started dancing at COCA when I was two years old, and from the very beginning, this place has been like a second home. This community has shaped me into the person I am today, given me countless opportunities, and introduced me to some of my very best friends. Next year, I will continue my dance and academic studies at the University of California Santa Barbara with a double major in dance and business marketing. There are so many people I want to thank for making this journey possible. First, my teachers. Mrs. Ellen: your kindness and words of wisdom have meant so much. Mrs. Jen: you have made me into the dancer I am today. It was the constant support and tough love that kept me going all these years, I will forever look up to you. Kirven: you showed me the joy in dance and made it something I look forward to each and every day. Your humor gets me through those long Saturday rehearsals and your wisdom and guidance has always inspired me. Antonio: I don’t even know where to begin. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. Thank you for believing in me no matter what and pushing me further every day, you have been an incredible role model. Next, I want to thank Sasha. Words can’t describe how much you mean to me. Every step of this journey has been with you by my side, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Thank you for being my best friend. Finally, Mom, Dad, and Maya: Thank you for being my rock through it all. Who would have thought that ballet class 16 years ago would lead us here—I owe it all to you. COCA: You will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you for showing me my love for dance. You will be missed.

Sasha Keller

I’ve been dancing at COCA since I was 2 years old, almost 16 years now. Dance has been the most constant thing in my life. The influence it has had on me is never ending. I’ve learned how essential it is to respect your teachers, to make strong connections with my peers, and the importance of mental discipline. From hours in the studio to company rehearsals and practicing at home, dance really is always on my mind. I will forever cherish everything I’ve learned about myself and dance during my time at COCA. I want to thank my teachers, Mr. Antonio, Ms. Jen, and Mr. Kirven. Mr. Kirven, your youthful presence and encouragement will continue to motivate me and influence me in the future. Ms. Jen, your artistry continues to inspire me, and I only hope to embody some of the love you show for dance in your classes and choreography. You’ve taught me everything I know about ballet, and I am so grateful for how much you’ve impacted me and my life. Antonio, it makes me so emotional to think that I will not see you every day next year. You’ve single handedly helped me understand who I am as a dancer and have shown so much care for my individuality. You push me in ways that no one has before, and your uplifting energy consistently reintroduces me to my love for dance. You have no idea how much you mean to me. And I want to thank my best friend, Sasha Kaslow, you’ve been by my side for this entire journey, and I truly couldn’t have done it without you. You’ve always cheered me on and have been a constant source of comfort during all the stressful hours. You will always be my favorite dance partner. Next year, I will be attending Hamilton College in New York on the pre-med track. I will take what I’ve learned at COCA everywhere I go, and while I am unsure how dance will fit into my future, I am confident that it will always be a part of my identity.

Noelle Malone

I took my first class at COCA in the sixth grade. It was the polar opposite of any dance studio I had ever experienced in my life. The big studios and artistic directors with the name Alvin Ailey on their resume were intimidating, to say the least. I was so nervous that for the first 5 months I didn’t speak to anyone. Not to my teachers or any other students. My fear almost made me miss out on an experience that helped me learn and grow in ways. The following year, I joined COCA’s Pre-Professional company. It was through daily classes, rehearsals, and residencies that I could open up to all that COCA had to offer. It unleashed a passion for creativity and artistry that I didn’t know I was capable of. I met new people and made friendships I will cherish forever. In dance, I learned that my greatest strength when I walk into a room is my confidence and assurance in my capabilities. I will never truly be fearless, that is simply not in my nature, but I will forever remember COCA as the place I learned to embrace my fears and never let them control me. I am excited to share that I will continue my artistic journey at Columbia College Chicago as a dance major in their BFA program and a member of their honors program. I want to thank everyone who has been a part of my journey so far; my parents, sister, teachers, and friends who supported me. I appreciate you all so much!

Kara Munz

My name is Kara Munz and I have danced at COCA for 13 years. I have taken every class from modern with Ms. Mariko, ballet with Ms. Carrie, to jazz with Kam Saunders. At 12, I had 9 dance classes a week which, in addition to increased time management skills, taught me how to be dedicated to the process of learning through practice and determination. Today, I have roots in all styles but my passion for dance and the reason I could never stop were found in the wooden tap studio and the old black box. I found freedom within tap and hip-hop because of their attention to rhythm with accents, texture, and syncopated beats.

Thank you, Ms. Kelly, for teaching me how to relax and have confidence. You taught me that dance, and especially tap is about dancing together—and not just with steps but by being present and having fun with people around you. Your contagious love for tap has rubbed off on all your students. I will forever miss jamming across the floor with you. 

Redd Williams: the most creatively inclined, passionately driven, and caring person I have met so far in my life. Thank you for seeing my potential and embracing me under your wing. You not only taught me to dance but how to be a good person—to be humble, always give 100%, and never stop learning. I know, as it is my last year at COCA it is yours as well. I’ve never been more excited to see what bigger than imaginable things the future holds for anybody more than you. 

Hey mom, thanks for being there for it all, even in class. Not a lot of people can say that they have danced between their two sisters and their mom. You’ve taught me to never stop doing what you love. mUNsters for life. Thanks, dad, for making the runs and teaching me how to drive. I am proud of you for learning how to clap on beat. You really can keep up. 

In the fall, I will be attending Belmont University to major in Arts, Entertainment and Media Management. 

Nadia Rawlins

My first day at COCA feels like yesterday, it’s truly hard to believe that it was 5 years ago. I remember being super nervous sitting in the theatre for the first rehearsal for The Lion King, Jr. because I didn’t know anyone, but I was welcomed with open arms. That fall, I started COCAdance, Vocal Company, and the fall musical The Wiz. I never knew that the decision to spend my free time at COCA would shape who I am and what I love today.

In my time in COCA’s Pre-Professional programs I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned new styles of dance and vocal technique, how to work with different choreographers and directors, but most importantly I’ve learned what it feels like when friends can become family. I love you all, and I will miss every single one of you next year.    

This summer, I will be a part of the onstage collective and perform in New York. I will also be a part of The Muny Teens and perform in Mary Poppins and Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. In the fall, I will be attending Western Michigan University with a major in musical theatre and a minor in dance. I want to thank all my teachers for pushing me to be better, my friends and family for encouraging me along the way, and especially my mom. Thank you for putting me in my first dance class and always believing in me. It’s hard to believe my time at COCA has come to an end, but I’m eternally grateful for the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained. I’ll always remember, Once a COCA kid always a COCA kid! 

Lauren Renner

In the four years I’ve been at COCA, I’ve gotten stronger and grown to be more confident in my movements. I’m so grateful that I got to take class every day in COCA’s beautiful studios with such amazing teachers. I have Ms. Jen, Antonio, and Ms. Ellen to thank for helping me get to the level that I am at. This summer, I will be going to Kansas City Ballet summer intensive on a full scholarship and dancing as a trainee year round with Sarasota Ballet Company in Florida. Most of all, I want to thank my mom for her unconditional support—without her I wouldn’t be able to follow my passion.

Kimyra Stapleton

When I started my journey at COCA, I didn’t know what to expect. One thing that I quickly realized about COCA was that everyone here is unique in their own way. COCA has allowed me to express myself through dance during times where I needed it most. COCA isn’t just about dance, it’s also about family. During my time at COCA, I gained several friendships with amazing people that I’ll always cherish. This summer, I’ll continue to train and spend lots of time with my friends and family before I leave. Furthermore, I’m proud to say that I’ll be attending Spelman University in Atlanta, Georgia, this fall. I will be majoring in pre-med biology to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon. I will continue my journey with dance as a Mahogany-N-Motion dancer for Spelman. First and foremost, I would like to thank my parents Kimberly and Demetrius Stapleton for supporting me financially and encouraging everything that I do, nothing would be possible without you two. I would also like to thank all of my siblings and my boyfriend who has supported me along the way. I’d like to thank Redd Williams for always seeing in me what I always couldn’t see in myself. You opened so many doors for me and gave me so many opportunities that I’ll never forget. I’ll take all your catch phrases with me as well. Such as, “Did y’all catch that tea?,” “This isn’t a soup kitchen,” and many more! I would also like to thank Jasmine Spencer for always pushing me past my limits since my first class with her. Jas, you’ve taught me so many things that are not only useful for dance but useful in the real world, too. I’d like to thank all my teachers at COCA and the entire COCA staff for everything that you guys do. Toodles!

Diana Tschomakoff

Coming to COCA over 10 years ago is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Immersing myself in such a supportive, creative, and motivating community has changed me in ways that I’ll never forget and will cherish as I move forward. Being surrounded by students and teachers who are extremely talented and dedicated to dance has been so inspiring and one of the many factors that pushed me to continue. Ever since I hit the eligible age to join, my mom urged me each year to audition for one of COCA’s Pre-Professional companies, but I would always say no because I thought that I wouldn’t be good enough. To me, dance was just a hobby, something that I loved but didn’t take as seriously. I finally mustered up the courage to audition the summer before my sophomore year, and I could not be more grateful to have been accepted into COCAdance. Being in this company has exposed me to incredible opportunities and helped me improve, rediscover myself, and further develop my passion. I have learned so much and gained confidence to where I feel prepared to take on any obstacle that gets thrown my way. Starting in the fall of 2022, I will be attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where I will major in Art & Design. Thank you so much to Sam, Ms. Mariko, Ms. Jen, Ms. Ellen, Kirven, and Antonio for pushing me past my comfort zone and constantly challenging me to become a better dancer. Thank you, mom, for believing in me and supporting my journey at COCA for so many years. Finally, to all my friends in company and class, thank you for creating a space where I could be myself and be vulnerable without judgment. I will miss you guys and everyone at COCA so much.

Sophie Yoshino

I came to COCA when I was just four years old, and fourteen years later, I still remember my first class. I remember struggling to put on my little leather ballet shoes, clutching to my mom, and timidly waiting until the last minute to enter the studio. But my teacher’s warm voice and the sight of pink tutus welcomed me in. The set of steps and strict technique of ballet allowed me to start as an observer and slowly develop more expansive movements that gave me the opportunity to channel my artistic expression. When my first big performance as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz came, I found a love for performing. The next year, I was old enough to join Ballet Eclectica, but self-doubt and shyness prevented me from auditioning. However, thanks to the encouragement of Antonio, a year later I was able to join Ballet Eclectica’s junior apprentice company where I have grown so much as a dancer and artist. I would also like to thank Ms. Carrie for sparking my joy of dancing in my formative years, Ms. Jen and Ms. Ellen for pushing me to expand beyond what I thought I could do, Kirven for making me smile, and my parents, especially my mom for fueling my interest by showing me DVDs of the Rite of Spring and Swan Lake in her office. Although I still cannot match the speed of Tiler Peck’s chaîné turns or the height of Natalia Osipova’s jumps, I have acquired an outlook on life that is tinted with the rosy hue of pointe shoes, seamed tights, and flowing tutus. One that weaves my different interests together, ignites discovery, and connects me with my community. Next fall, I will attend WashU where I will most likely major in the University’s philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program and continue my love of ballet by minoring in dance. 

Theatre Artist Program Seniors

Jerron Higgins Headshot

Jerron Higgins

I am a proud senior at Kipp High School-St. Louis. A seed has been planted within me that is maturing into an admiration for the arts. I have developed a natural flair to engage my artistic vision which has allowed me to gravitate toward performance theatre that gives me a rush beyond measure. Understanding, embracing, and celebrating different ways of thinking has provided me the opportunity to work with and learn from COCA. The exposure is only the beginning as it is fruitful. Thankful for the instructors, private coaches, and my peers who I have had the opportunity to learn from and share the stage with will forever be in my heart and carry me far in life. From voice coaching to improv troupe to acting lessons to being on stage has been exciting—and I know I can only go up from here. In following my dreams, I recognize that commitment, dedication, and balance are just a few traits I need to have a successful career. My passion for the performing arts further lets me know this is my calling to share my talents with the world. I will begin my journey at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama, majoring in Theatre Arts.

I have dared to dream bigger for my passion, myself, and my family. It was once told to me “If you have a heartfelt desire to do something meaningful with your life, righteous roads often seem to appear out of nowhere.” I have beat the odds. My story is my defining moment. The vision that I have set for me is my greatest joy and accomplishment. Here’s to the Class of 2022.

Julia Nelson

Having been born and raised in University City, COCA was where I went for school field trips or summer camps; I never fully grasped the scope COCA has—until my Junior year of High School. Interviewing for PPD (Design-Tech) was one of the most impactful decisions I have ever made. I have learned and gotten more hands-on experience in my one year at COCA than I have in any other program or class. COCA’s structure of not just being taught by, but being able to work alongside professionals has been imperative to my growth as an artist. It showed me not only that I have a feasible goal and career path, but what a day on the job looks like. This summer, I will be working on sets and props for Matilda The Musical and The Wolves. In the fall, I will be attending Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in London, majoring in Scenic Arts.

I want to thank Jacob Cange and Cameron Tesson for allowing me to build beside them, Jayson Lawshee for guiding my tech education and always asking how my day at school was, and Delaney Piggins for writing me a glowing recommendation letter and organizing my year with my future always in mind.

Lauren Perry

Over the last 6 years, much of my personal growth has happened at COCA, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It has inspired me to pursue theatre in any way I can, whether it’s performance, tech, or simply being an usher or an audience member. This summer, I will be working as a TA for COCA Summer Arts Camps, and I will be performing in The Wolves as #11 at COCA. I am still undecided on what school I will be attending in the fall, but I know I will further my study in theatre. A special thank you to my mentor, Colin Healy, for teaching me to try everything, to be confident in myself, and to learn everything I can. And another thank you to all the COCA teachers and staff for creating a safe space for me and so many others. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Finally, thank you to my family for being the most supportive and encouraging of my passions as I grow as an artist and as a person. I couldn’t begin to say how thankful I am for y’all.