A crowd gathered on Monroe Street on a recent Sunday afternoon. Waiters circulated with trays of chocolate mousse and shrimp tartare. People in eveningwear drank gin-and-tonics and told one another stories about Fran Cohen, the 87-year-old local legend who was being honored that day for decades of local service to what she calls “the dance.”
“I had no choice,” she confided a few weeks later. “My father said if he ever had a girl, she was going to be a dancer. Every Saturday at 8:30 we would take a bus from Elizabeth, New Jersey, where I’m from, to Newark for lessons in ballet, tap, character, and vocal.”
The father who insisted she dance was himself a marvelous dancer who looked like silent film star Rudolph Valentino and worked as a professional gambler. “We didn’t have any money, but it was a fun life,” she confided during a short conversation about her long career.
The family relocated to Tucson in 1936, when Cohen was 5. “My brother had asthma. My mother was certain we would be attacked by Native Americans,” she sighed. “She’d read a lot of western novels.”
When Cohen got to the University of Arizona in 1949, there was no dance program. She set her sights on becoming a third-grade teacher. When the city of Tucson put on a dance festival the following year, Cohen approached the organizers. “I was 19, president of the college dance club, and I told them they needed us, but we wouldn’t dance unless we got to audition for the leads.”
Cohen paused. “I was such a bitch back then,” she said. “Such chutzpah! But they let us audition.” Cohen got the lead in the festival, and a full scholarship to Bennington College, where she majored in dance. By then, she was already an old hand at professional dance.
“I choreographed my first show at age 12,” Cohen shrugged. “I was on full scholarship at Miss Schwab’s school of dance, and I had a teacher who wanted to do a production of Aladdin, but there were no boys. She knew I was a dancer, so I got cast as Aladdin. I was a good Aladdin! But there was no choreographer, so I did that, too. And I kept going!”
Part of the Schwab’s scholarship required that Cohen teach children. No one wanted to teach the 4-year-olds, she said, so she got stuck with them. “I loved it. Good thing, too, because I’m still doing it.”
Cohen has spent a lifetime teaching shuffle-ball-change, kick and turn. In the 1950s, she was in-house choreographer of Arizona Civic Theater, now Arizona Theatre Company. She founded Tucson Contemporary Dancers, the Arizona Dance Alliance (1958), and the Arizona Arts Alliance for Education. Since the 1970s, she’s taught and choreographed for Wolf Trap Opera Company, for which she’s regional director, and in the 1980s co-founded Dance Theater West, a Phoenix dance studio where she can still be found most days.
She never chose dance, Cohen claimed. It chose her. “It’s who I am and what I do,” she insisted. “And it’s such a hard mistress, the dance. You can’t screw around with it. You’re either totally committed to it or you aren’t giving it what it demands.”
Cohen used to worry that her preoccupation with dance hurt her three children. She cooked for them and she went to all their performances, she said, but wondered if it was enough.
“When they were teens, I said, ‘I’m going to stay home and close the dance company and be here for you every single day.’ And they said, ‘Oh, please don’t, Mom.’ They knew I was never very nice when I wasn’t dancing.”
Before there were children, there was Cohen’s late husband, Marvin, who spotted her in her first dance performance and decided to marry her.
“We got married at Bennington and he was drafted into the Korean War,” Cohen remembered. “So I made this plan: I was going to follow my new husband to Germany and start a dance school there. I couldn’t wait.”
The war ended before Marvin could make good on his draft. “My plans were ruined,” Cohen said. “So I told Marvin, ‘Enlist!” He did, and Cohen got her dance school in Germany, where the couple lived for two years.
Back in the states, they settled in Washington, D.C., where Cohen launched Center Dance Ensemble. The couple moved to Tucson not long after; in 1986, she and Marvin retired. Cohen was bored. She met the late Gary Moore, who’d been hired to run the Herberger Theater Center, then under construction. He asked Cohen to organize a modern dance program there.
“I didn’t take a breath,” she remembered. “I said ‘Yes.’ Gary took me to the site and there was a big hole in the ground and he said, ‘Here is where the stage is going to be.’”
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After its first year, the Arizona version of Center Dance lost its endowment, and Cohen formed a nonprofit and began writing grants. “I’m still writing grants,” she said. “You can’t do a dance company on ticket sales alone.”
That same year, Cohen ran into her old friend Susan Sealove Silverman. “She was a ballerina, just a really good dancer and a great person,” Cohen says. “I knew her from the old days in Tucson, and I just wanted to work with her again.” The pair launched Dance Theater West on a handshake. “Our husbands were both attorneys, and they were horrified. ‘You have to have a written contract!’ We don’t need one. She teaches classical ballet and I teach the little ones, and it’s great.”
Less great is how kids today relate to dancing. “In modern and contemporary, we’re starting to lose the art in the art form,” Cohen griped. “It’s now so focused on the extreme, the spins, the leaps, the stretch. The flip-over with no hands. Dance is meant to communicate an emotional content or a story. But kids watch So You Think You Can Dance and they think dance is a competitive sport. Competitive dancing is horrifying to me.”
Cohen sighed again. “It’ll come around,” she said. “I know it will. Dance is bigger than whatever trend is happening around it. Sometimes it seems like dance is bigger than everything.”