Dance Teacher Florence Cowanova; For Decades, Her Influence Abounded

Posted: February 17, 1992

Florence Cowanova, 90, one of America's most acclaimed dance instructors, whose pupils filled social registers and covered theater marquees, died Friday at Ivy Hall, her Overbrook mansion.

Clearly gifted in dance at an early age, Miss Cowanova taught her first class at age 11 and opened her own studio at 18, with her mother as business manager and her father as acrobatics instructor.

She has been credited with being the first to bring the serious study of ballet to Philadelphia. Before her arrival about 1920, the serious student had to travel to New York or abroad.

Among the hundreds - or perhaps thousands - of pupils who tapped, shuffled and pirouetted through her studios were Grace Kelly and her siblings.

In a 1975 interview, Miss Cowanova confided that she never really thought Grace had as much talent as sister Peggy, "but Grace was such a sweet child, so eager to please."

Comedian Imogene Coca, whose "dying swan" comic ballet routine was such a howl on TV's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, was another pupil of the grand lady of Ivy Hall.

"Imogene always had a flair for comedy," Miss Cowanova said in 1975.

"She'd be in the ballet line, and all of a sudden an elbow would go up or her head would dodge, and the class would laugh. I suggested to her that she do a satire on ballet in one of my recitals, but I don't think she accepted that as a compliment at all - nor did her mother."

In those days, Miss Cowanova said, mothers wanted their daughters to be beautiful and "character didn't much matter."

While in love with classic dance, Miss Cowanova was never a dance snob.

She taught and encouraged dancing in all its forms: modern jazz, musical comedy, tap, soft shoe.

"A young man or woman can make a nice living dancing" was her firm belief.

It was Miss Cowanova's father, Edward - an amateur boxer of some reputation in the Midwest - who noticed her abilities first.

His infant daughter showed unusual ease in balancing herself and always seemed to land right-end up. The pugilist undertook Miss Cowanova's earliest instruction in dance, then sent her to a regular teacher.

She spent her childhood summers in Wisconsin and winters in New Orleans, where she received much of her early training.

"I labored and labored to learn to dance," Miss Cowanova said in a 1928 interview in the Philadelphia Record newspaper.

"Everything I have ever accomplished has come through hard, hard, patient work."

When she was 13, her parents decided to further her dance study with renowned teachers in the East. En route to New York, the family fell in love with Philadelphia and decided to make it their home. Soon after, the Cowanova Studio of Dancing was founded. The business was financed by $800 lent to Miss Cowanova by an aunt. Lessons cost 50 cents.

The first studio was a building in the 200 block of South 13th Street. The studio later moved to 22d and Walnut Streets and then to Ivy Hall.

Miss Cowanova taught in Philadelphia and commuted to New York to study.

Beginning in 1923, she and her parents spent several summers in Europe, where she worked daily with the great dance masters.

Soon she was specializing in the training of the young, who traveled from all over the country to her studio.

Her young dancers were the first ever to perform to the music of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.

Each spring for more than 50 years, the Cowanova Studio of Dancing presented a spring review at the Academy of Music, hiring a full orchestra at union scale and professional costume-makers and launching a very professional production. The tariff for these extravaganzas was borne chiefly by the students' parents, who were expected to buy at least $75 worth of tickets.

In 1945, RKO invited Miss Cowanova to choreograph dances for Pinocchio to help stimulate interest in dance among children.

She also taught dancing to Ice Follies performers, including stars Bess and

Roy Shipstadt and Oscar Johnson.

Accorded many honors, she served as president, program chairwoman and principal of the Normal School. She helped found the Pennsylvania Association of Dance Teachers and was its first president. She was national president of the Dance Masters of America from 1953 to 1956.

In 1971, Miss Cowanova received the Elsa Hejlich Kempe Award from the New York Chapter of Dance Masters of America for distinguished service. In May 1986, the City of Philadelphia and state Senate honored her for her diligent work in encouraging dance. J. Liddon Pennock, then president of the Academy of Music, called her the "center jewel in the crown of the Academy of Music of Philadelphia."

There are no survivors.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be said at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, 63d Street and Lancaster Avenue, where friends may call at 9:30 a.m. Burial will be in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

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