Never give up

Lindsey Cooper in her home. Her oldest son’s video games are on the television and toys from playtime with her daughter and second son are spread around her. [Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard]

Survivor of sex trafficking tells how dancing helped her heal and find a new life

Lindsey Cooper is the owner and founder of Identity Dance Company in Springfield. While she lives in Springfield with her husband and three children, she is a Eugene native with great love for her hometown. Unfortunately, it’s also where her nightmare began.

Cooper is a vibrant and strong mother, passionate dancer, and sex trafficking survivor. Although pain and suffering may be a large part of her past, faith and hope are a bigger part of her future.

Lost and hopeless

In high school, Cooper was a straight-A student and danced on her high school dance team. She fell in love with dance and wanted to study it in college. Cooper didn’t care about school so much, but she knew she wanted to dance.

A broken heart from young love left her devastated and trying to bounce back during her freshman year of college. She became involved with people that, she said, started to steer her in the wrong direction, and she began to dabble in the party lifestyle.

“That's normal for any college student. But like anything I do, I kind of go big or go home. So with my newfound friends and newfound knack for partying, I kind of took it to a different level and started really, actually becoming known for that. Then, when I was about 20, I had had a few jobs, I decided I didn't want to go to school anymore.

“I'd been rejected from a couple different dance opportunities and just really never recovered from that, thinking that I would never dance. When I was 20, I vowed that I would never dance again, as I was really hurt by a dance opportunity that I thought I had in the bag and was rejected for it. The party life kind of caught up with me. And that just led to a lot of irresponsibility. I was over-sleeping, not showing up to my jobs and I got fired from two jobs in a row.”

She was left with guilt and confusion about what her had become. Cooper said she was raised to be faithful and responsible and she was ashamed for being fired.

“I was jobless and really kind of hopeless. I wasn't dancing, I really wasn't doing anything that I felt gave me passion. I was just really upset about who I had become. And I'm not really knowing what to do next. Because I had tried so many different things and they just weren't working ... I thought that maybe I was just a failure.”

A fresh start

Cooper’s roommate at the time told her about a job opening. Her roommate had the job before and now that her contract was up felt that Cooper would be a great fit. She would work for a salesman who traveled all over the U.S. visiting fraternities and sororities and selling them gear, supplies and promotional materials.

“When she said that I'd be able to get out of this state, I'd be able to start over, I'd be able to be paid for it, I'd be able to travel, and just kind of start something new for myself — I was hooked. I said, OK, I'm in, tell him to call me. So he did. And we arranged a lunch at (a restaurant), right here in Eugene. And I met him.

“He was dressed really nice and very handsome. He was 13 years older than me, I was 21 by this time, and he was 34. And I didn't think anything of that I just met him. I thought that he would just be kind of like my boss, and I’d get to travel with this guy. He even told me at the lunch that we would have separate hotel rooms, and it would be very professional and that I wouldn't have to pay for any of my own food. He covers all expenses.”

The job required Cooper to do the man’s sales order paperwork, some laundry and any other domestic task he didn’t want to do. She said she signed a six-month contract and had two weeks to get her life in order before they left.

“He told me that he was gonna pick me up one day, go take me to get everything I needed for the trip. So I didn't have to pay for it. He took me to get my hair done and my nails done, and then took me to Victoria's Secret. I picked out everything and then we went to dinner.

“I was so used to men that were incredibly, just ridiculously awful, so to me ... This seemed like he cared about me and wanted me to have what I needed for this trip. So it didn't even send me red flags that maybe this was inappropriate, taking me to Victoria's Secret and some other things like that. I remember him even saying to me, you've got to look good if you're going to work for me.”

When it came time to leave, the man had Cooper leave her phone with her parents and told them to call him if they wanted to talk to her, she said. Cooper said her parents were upset and not OK with her going, but they couldn’t force her to stay.

The “trip”

The first leg of the trip lead them to Colorado. Cooper said she was excited for the trip ahead and was glad to go to dinner with the man.

“He took me to dinner again, and we talked, drank and I drank too much. And we ended up sleeping together that night. And also come to find out when we arrived at the hotel that there would be no separate hotel rooms. But he wanted to save money and be able to pay me more and have more money to do ‘fun things.’ So he thought that just one hotel room would be sufficient for us.

“I don't know if I was naive, or I just believed everybody and trusted everybody. Especially because of the way he was treating me and the way he was being so nice and grooming me in a sense, buying me things. I thought that I could trust him. And in my mind, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I just slept with my boss.’ ”

Cooper said she called her roommate to ask for her advice and was shocked when her roommate told her it was “part of the deal.”

“I call her and she says to me, ‘Oh, yeah, that's just part of the deal.’ And I said, ‘OK. What deal?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that's just kind of part of it. It just kind of comes with it.’

“I remember my mind just racing and my heart beating really fast. And I didn't really understand what that meant, and what she was saying. But I did know that what she was saying was, it's not a big deal. Don't worry about it, just kind of shut off when that is happening and have fun.”

Cooper said her roommate reminded her that she was making money and getting to do fun things so she should just enjoy it. Cooper said she decided she didn’t have anything to worry about and slipped into a weird role where she was treated like a girlfriend, but like she wasn’t supposed to be.

“I thought I could do this, he actually cares for me and I can see it,” Cooper said. “After the first month, I could see that was not the case. And I stuck in it because I felt like I had to.”

A turn for the worse

According to Cooper, the man she thought cared for her and considered a boyfriend became overly controlling and wouldn’t allow her to talk with her parents. He wouldn’t allow her to talk with other people, and she was rarely left alone.

“I was scared because I had seen him get really angry and frustrated at me,” Cooper said. “So I just did what it took for him to be happy. And that included sexual gratification, in the moment I realized that is why I was there. That’s why I was hired.”

At the time, Cooper said she didn’t know that what she was going through was not a relationship.

“One day he just had a face-to-face with me and said that when we get back home, we are not a relationship. This is not a thing. And in fact, this never happened. And I remember when he said this never happened, I thought a little red flag went up. OK, he's just embarrassed of me. Like the way I look or he just doesn't like me or I'm not good enough for him.”

Cooper said it took her years to realize that he was threatening her. That he knew what he was doing was wrong and he was trying to hide it, she said.

Cooper studies Psalm 27:14 as she studies for a talk that she will give later this month. Here she takes note of the passage that she will use. [Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard]

A prayer for help

Around the 4 1/2 month mark of her six-month contract, Cooper said she found herself sitting in his car out in front of sorority and fraternity houses. Cooper said she would often wait in the car for hours listening to music because he wouldn’t allow her to go in with him.

That day, she brought her journal along with her and began recording all of their activities and the places they went. She said journaling stemmed from a need for a connection.

“I was raised in church and I was raised deep faith and had really been away from that for a while. I hadn't danced in a year, swore it off, said I wouldn't ever do it again. And I remember being in the car that day and just being so, I'm not even sure if miserable is the right word, but just being sold on literally feeling like I have lost every single ounce of myself. I didn't even know what it was.

“I remember taking my journal out and starting to write and I think I was trying to normalize the whole thing. But I remember writing it, then it turned into a prayer and I just said, 'God, if you get me home safe, then I'll dance and I'll dance for you.'”

Shortly after, she said the man presented her with an envelope. She said he paid her electronically so she knew it wasn’t a check. When she opened it, she found a plane ticket and was disappointed at the thought that they’d be traveling again.

“I was just tired at that point. We are traveling all the time, either on a plane, driving all hours of the night. Traveling like 16 states in four months was just exhausting. I tried to stifle my disappointment. But I really wasn't excited until he told me to look at the plane ticket. So where are we going? And he's like, not us, just you. And I looked down and it was just one ticket, it said, Eugene, Oregon.

“He was sending me home. And this was very out of character for him. My roommate that had done this had stayed an entire contract with him to my knowledge. He sent me home early. And to me I think that that was so miraculous, and saved me from a lot more heartache and just being around him.”

The aftermath

When Cooper returned home, though she felt it was miraculous, she struggled to go back to the way it was before she went on her “trip.” She spent days in a room at her parents’ house and would barely come out to eat or use the bathroom.

“Back then, really the word ‘trafficking,’ I didn't even know what that meant. I would never even use the word prostitution or anything like that. I remember everything just being really dark. And I think that that's because I was just not feeling like myself. I wasn't feeling joy. I wasn't feeling passion. I wasn't feeling anything. Keep in mind that I had no idea what had happened to me.”

Cooper said she started to think it was her fault. She said she began to miss the man and the lifestyle, because while four months seems short, it became her new normal.

“But then I remembered what I had said in my journal that I was gonna dance. I was like God kept his promise to me. So I'm going to keep my promise to him.”

Eventually, Cooper began taking a fitness dance class at a local gym where she ran into an old friend from the college dance program she was in before her “trip.” The friend recommended her for a position to teach the dance class and Cooper accepted. She also began teaching at another dance studio and successfully regained her passion for dance.

Cooper said teaching and leading through dance became her calling. But on the inside, Cooper said she struggled with her past and what had happened to her. It was hard for her to let go of the friends she made when she lived the party life. She found herself in an abusive relationship and at one point was raped by another man. She was even in a drunk driving accident, where she walked away without any physical injuries. All of this built up and Cooper said she began to feel more like she would never be good enough to be in a real relationship. She forcibly isolated herself from the party life, leading to depression, Cooper said. But through it all, she still kept dancing.

Lindsey Cooper with her husband, Dusty, and their three children, Joey, Jazzy and Jackson in their home. [Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard]

Moving forward

Feeling lost and out of control, Cooper decided to go to a church service in hopes of relief and help to find her way.

“I remember the pastor standing right in front of me. And he's like, God's waiting on you. He's right here. And I just remember that day just saying, like, I want my life to be different. I knew that the pattern that I was living was so destructive. That's not what I wanted for my life.”

From that day forward, no matter the struggle, Cooper dedicated her life to dancing. She took on the opportunity to lead a local hip hop dance crew of about 50 college students and said she felt a spark light up in her. During that time she met her husband, Dusty. He was the first man in her life that really respected her and was patient and respected her boundaries, she said.

The pair shortly married and opened Identity Dance Company in Springfield. Cooper said she struggled to deal with her past but knew dance would help her.

“I was not OK underneath, but I was still showing up to dance. I was still going places, I still was communicating with people, no matter how much that I may have not realized yet what had happened, I was just trying to cover it up. Regardless, of my ‘why’ I was still showing up.”

Dance became a way for Cooper to channel her emotions, and begin her healing process. A process she didn’t even know she needed, until a woman at a church retreat shared her own story. Only at that moment did she realize what she had gone through.

“She had actually been trafficked right here in Lane County, and she had had some pretty terrible experiences. She was describing what had happened to her, some of the things that were said to her and I just said to myself, ‘That's what happened to me.’ All of a sudden, I heard somebody saying it.

“The generation I grew up in, trafficking wasn't even really a word, I don't feel like we were as aware of it as we are now, and at 21 years old, I never would have labeled it as that. I just had always called it what I viewed it as — prostitution. I was literally was hired for that reason.

“But I just remember hearing her words and realizing that it happened to me. So it took a few years. I remember talking about it with my husband, and then only in bits and pieces, and also legitimately not being able to recall a lot of it.”

Never giving up

Cooper has openly shared her story since 2016. And while she struggles to recall moments of her experience, she said she gives herself time to feel her emotions and to have bad days.

“I want people to know that I don't just float around on a cloud. Like, everything's good. It's OK, I'm happy now I'm joyful and peaceful and now that I have kids and a beautiful husband and a great studio, that I don't have bad days.

But I do have bad days. I have days where I think about it. I have days where I wonder why it happened to me, where I don't understand why my roommate couldn't have recommended somebody else, you know, but I know with my whole heart, that you go through things, sometimes not just for yourself, but for other people.”

The dance studio became Cooper’s life. She actively teaches her dance students that it’s important to show up. That they might have problems and they might hurt, but not to give up, she said.

“I just think if I can just give them a place where they're accountable, that they just keep showing up, that they just have something that gives them the confidence so that if some man like the guy that approached me and wanted to do all that, they'd be like, ‘No, I don't need that. Because I have other things that I'm doing.’

“For me, I had nothing, I wasn't doing anything, I was lost, I was broken, I really was so vulnerable, almost the weak sense of what vulnerable is, not the strength part of it. Now I'm vulnerable with my story, because it's made me stronger.”

This project was developed by Destiny Alvarez and Dana Sparks, Charles Snowden Excellence in Journalism reporting and multimedia interns for The Register-Guard. Follow Destiny on Twitter @DesJAlvarez or email Follow Dana on Twitter @danamsparks or email