Selma Jeanne Cohen
1920 – 2005
It was Selma Jeanne Cohen’s mission in life to make dance scholarship a respected field, taking its place with the study of the other arts both in society and, particularly, the university. As a writer, editor, and teacher, she was a leader in transforming dance history, aesthetics, and criticism into respected disciplines. She encouraged and often trained those who are now working in these vital fields, so that dance is no longer viewed as mere entertainment, but is studied as a rich art on many levels, from the most elite to varieties of popular and folk expression, illuminating society in new and valuable ways. She was an internationalist, her Jewish heritage playing little part in her life or her approach to dance in the world. However, when being inducted into the Dance Library of Israel Hall of Fame in 2001, she spoke eloquently of her love of Israel and what it meant to her.
Selma Jeanne Cohen was born in Chicago on September 18, 1920, the only child of Frank and Minnie (Skud) Cohen. Her uncle, Benjamin Cohen, was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” in the 1930s. With no intention of becoming a dancer, she studied ballet while attending the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago and later the university itself, receiving a B.A. in 1941 and a Ph.D. in English literature in 1946, with a dissertation on the poetry and thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins. She brought this rigorous intellectual training with the “Chicago Aristotelians” to dance scholarship. Two years of teaching English at the University of California at Los Angeles (1946–1948) made her realize that her real interests were in dance, so she worked and taught for several years with choreographer-teacher Eugene Loring before moving to New York in 1953, where she taught at Hunter College and the High School of the Performing Arts. At the high school, her students in dance history included the future dance company directors Arthur Mitchell, Bruce Marks, and Eliot Feld.
She had already begun writing about dance, including an important 1950 article, “Some Theories of Dance in Contemporary Society.” She developed a close association with the American Society for Aesthetics as part of her struggle to make dance “visible” in many fields of scholarly endeavor. From 1955 to 1958, she was an assistant to John Martin, dance critic of the New York Times, and was one of the earliest women to write criticism for that paper. In 1962, she began a decade of teaching dance history and writing at the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College. This resulted in 1970 in the formation of a program to train professional dance critics, many of them journalists without any particular knowledge of the field assigned to cover dance.
In 1959, with A.J. Pischl, she founded Dance Perspectives, a quarterly journal specializing in monographs on a wide variety of dance topics written by leading scholars and practitioners. It set a high standard that served as a model for later journals in the field. She became sole editor from 1966 to 1976 and used the journal to encourage a wider understanding of dance throughout the world. Individual issues dealt with ballet and modern dance, as well as dance in ancient Greece, India, Korea, Micronesia, Israel, and Ghana, popular entertainment, iconography, music, design, and even dance poetry. She also established the Dance Perspectives Foundation, which since 1973 has given the annual De la Torre Bueno Prize for the best dance book of the year, the most prestigious award in the field.
Dance Perspectives led her to undertake her great dream, a multivolume encyclopedia that would do for dance what The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has done for music: provide a concise and accurate source of information on all aspects of the art around the world. After many vicissitudes, The International Encyclopedia of Dance (sponsored by the Dance Perspectives Foundation) has at last been published.
Cohen continued teaching and gave seminars and advice on shaping the graduate program at the University of California at Riverside from 1966 to 1989. In 1974–1976, she offered summer seminars at the University of Chicago, and in 1977 at Sarah Lawrence. She was distinguished professor at Smith College in 1976–1977.
In addition to her many reviews and articles, her four books have made important and very different contributions to the field. In The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, seven leading choreographers discuss their approaches to the art. Doris Humphrey: An Artist First turns Humphrey’s unfinished autobiography into a full examination of her life and work. Dance as a Theatre Art provides a carefully annotated anthology of dance writing from the Renaissance to the present. And Next Week Swan Lake is concerned with the varied aesthetic considerations suggested by a dance performance, based on a lifetime of watching and thinking about dance.
Cohen was also active in many national and international organizations, attending and, on occasion, organizing conferences for the International Theater Institute, the American Society for Theater Research (ASTR), the International Federation for Theater Research, Conseil International de la Danse, the World Dance Alliance, and the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA). She served on the boards of ASTR and ASA. She was a founder of the Society of Dance History Scholars, which in 1994 established the Selma Jeanne Cohen Young Scholars Program to encourage students of dance history. In 1974, she received a Professional Achievement Award from the University of Chicago, and in 1981, the first Dance Magazine Award given to a dance historian.
During the last years of her life, when she was no longer sufficiently mentally aware to recognize those around her, Selma Jeanne Cohen was cared for by a cadre of devoted friends. She died on December 23, 2005, at the age of eighty-five.
Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present, editor (1974); Doris Humphrey: An Artist First, edited and completed by Selma Jeanne Cohen (1972); The International Encyclopedia of Dance (1997); The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, editor (1966); Next Week Swan Lake: Reflections on Dance and Dances (1982); “Some Theories of Dance in Contemporary Society.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 9, no. 1 (September 1950): 111–118.
Dorris, George. “Selma Jeanne Cohen.” Dance Chronicle 18, no. 2 (1995); Who’s Who in America, 1995.