Celebrating Women’s History Month

Spotlight on Kelly Tonina Cooper

Kelly Tonina Cooper with Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education Creative Movement students. Photo by Kim Evans.

Atlanta Ballet and its Centre for Dance Education wouldn’t be what they are without all of their leading ladies – on-stage, in the studio and behind-the-scenes. In honor of Women’s History Month, we are thrilled to spotlight one of the organization’s most fabulous females, Kelly Tonina Cooper – who is celebrating 10 years at Atlanta Ballet this month.

Depending on your particular involvement at Atlanta Ballet, you might know Kelly Tonina as one of the following: the Centre’s Administrative Director; a Creative Movement instructor; a member of the executive leadership team; the Co-Chair of the Atlanta Ballet’s Transformation Team and leading member of the organization’s D&I Task Force. Regardless of which of her many hats you typically see her wearing, Kelly Tonina’s impact on Atlanta Ballet and the dance community is certainly unparalleled, and we are excited to share more about her background.

A fiery ball of energy and determination, Kelly Tonina showed signs of a true performer at an early age. When her great aunt found nine-year-old Kelly Tonina sneaking into the living room late at night to learn the choreography featured in MTV music videos, it was clear she needed to seek out new ways for Kelly Tonina to express her physical and creative energy.

A young Kelly Tonina Cooper.

She started with musical theatre and acting, and eventually joined a dance team, which is where her great aunt was told that she should put Kelly Tonina in ballet. While she didn’t push for ballet, she continued to dabble in sports and cheerleading to scratch her lingering performance itch. It actually wasn’t until she went to college that she was really introduced to ballet and the importance of formal training.

Kelly Tonina took a variety of dance classes as electives when she started at University of Florida, but even though she preferred jazz, contemporary movement and musical theatre, she soon realized that she would need to master the basics of ballet in order to keep up with her dance-major classmates. “I felt so out of place in ballet class, and it was so hard,” she said. Determined to catch up with her fellow cohorts who had decades of ballet training and experience on her, Kelly Tonina starting taking ballet classes at Santa Fe College in addition to her classes at University of Florida.

“I really fell in love with ballet at that point,” she said. “The smaller classes and supportive environment helped me really enjoy myself and the art, which allowed me to really thrive.”

And thrive she did, as various dance achievements shortly followed. Kelly Tonina was selected at a major Disney audition hosted at University of Florida; she restaged Janet Jackson’s “If” for the opening of University of Florida’s “Gator Growl” – an event attended by 50,000 people; and at 20 years young, she was finally on pointe!

After graduating from college with a BS in Advertising and outside concentration in Business, Kelly Tonina joined Dance Theatre of Santa Fe – a professional dance group with Santa Fe College that called for dancing full-time and traveling for performances. She also created her own dance group, “On the Verge,” which allowed her to experiment with choreographing.

Kelly Tonina Cooper and former Atlanta Ballet 2 dancer Remi Nakano. Photo by Kim Kenney.

At some point, dance was put on the backburner as Kelly Tonina explored other passions and professions in Florida. She was working as a makeup artist when a few friends encouraged her to move to Atlanta, where she would have opportunities to assist with makeup in fashion shows for brands like FUBU and Baby Phat. After a few years, she transitioned to a full-time job as a Production Manager with StudentBridge (formerly Realview TV), a video marketing firm focused on the higher education and hospitality industries. One day, she came across a website that listed a part-time front desk position open at Atlanta Ballet. She started with Atlanta Ballet as a weekend gig, but little did she know that this job would kick-start her career trajectory as an administrative arts professional.

After only about a year and a half at the front desk, Dean Sharon Story offered Kelly Tonina a full-time position at Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education. “Ten years ago, I observed Kelly Tonina over several months, quietly working the front desk and expertly managing the Saturday morning excitement-filled chaos that comes with the job,” Dean Story recalls. “After watching her efficiently navigate those mornings and evenings, I reached out to her to inquire if she would like to take on some more administrative duties. Thankfully, she said yes!" 

“I loved being at the Ballet and surrounded by the dancers and artists,” Kelly Tonina said. “One afternoon, I remember the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra happened to be rehearsing in a studio while I was working the front desk. The music came wafting through the lobby, and I just started to cry. I knew right then that this is where I wanted to be.” 

After another year or so, Kelly Tonina was promoted as Admissions Director of the school. Shortly after that, she was promoted to Administrative Director, handling the billing and administrative efforts for all three Centre locations, and working directly with the parents and students. As if her hands weren’t full enough, she also began teaching Creative Movement classes, which gave her the opportunity to influence the Centre’s tiniest dancers.

By talking about behind-the-scenes roles, different composers and various genres of music, Kelly Tonina’s teaching approach for these young students was (and is) a balanced mix of ballet technique, dance and arts history, and fun. 

“I always aim to provide the kids with a well-rounded introduction to the dance world beyond the artists on stage,” she said. “I try to remember that they are not only the next generation of dancers, but they are our future patrons, donors and performing arts enthusiasts. I want them to take great joy with them when they leave my studio.”

Kelly Tonina Cooper backstage with Centre for Dance Education students at Spring Concert.

As a woman who identifies as multi-racial, Kelly Tonina also aims to ensure that each and every student feels welcome in her class. 

“The first time I walked into a studio, I immediately realized that I didn’t look like the rest of the class, which definitely deterred me from continuing to dance,” she said. “But once I stepped into a studio that offered a supportive and inclusive environment, I felt a sense of equilibrium – like I belonged there because I could dance. In addition to discovering ways for people everywhere to have access to the arts, it is my goal to make young dancers feel seen, accepted and supported in the studio.” 

Kelly Tonina’s passion for increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in dance has evolved into an official – and hugely important – role at Atlanta Ballet. Four years ago, she was asked to participate as an Atlanta Ballet representative for The Equity Project – a three-year partnership program to support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet companies. After proving to be exceptional in facilitating meetings and managing difficult conversations, she was also asked to be the co-chair of Atlanta Ballet’s Transformation Team, an internal committee made up of representatives from all sectors of the organization who help plan and monitor diversity and inclusion initiatives within the company.  Since then, Kelly Tonina has continued to evolve as a leader at Atlanta Ballet as a member of the executive leadership team as well as a leading member of the organization’s D&I Task Force.

“All of Kelly Tonina’s many duties and hats that she wears are always achieved with the highest of standards and integrity, embracing the hallmarks of the Centre,” Dean Story continued. “I am very proud of Kelly Tonina’s journey and treasure her contributions to the Centre and Atlanta Ballet team, and we all look forward to watching her continue to thrive.”

Diligent and driven, Kelly Tonina has persistently sought out every opportunity to take her personal knowledge and professional growth to the next level. In 2015, she was selected for Atlanta Ballet’s internal mentorship program that was created by President & CEO Arturo Jacobus, where she spent seven months shadowing leaders of every department – learning what they do and how it impacts the organization. In 2019, Arturo offered to support her participation in Georgia Center for Nonprofit’s High Potential Diverse Leaders – a leadership development program designed to provide the “rising stars” at Georgia’s nonprofits with the skills needed to assume executive level responsibilities. That experience inspired her to go back to school to get her Masters in Nonprofit Administration, which she will receive from Louisiana State University Shreveport at the end of May.

“Kelly Tonina is amazing,” said Jacobus. “She has, on the one hand, consistently taken every opportunity to improve her professional qualifications and credentials by taking numerous professional development and leadership development courses and seminars, while at the same time she has stepped up for more and more responsibility within the organization. As a result, Kelly Tonina has risen rapidly through the ranks and has proven herself to be a valued member of the executive team, as well as an inspiring leader around Atlanta Ballet’s efforts to enhance its D&I initiatives. As such, she has made a significant and lasting contribution to Atlanta Ballet’s evolution and advancement.”

Kelly Tonina Cooper.

Despite a fully booked schedule and an impressive resume full of accolades and achievements, Kelly Tonina is not slowing down any time soon. 

“My experiences in all of these different roles, programs and initiatives have opened my eyes to exactly how important nonprofits are in the functioning of a community,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be able to make a difference at Atlanta Ballet, and hope to one day be the CEO of a nonprofit organization that could similarly impact the lives of so many.”

In addition to her many roles at Atlanta Ballet and its Centre for Dance Education, Kelly Tonina is a member of the National Society for Leadership and Success, on the Board of Out Front Theatre, and in the process of receiving her D&I training certification through Diversity Executive Leadership Academy.

In all of her spare time between full-time work and Masters student, Kelly Tonina continues to do professional makeup for fashion shows, photo shoots and dance performances, enjoys writing screenplays (she was hired to write a screen adaptation of best-selling novel, HER by Felicia Johnson, in 2016), and has been teaching herself to speak French. She also recently adopted a Chihuahua named Matisse.