Dance

Frances Smith Cohen, the Doyenne of Dance in Metro Phoenix, Is Dead at 87

Frances Smith Cohen has spent a lifetime teaching shuffle-ball-change, kick, and turn.
Frances Smith Cohen has spent a lifetime teaching shuffle-ball-change, kick, and turn. Howard Paley

It’s rare to hear from someone about whom a writer has written. We think of ourselves a certain way, and writers see us differently, and they go and put that version of us on the page, and typically we don’t like it.

When writers do hear from our subjects, it’s usually because they’re angry.

Frances Smith Cohen, who died on Monday at age 87, was an exception. When I wrote about her last month, on the occasion of her latest honorarium, she sent me a thank-you note. “I really loved reliving all those memories with you,” she wrote. “It all seems to fly by so quickly. What fun it was to stop and remember where it all came from.”

Known to generations of young ballet enthusiasts as Fran, Cohen devoted her life to what she called “the dance.” She was the unchallenged doyenne of dance in the Valley.


The teacher, choreographer, and administrator was born in 1932 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1963, she co-founded the Arizona Dance Arts Alliance; a decade later, she helped create the first dance program at University of Arizona.

She launched Arizona’s chapter of Wolf Trap and maintained her job as regional director for the program for more than 30 years. As artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, our city’s professional dance troupe headquartered at Herberger Theater Center, and created Dance Theater West with her longtime collaborator and friend Susan Sealove Silverman.

She wrote books about dancing, taught ballet to girls, boys, and young women, and worked thoughts of dance into every conversation.

“I so wish everyone could dance through life,” Cohen wrote to me only a few weeks ago. “What a beautiful world it would be.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated from its original version.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela