Sunday, April 08, 2001

Demanding SCPA teacher sad to leave 'her kids'

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

        Sheila Cohen worries about her kids — three of her own and several hundred others whom she's guided through their tenderfoot dance years.

        As head of the dance program at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, she's ushered many young dancers into professional careers since 1978.

        Ms. Cohen has decided to retire in May. When phoned to discuss her decision, she asks, “Did you know Darius (Crenshaw) is at New York City Ballet?”

        A little later, “Have you heard that Paige (Cunningham) is dancing with Merce Cunningham?”

        Both former SCPA students, they're just a couple of names she rattles off in conversation.

        Everyone at SCPA is aware of her demanding classes and high standards. She decided to run the program like the professional organizations to which her students aspire.

        Classes are accompanied by a pianist; students arrive on time in the proper gear; once in class they work hard; summers they're sent off to study in New York, Boston and California; and the top 25 are invited to perform with the school's Dance Ensemble, which is run like a professional dance company.

        Her husband, Getzel Cohen, knows about the things few people see.

        “Sheila is the kind of teacher we all wish we had in the course of our school careers,” Mr. Cohen said in a speech at a recent ceremony honoring his wife. (She received the “Talent 2000-USA Lifetime Achievement Award” March 13 at SCPA, given by the Community Service Support Group. The ceremony airs on Public AccessTV this month: 651-4171 for air times).

        “Two months ago Sheila and I were in California for a vacation which we cut short. Why? So Sheila could return to Cincinnati and coach one of her students who was preparing for a competition.”

        Their phone rings at all times of the night with calls from former students on tour somewhere needing to hear a comforting voice. When she goes to New York, she visits her own children and grandchildren, then heads for the School of American Ballet or to a Broadway show to catch up with her other kids, Mr. Cohen says.

        Ms. Cohen grew up in Teaneck, N.J., attended Juilliard and graduated from Sarah Lawrence before beginning a professional dance career.

        In the early '70s she moved to Cincinnati when her husband took a job with the University of Cincinnati, where he's a professor in the Classics Department.

        “Sheila pushes the kids and expects a lot from them, but what she gives goes above and beyond what most teachers offer. She helps with everything from counseling them into the right colleges to finding financial aid when they get there. She has contacts in New York and uses them to set up auditions,” says Elaine Eckstein, a dance teacher at SCPA.

        What will Ms. Cohen miss most?

        “I love the idea of creating a dancer from scratch,” she says. “I like getting them at 9 with no training and sending them off at 18 ready to go on. And I'll miss being around the students. They all know I love them.

        “I was driving a group of boys to a performance the other day and I asked if they'd miss me, and they said "Yes, because you're mean.' It's adorable. I know what they mean.

        “If they're not dressed for class I'll come down really hard on them. There are no empty threats. If I say your grade is going down, it'll happen. They want the discipline. They're worried they're going to lose that.”

        What will she do? “First of all I won't do three classes a day, which is killing my body. And I've started with a script for an archaeological video, Pandora's Box — Women in Greece (for the Institute for Mediterranean Studies). I've found that doing film work is a lot like choreographing, so I'm not traveling that far from what I've been doing.”

        Prison project: When the Pat Graney Company was in the Tristate in February, part of its residency was “Keeping the Faith — The Prison Project.”

        The Seattle dance group helped establish a program at Cincinnati's River City Correctional Center that included two performances by 17 women prisoners Feb. 23.

        Jefferson James of Contemporary Dance Theater, the project sponsor, says she's in the process of applying for a collaboration grant to keep it going.

        “All of us who were involved — both the artists and residents — saw it as a life-changing experience. We felt like we were making a difference with people who really need it. And the residents felt pride and a sense of accomplishment — which was for many of them a first-time experience,” Ms. James says.

        Eventually, she would like to conduct three projects a year to reach a greater number of women. In developing a budget, she's including a new project to start in the fall.

        “River City is eager for us to return, and we'd like to. They're right here which makes it easier, but our future goals also involve branching out (to other communities).”

        For information about the integrated prison arts programs in Cincinnati, contact Ms. James at 591-2557 or

       Carol Norris is a free-lance writer who covers dance for the Enquirer. Write her c/o Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202; fax, 768-8330; e-mail


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