Story by Jennifer Linn | Photography by Erin O. Smith
Madia Cooper-Ashirifi says her job doesn’t feel like work.
“I don’t like my job here. I love my job here!” said the visiting assistant professor of dance at Brenau University.
Cooper-Ashirifi said dance is the medium through which she shows the world who she truly is and who she aspires to be. Working as a dance educator has brought her joy and happiness.
Cooper-Ashirifi is in her second year teaching various subjects at the college she once attended. This semester, she’s teaching jazz, a special topics course called Black Dance Studies, Composition II and a freshman seminar — all while preparing to be a dance major and teaching methods of dance education.
As a teacher, Cooper-Ashirifi said her specialties are modern dance, Afro modern, west African and jazz.
“I am an avid lover of all things dance, actually,” she said. “Anything that is creative, well-crafted, well-performed gets my attention. That (ranges) from classical ballet to urban hip hop and everything in between. … I’m just a lover of all things dance.”
A child of Liberian parents, Cooper-Ashirifi was born in Ohio and raised in Albany. Her mother fled the West African country of Liberia while pregnant with Madia. A monastery in Liberia assisted her mother in the move to the United States.
Cooper-Ashirifi said she began dancing when she was 2 1/2 years old. She later started playing classical piano and violin, which culminated in a love of all music genres.
As her college days approached, she dreamed of going out of state to pursue music. But when Cooper-Ashirifi was a senior in high school, her mother fell ill. So the teenager decided to remain in Georgia and stay close to her mother. That’s when she discovered Brenau’s dance program.
“I actively wanted to dance and perform,” she said. “But at the same time, I also wanted an income. So that’s why I chose the track of dance education.”
After graduating from Brenau in 2004 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance education, Cooper-Ashirifi worked in the Gwinnett County school system for several years. She then moved to New York and earned a master of fine arts in dance choreography and performance at The College at Brockport, State University of New York.
Her resume in dance education expanded as she taught dance and choreographed pieces at colleges and universities, such as Middle Tennessee State University, where she worked for five years prior to coming to Brenau. She also guest taught at several colleges and universities over the last seven years.
“I heard about the Brenau job through a good friend, and of course, through Facebook,” Cooper-Ashirifi said.
The ‘good friend,’ Natalie Dollar, a fellow Brenau alum, reminded Cooper-Ashirifi of her passion and suggested her skill in dance should be shared with the college they both attended.
“Therefore, I wanted to give back and educate the world’s future artists and dance specialists at Brenau University,” she said.
Cooper-Ashirifi interviewed for the position at Brenau when she was eight months pregnant with her son. She got the job followed by a couple of whirlwind events. She gave birth to her son and moved her family to Lawrenceville in summer 2015.
Two years later, Cooper-Ashirifi is happy to be making a living doing what she loves at her alma mater.
“Every element of Brenau I love,” she said. “No. 1, my colleagues have been great. They have been accepting. We have great conversations. We really bounce many ideas off one another.
“We all have similar backgrounds similar moral compasses, and we just have that vibe,” she said of her colleagues.
Cooper-Ashirifi also said she believes in a rigorous learning regimen and pushes her students to achieve.
“All of our students are dedicated. They’re passionate, talented (and) respectful,” she said. “I really do see success (for them) … whether it’s in dance or something else. Many of them are going to be successful and great leaders.”
The feeling seems to be mutual.
“I think she’s great to work with, because she really pushes you as a student. And she’s by force going to pull it out,” said Shanik Moore, a Brenau senior who has taken several classes from Cooper-Ashirifi’s.
The dance education major said Cooper-Ashirifi teaches real-world values and doesn’t baby students, which will prepare her for life after graduation.
Moore also decided to follow a similar path as Cooper-Ashirifi. Originally, she enrolled as a dance performance major but changed to dance education.
“I think I have a greater opportunity there to impact more lives and also it’s more substantial,” she said. “With this, you have a certificate to teach in schools, and you can eventually progress to university status.”
The dance program at Brenau is open to male and female students. Several shows are open to the public each year, including the annual Evening of Dance in November that showcases works by students taking dance composition II. It gives students a chance to learn how to put together a dance production, Cooper-Ashirifi said.
Brenau students aren’t the only ones to learn from Cooper-Ashirifi’s expertise. She travels for residency opportunities at other colleges and universities. She recently received her second residency at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she will focus on black women and dance and the complexity of the black dancing body.
Residencies typically last three to five days and allow colleges or universities to bring in educators who have specialties in the topics they will address.
“The black dancing body has been and is viewed as an entity encapsulated by the African Diaspora and is given the label of ‘over sexuality’ through lens of society,” Cooper-Ashirifi said.
A diaspora is a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived.
“Why is the black body viewed as a sexual ‘object?’” Cooper-Ashirifi asked. “This question and statement is what I lecture about and research about in regards to black dancing bodies and dance being underrepresented and discriminating(ly) labeled in order to ostracize.”
Outside of work, Cooper-Ashirifi performs in a West African dance troupe in Chattanooga performing throughout the Southeast. She also enjoys cooking and spending time with friends and family, including husband, Kwabena, and 16-month-old son, Cooper Nana.