Dance was a way of life to Florence Cobb.
From the segregated schools of Nashville to the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, the tireless dance instructor encouraged generations of students to express themselves through their bodies — and convinced administrators that it was a legitimate academic and artistic pursuit. Cobb, 95, died at her Burnsville home June 24.
As founder of then-Mankato State’s dance program, the Oklahoma native transformed a hodgepodge of classes in the school’s physical education department in the 1960s into a formal academic minor. She cast a wide net for pupils, whether she was recruiting baseball players in the hallways or nurturing the talents of those with mental disabilities.
“Her whole theme was the relevancy of dance as an artistic expression, but also as an academic study of the body and of movement and space,” daughter Linda Cobb said.
She remained active in the Twin Cities dance community following her retirement in the late 1980s, performing, serving on boards and attending performances at Mankato. The SAGE dance awards honored her in 2013.
Her long life was a study of the racial history of 20th century America. Cobb grew up alongside a grandmother who had been born into slavery, and she walked past an all-white school on the 3-mile journey to her own segregated school in Okmulgee, Okla.
She went on to earn degrees from Lincoln University in Missouri and Tennessee State University, and study dance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teaching in Nashville, she established the first dance club in its segregated school system.
Cobb and her husband, Robert, raised three children amid the sounds of jazz and classical music records, encouraging them to experiment with music, dance and theater.
“She would always say [dance] stimulates your sensitivities. It stimulates your awareness of your space,” said daughter Joyce Cobb, a renowned Memphis jazz vocalist. “It sensitizes you with empathy of others.”
The Cobbs came to Minnesota when Mankato State tapped Robert to lead its Department of Health Sciences in 1968. They were among the only black residents of Mankato then, a challenge magnified by Cobb’s gender.
“To get respect was really hard,” said former student Laurie Putze.
Dance was also a marginalized field of academia geared almost exclusively toward women, said Julie Kerr-Berry, who succeeded Cobb at Mankato. “The fact that she was where she was, when she was, doing what she was doing, was pretty phenomenal,” Kerr-Berry said, “and speaks to her … tenacity. And her pioneering spirit.”
Cobb was bold. When the school built a new studio with concrete flooring beneath the wooden floorboards — harmful to dancers — she demanded it be changed. At the grand opening of Mankato’s downtown library, she put on music and encouraged her dancers to improvise on large rocks around a fountain. They danced at special brunches, at Schell’s brewery and even around Europe.
She believed dance wasn’t just for dancers, Putze said, recalling that Cobb could create a movement sequence around everyday activities like brushing your teeth. She emphasized the awareness of time, energy and space.
Those remained important tenets until the end, Putze said. “Her last [note] to me was, ‘Remember the time, energy and space we shared.’ ”
Cobb is survived by her children Linda, Joyce and Robert, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A celebration of her life will be held at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 21 at McColl Pond Environmental Learning Center in Savage.