Frances Smith Cohen of Phoenix's Center Dance Ensemble: 100 Creatives

Categories: 100 Creatives

Tim Fuller
Frances Smith Cohen gives dancers notes at Herberger Theater Center.
Phoenix is brimming with creativity. And every other year, we put the spotlight on 100 of the city's creative forces. Leading up to the release of this year's Best of Phoenix issue, we're profiling 100 more. Welcome to the 2014 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today: 53. Frances Smith Cohen.

"I am what I do," says Frances Smith Cohen.

The artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, Herberger Theater Center's resident dance company, has been dancing since she was 3 years old. Cohen has spent decades in the Phoenix dance world -- and she has the lifetime achievement awards to prove it.

See also: Tempe Artist Bobby Zokaites: 100 Creatives

Tim Fuller
Nicole Olson performs "Addio" as part of Center Dance Ensemble's Secrets.

Among her accolades are a 1994 Arizona Governor's Outstanding Artist Award, a 2004 Women Who Care Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2010 Childsplay's Pied Piper Award.

In addition to her work at Center Dance Ensemble, which annually presents her signature piece Snow Queen and where she has debuted new work as part of the program Secrets in March of 2014, Cohen co-directs Dance Theater West, which she co-founded with Susan Silverman (who, full disclosure, is related to New Times' managing editor Amy Silverman), and serves as regional director of Arizona Wolf Trap, a program that places performing artists in Head Start classrooms.

She's gearing up for another season, which will kick off in October with The Bad and The Beautiful and close with American Voices in April 2015.

I'm actually a Tucson native arriving there in 1936 with my family and became a Phoenix resident in 1986 when my husband, Marvin, left the Carter administration (he was Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board) and joined the law firm of Sacks, Tierney.

I make art because I have no choice. I have danced since age 3 and I started choreographing at age 12. For 79 years, dance and my everyday life have been completely entwined. I am what I do.

Give me mature dancers, a large studio space, music that moves me, and a universal truth that needs to be expressed, and the dance appears.

My life is reflected by Marvin's and my family portraits, (going back to 1860, and through our family events from 1953 to 2014). To be an artist, to tell about life's passions, the teacher, choreographer, storyteller must experience and be open to all reality. The family grounds the artist as well as his mentors and teachers. My mentors were my first private studio teachers who put me on scholarship when there was no money, my middle school geography teacher who let me choreograph the school musical, my high school teacher who taught me my first modern dance moves and of course the greats, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Ethel Butler, who taught me how to be a professional dancer.

Besides my teachers, I learned by doing. I now tell my students, "You want to learn how to choreograph, then just start choreographing, dive in, your mistakes will lead you to the next step, and if you are honest, your work will have integrity."

Every work will not be a success -- accepted, understood, or applauded, but if in the artist's eyes, the work is an honest revealing of their "inner landscape" (a Martha Graham reference) then it is a good work.

We have a vibrant dance scene here in Phoenix. Dance artists are constantly working to create new dance companies, find new dance spaces and find their own voices. We need the media to keep up with them -- giving them recognition, constructive criticism, and making them feel that what they are doing is important to this community. Modern dance is very underrated and that is a shame because it is truly one of the few American art forms.

Editor's note: This post has been modified form its original version.

Location Info


Herberger Theater Center

222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix, AZ

Category: General

Dance Theater West Studio

3295 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix, AZ

Category: General

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