Choreographer Frances Smith Cohen, who championed modern dance in Arizona for more than half a century and inspired thousands of children who performed in her annual “Snow Queen,” died Wednesday, May 14, in Phoenix at age 87.

Cohen was the founding artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, a resident company at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix since the venue opened in 1989.

Previously, she founded the Kadimah Dancers in Tucson and ran it from 1955 to 1971. She also co-founded the University of Arizona’s dance department in 1972, and she worked in Washington, D.C., as director of opera for George Washington University from 1981 to 1986.

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Cohen suffered a heart attack last week, less than two months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A private burial was held on Wednesday, and a public celebration of life will be planned later this year.

Inspired by modern-dance icon Martha Graham, Cohen was passionate about storytelling through movement. In addition to “Snow Queen,” an annual holiday concert based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, other successful pieces at Center Dance included retellings of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” (interpreted as “The Attic”) and the Mexican legend of “La Llorona.”

Will Center Dance continue?

Howard Paley, managing director of Center Dance, said the company’s management and dancers would be meeting to decide whether to produce a full season for 2019-20.

“The body of work that Fran created in her lifetime could sustain the company for many years to come,” he said. “The question is whether that’s the will of the performers.”

Cohen, radiating energy that belied her years, had a tendency to rechoreograph her work in the midst of rehearsals. But each piece came from a singular inspiration, as she explained in a 2012 interview.


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“I don’t need the music. I don’t even need the dancers. I need the title,” she said. “It gives you focus. A lot of the creative process happens when you sleep.”

Cohen, born Oct. 27, 1931, in New Jersey, moved with her family to Tucson, where she began dancing at age 3. In 1953, she married lawyer Marvin Cohen, who would go on to serve as chairman of the Arizona Commission on the Arts from 1988 to 1990. He died in 2009.

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