Selma Jeanne Cohen's "Encyclopedia of Dance"
July 26, 1998
"The fact of its existence is the most important thing about it," the New York Times reviewer wrote of The International Encyclopedia of Dance in a review published on July 26, 1998. He commended editor Selma Jeanne Cohen for having "held on to her project with remarkable tenacity" for the 24 years since its inception. Unfortunately, the reviewer had few other positive things to say about the Encyclopedia, faulting it for a "failure of editorial focus," and "multicultural and multinational inclusivity at the expense of common sense" that "undermines the Encyclopedia's credibility." Despite a long catalogue of criticisms, the reviewer conceded that the Encyclopedia was a large (literally, at six volumes and almost 4,000 pages) accomplishment, that would "serve as a basis for all future endeavors." And he paid tribute to Cohen, for whom, he wrote, "people in the dance world have been rooting … for almost 25 years," noting that the Encyclopedia's existence was "because of her."
During those 25 years, Selma Jeanne Cohen had worked to make dance scholarship a respected academic discipline. Born in 1920 and raised in Chicago, Cohen was educated at the University of Chicago and began her academic career as an English professor at UCLA. In 1953, she moved to New York, where she taught dance history at Hunter College and the High School of the Performing Arts. Among her students were many future dance company directors such as Arthur Mitchell, Bruce Marks, and Eliot Feld. She wrote a number of scholarly articles about dance, and struggled to make dance more present in different fields of scholarly research. From 1955 to 1958, she worked as an assistant to the dance critic for the New York Times, becoming one of the paper's first female art critics. In 1959 she founded the quarterly journal, Dance Perspectives.
In 1962 she began to teach dance history at the American Dance Festival, which led to the creation of a program to train professional dance critics. She also wrote several books of dance scholarship, including The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief (1966), Doris Humprey: An Artist First (1972), Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present (1974), and Next Week Swan Lake: Reflections on Dance and Dances (1982). Cohen was also a founder of the Society of Dance History Scholars. In 1981 she was the recipient of the first Dance Magazine Award to a dance historian. Cohen died in December, 2005. She is remembered as the founder of dance history, and—despite the Encyclopedia's initial poor reviews—as editor of the definitive reference work on dance.
To learn more about Selma Jeanne Cohen, visit We Remember and in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 252-254; New York Times, July 26, 1998.