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Dance devotee

T hrough years of persistence and dedication, Selma Jeanne Cohen, AB'41, AM'42, PhD'46, has translated her love for dance into the art form's first comprehensive worldwide history. A six-volume, 4,000-page compendium, the International Encyclopedia of Dance represents 20-plus years of work by more than 650 contributors from 50 countries. "The importance of this dance encyclopedia is immeasurable," wrote dance critic and historian Janice Ross in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "Its existence means that from now on, discussions about dance in America can proceed to a higher level."

The founding editor and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia, Cohen has long been interested in such high-level discussions of dance. Amid years of childhood instruction with Chicago dance teacher Edna McRae, a performance by the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo turned the young Cohen into a dance fan who would eventually borrow every book in McRae's dance library. By the end of high school, she'd decided to become a dance historian and followed the subject while studying English language and literature at the U of C.

Her Ph.D. in hand, Cohen took her first English teaching job at UCLA, meanwhile crafting her first article on dance, published in 1950 in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Encouraged, Cohen began to follow a pattern she described years later, in her preface to the Encyclopedia: "Individuals, unwilling to settle for other careers, obstinately pursued their goals in their own ways. Eventually, they found one another." Just so, Cohen moved to New York in search of other enthusiasts and met ballet instructor Lillian Moore, who invited her to teach a dance history class at the High School of Performing Arts, paving the way for teaching jobs at Connecticut College, the U of C, and the University of California, Riverside, where she taught from 1983 to 1989 and became a distinguished scholar in 1990.

Outside the classroom, Cohen cofounded Dance Perspectives magazine in 1959 and was editor until it closed in 1976, when she began assembling dance critics and scholars from around the world to plan the Encyclopedia. Slowed by the emergent nature of dance scholarship and the Encyclopedia's ambitious scope, the project would pass through three publishing houses and nearly two decades before landing, in 1991, with Oxford University Press, which issued the series in March.

Cohen's next inquiry will be somewhat lighter on its feet. Inspired by her cat, Giselle, she'll explore the question, What makes the movements of a cat so beautiful?-C.M.

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