Raising Phoenix: Dancing Queen

Amy SilvermanJuly 25, 2019
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Illustration by Hannah Agosta

Late Valley dance teacher Frances Smith Cohen leaves behind a legacy of pirouettes, pliés and full hearts.

When I was born, or so the family legend goes, my grandmothers rushed the nursery window at Good Sam in central Phoenix, oohing and aahing over the first grandchild – and gasped with delight when I lifted a tiny foot and pointed my perfect little toes.

It only made sense. My mother is a ballerina. Like, a real one. She danced in New York City in the 1950s, studied at the University of Arizona in the ’60s and, after having two daughters, began teaching ballet in Phoenix in the 1970s.

Before the end of that decade, it became abundantly clear that neither my sister nor I would be joining her onstage. Jenny was so shy she never took a class. As my mother recalls, I took ballet a few times at a very young age – then announced it gave me a headache.

My mom is still dancing.

By the late 1990s, Susan Silverman was running one of the most popular studios in town, alongside her own one-time teacher, Frances Smith Cohen. There was nothing fancy about Dance Theater West – the studio space was spare (and, to be honest, a little stinky, thanks to all those sweaty, hard-working bodies), costumes were recycled from year to year, and all shapes and sizes were welcomed and celebrated.

The teaching philosophy could be summed up with the unofficial studio motto, which Mrs. Cohen (as I always called her) repeated each May when she and my mom stood onstage to introduce the annual recital:

Don’t ask what your child can do for the art of dance. Ask what the art of dance can do for your child.

When my first daughter was born, she, too, lifted a tiny leg and pointed her perfect toes, but unlike me, Annabelle had some serious follow-through. Finally, my mother had the ballerina she’d always dreamed of. On Annabelle’s first day of ballet with my mom, I rushed to the classroom window at the studio and watched the two of them and I thought my heart would explode.

When my second daughter was born, I thought my heart would stop – and I struggled with how to tell my mom that Sophie had Down syndrome.

“She’ll just have to do modern instead of ballet,” I said, keeping my tone light. I wasn’t sure Sophie would be able to dance at all.

Annabelle started classes at 3. I held Sophie back, unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to put my mom on the spot – even at its most creative, ballet’s got a lot of rules. Sophie wasn’t much of a rule follower. But she loved music and movement and she, too, pointed her toes beautifully.

In the end, it was Mrs. Cohen who insisted that Sophie come to class. My mother and I stood together at the classroom window, watching, holding our breath. At the end of that year, Sophie danced in her first recital – and only broke character once, to wave at her best friend in the audience. She knew the moves as well as her classmates.

Over the years, Mrs. Cohen cast Sophie in increasingly challenging roles in Snow Queen, the holiday performance she produced at Herberger Theater Center in Downtown Phoenix. This past December, she adjusted the choreography just a bit so Sophie could be one of the show’s snowflakes – onstage with her peers, twirling in satin and sequins, her tongue sticking out as she concentrated with all her might.

My girls have, quite literally, grown up at Dance Theater West. Sophie is not the only one who found a place she belonged. We all did. No matter how hard her day at school had been, Annabelle found refuge each afternoon in the dressing room, doing homework and stretching alongside her ballet classmates. I found a group of moms I now count among my closest friends.

Sophie’s now a junior in high school. Annabelle will leave for college this fall. She danced in her final recital last May.

Mrs. Cohen wasn’t there to see it. She stopped teaching this spring, and passed away less than a week before the performance. Frances was 87, and led a good, long life by any measure. She made many significant contributions to the world of dance – as a renowned choreographer and director of school programs, and owner of a modern dance company, Center Dance Ensemble.

But I’ll always think of her as Mrs. Cohen. I’ll remember how she cheered for Annabelle when she nailed a pirouette en pointe, and how she championed Sophie at every turn, setting an example for everyone at the studio.

It’s a legacy that won’t die with her.

This fall, my mother will return to teaching. One of her former students will take over Mrs. Cohen’s classes. Dance Theater West will continue to be a little stinky, the costumes recycled, the kids happy. Sophie will be back at the studio, too, dancing her heart out several times a week. Not long ago, someone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She didn’t hesitate.

“Dance teacher,” she said.

I can’t think of a better job.