Despite the difficulty of translating the evanescent nature of dance into words, Selma Jeanne Cohen believed that dance, as much as painting, music and literature, deserved a history of its own. She spent a lifetime creating the structures necessary to making the recording of that history possible.
Cohen was born in Chicago where her first formal exposure to dance came as a student of ballet instructor Edna McRae. Quickly recognizing her limitations as a dancer, Cohen turned her attention to McRae's extensive dance library. Cohen graduated from the University of Chicago's Laboratory School. Although committed to the study of dance, there were no academic programs in that field. Cohen decided to pursue her interests via Ph.D. studies in English literature, which she completed at the University of Chicago in 1946.
She began teaching English at UCLA in 1946, but sought out ways to connect her work with the study and teaching of dance. She moved to New York City in 1953 where she taught at Hunter College and the New York High School of the Performing Arts. She would subsequently teach dance-related subjects at Connecticut College, Smith College, and the University of California, Riverside.
In the 1950s, Cohen began to write both scholarly and popular articles about dance, including reviews for the Dance Observer. 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. She served as dance critic for the Saturday Review in 1965 and 1966.
Cohen advanced her ambitions for serious dance scholarship through the multiple roles of editor, teacher, author, and organizer. In 1959, she was co-founder and became managing and associate editor of Dance Perspectives. In 1966 she became sole editor of this journal devoted to the academic study of dance around the world, continuing in this role until the periodical ceased publication in 1976. She authored or edited four books that illustrated the possibilities of dance scholarship: The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief (1966), Doris Humphrey: An Artist First (1972), Dance as a Theater Art, (1974), and Next Week, Swan Lake (1982).
She gathered dance critics together for unprecedented discussions of their work and craft at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival from 1970 to 1972. From 1974 to 1976, Cohen put her stamp on the emerging field of dance history by conducting the first intensive accredited graduate seminars ever held on the subject. Dance historian Susan Reimer Torn remembers the 1974 gathering of "a dozen hand-picked women" for this seminar at which "the academic discipline of dance history was born. For me and most of the others, it was also the birth of self confidence, the honing of important skills and the dawning of life purpose." According to Reimer Torn, "Selma Jeanne had not only established dance history as a viable academic discipline, she had gathered her disciples to take it forth into the world.
Cohen's culminating achievement and the work of more than two decades was the publication of the six-volume International Encyclopedia of Dance in 1998. With almost 2000 articles covering all forms of dance as practiced around the world, the encyclopedia Cohen edited remains the definitive reference work on dance and forever established the depth and richness of dance history as a field of study.
Dance journalist Camille Hardy cites not only the almost four-generation "American dynasty" of educators and students of dance history initiated by Cohen, but also points to Cohen's investment in creating "an international network of like-minded scholars." Beyond Cohen's regular presence at New York performances and the "lively soirees" at her Greenwich Village home, Hardy remembers Cohen as "a citizen of the world": "St. Petersburg was her favorite Russian haunt. Driving in the Arizona outback was titillating. Copenhagen suited perfectly in terms of ballet and sparkling wine." Open to the world, she was able to attune American scholars to seeing beyond national borders.
Selma Jeanne Cohen died December 23, 2005. Her obituary in the New York Times described her as a "tiny soft-spoken woman [who] delighted in presiding graciously over social events." What was it that made Cohen believe herself capable of turning her love of dance into a definitive academic discipline? As Susan Reimer Torn recalls, "her guiding principle was "If you will it, it will be so." There are numerous prizes, fellowships, and lectures that bear Selma Jeanne Cohen's name, but it is the entire field of dance history scholarship that will remain her legacy.