Frances Smith Cohen, Class of 1949
Fine Arts Sustainer
A member of the class of 1949 was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her first formal training was at the Lipple School of Dance in Newark, to which she and her mother went to weekly. At the age of 4 she was an outstanding dance student. She earned the title of Lipple Cutie Kid, for which she had to sing and perform tap, ballet, and character dances.
Frances and her family move to Tucson in 1936 where she studied tap and ballet with several instructors including Getrude Mary Schwab, an early influence. She discovered modern dance when she entered Tucson High School in 1945, thanks to Virginia Robinson, then Tucson High’s physical education teacher.
After Frances graduated from THS in 1949, she attended the University of Arizona planning to become a history teacher since there was no dance major. When she was a sophomore, Frances became President of the Dance Honorary, Orchesis in 1952, she and members of the group were invited to be part of the Tucson Festival Society’s debut pageant, “The White Shell Cross”, which combined music, theatre, dance and Mexican and American Indian religion in a massive show in Arizona Stadium. Frances told both Leticia Evans from Bennington College’s prestigious dance department and director Peter Marroney, then the head of the U of A drama department, that her 40 Orchesis dancers would refuse the chorus unless they could audition for the leads. Frances got the lead and a full dance scholarship at Bennington. While taking her last two years at Bennington College in Vermont, Frances studied there and in New York City with modern dance teachers Bill Bales, Esther Winter, and Katherine Litz, and the schools of Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham.
Upon returning to Tucson in 1953, Frances Smith married her sweetheart Marvin Cohen whom she met as a sophomore at Tucson High, while Marvin was in the Air Force, Frances choreographed and toured with Special Services and opened her own dance school.
In 1955 they returned to Tucson, where Marvin began his law practice and Frances had the first of their three children. Home life at the Cohen’s was blessed with the constant influence of music and dance. It was then that Frances Cohen offered the Jewish Community Center a trade, She’d run the Centers dance if it would support her modern dance company. The Kadimah Dancers became the list touring modern dance company in the State. Frances taught at the Jewish Community Center and directed the Kadimah Dancers until the early 1970’s -except for 1961 to 1963 when she and Marvin moved to Washington D.C. so he could take a job in the Kennedy administration. By 1971, Frances was ready for the new challenge of building the U of A Dance Program from scratch with partners Sandra Hammond and Sue Pfaffi. And so the University of Arizona’s Dance Department was founded.
Fran and Mervin left Tucson again in 1978 so he could become President Carter’s chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington. They stayed until 1986. Fran taught choreography and technique at the University of Maryland and worked as an opera choreographer with the Wolf Trap Center for the Arts Foundation. This Center used the arts to teach disadvantaged preschool children; Frances also received a National Opera Institute grant to tour regional opera companies as a choreographer and assistant director. She was served as Director of Opera at George Washington University. Frances became dance director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, where she formed her first dance ensemble. She gave her Phoenix ensemble the same name when she held auditions. While at the J.C.C. she formed five dance companies, including one for the deaf.
Cohen considers her work since 1981 with Wolf Trap’s Head Start program which bring artists into the classroom of underprivileged children among her most important projects. She started the Wolf Trap in Arizona program when she and her husband returned to Phoenix in 1986.
Frances currently is the director of the Center Dance Ensemble which is the resident modern dance company for the Herberger Theatre Center. Dances range from lyric to the dramatic to the antic, and the programs emphasize the wonderful diversities and excitement of modern dance. Frances has received numerous awards honoring her work in choreography; she is an Outstanding Choreographer, Director, Lecturer and Dancer. Honors in Arizona include Outstanding Citizen Award, Professional Arts Award, and Outstanding Service and Gratitude Awards from the Tucson J.C.C; Frances has made an impressive contribution as an artist to the evolution of the Performing Arts in Arizona. So many of her students have gone on to become professional dancers and instructors. Frances Smith Cohen is a true model for our students at Tucson High in the Fine Arts Programs and all other programs. She is a dedicated woman and truly wonderful alumni. The best thing yet is that she is still dancing and doing the things she loves to do.