Selma Jeanne Cohen: Edited Oxford encyclopedia of dance (Obituary)

Historians in the News

Selma Jeanne Cohen, a historian, editor and teacher who devoted her career to proclaiming dance an art worthy of the same scholarly respect traditionally awarded to painting, music and literature, died on Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease, said Leslie Steinau, her lawyer and a longtime friend.

Cohen waged a tireless campaign against scholars who maintained dance was inherently frivolous. Instead, she believed it had a rich history that could be fruitfully analyzed from many philosophical viewpoints. Her efforts led her to become America's leading figure in dance scholarship.

Her most ambitious achievement was her editing of the International Encyclopedia of Dance for Oxford University Press. Published in 1998 after two decades of planning, and encompassing all forms of dance, the six-volume work, modelled on the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, remains the most comprehensive guide of its kind.

Eclectic scholarly interests had prompted Cohen, A.J. Pischl and Sheppard Black in 1959 to found Dance Perspectives, a journal dedicated to monographs on various aspects of world dance. Cohen became its sole editor in 1966. After it ceased publication in 1976, the Dance Perspectives Foundation, which she had established, continued to award an annual prize for the best dance book of the year.

Cohen was born in Chicago, attended elementary and high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and went on to the university itself, receiving a PhD in English in 1946.

When a childhood friend started taking ballet lessons from Edna McRae, a respected Chicago teacher, Cohen went along. Cohen soon realized she had no dancing talent. But she had great curiosity, and McRae had a dance library, which Cohen devoured.

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