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Selma Jeanne Cohen Remembered
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Selma Jeanne Cohen Remembered

Arnold Berleant

Selma Jeanne Cohen, a long time and devoted member of the ASA, died on December 23, 2005 at the age of 85. Selma Jeanne gave prominence to the art of dance in the ASA. Her essay, “A Prolegomenon to an Aesthetics of Dance,” first published in the JAAC, is a classic. Written with effortless elegance, it is one of the most eloquent elucidations of the aesthetic dimensions of that elusive art, despite its brevity and the modesty of its title. This and other writing, along with her work as a dance historian and founder of dance history as a scholarly discipline, belie the critic Edwin Denby, with whose wail she ends that essay: “Critics have left us as reporters no accurate ballet history, as critics no workable theory of dance emphasis, of dance form, of dance meaning. Dance esthetics is in a pioneering stage.” Selma Jeanne fully disproved his mournful refrain.

Born in Chicago, Selma Jeanne Cohen attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School as an elementary and high school student As a child she had begun ballet lessons but quickly recognized that her talents did not lie in dancing. She nevertheless developed a consuming interest in that art and pursued the study of its history and performance. After receiving her Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago in 1946, she began teaching English at UCLA. However, on moving to New York in 1953 her interests centered on dance and she began her career as a critic and scholar, writing for a time for the New York Times and the Saturday Review. She taught dance history at many colleges and universities, and wrote or edited a number of books, including The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief (Wesleyan, 1966), Doris Humphrey: An Artist First (Wesleyan, 1972), Dance as a Theater Art (Dodd, Mead, 1974), a history of dance, and Next Week, Swan Lake (Wesleyan, 1982), on the aesthetics of dance.

Selma Jeanne promoted dance scholarship through many projects. She was a founder and later editor of the magazine, Dance Pespectives and established the Dance Perspectives Foundation, which promoted dance scholarship and publication. Editing the International Encyclopedia of Dance was her last major project and is perhaps her most enduring scholarly accomplishment. The vicissitudes of soliciting contributions, editing, and publishing this six-volume work preoccupied her for many years. To assist in locating contributors and sources, she studied Russian seriously and traveled to Russia and other distant homes of the dance art. The difficulties of preparing this encyclopedia seemed endless, but her will to complete it overcame every obstacle and it was finally published by Oxford University Press in 1998.

Despite increasing disability from arthritis that made walking painful and slow, Selma Jeanne swam regularly at the “Y” and was a loyal presence at ASA meetings, persisting with good cheer in walking from one session to another and participating in all the activities. She made many important contributions to the Society, among them serving as the second editor of the ASA Newsletter and as program chair of an annual meeting in the 80s. She made sure that dance was not overlooked at our meetings, and for many years we could count on stimulating panels. A session on dance honored her at the meeting at Indiana University several years ago. She also regularly entertained ASA members in her New York apartment.

Selma Jeanne was deceptively charming, not that there was anything deceptive about her charm but one might fail to recognize that behind her gentle manner a formidable and purposive mind was at work. At the same time, her graciousness was matched by the grace of her writing, and in here, too, lay substance and strength.

Amazingly, her love and appreciation of dance were undiminished in spite of the cognitive handicaps she suffered during the last few years from Alzheimer’s disease. She may not have been able to recognize an old friend but she surely appreciated fine balletic execution. We shall miss her presence as a scholar, as a colleague, and as a friend.


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