Same as every spring, the Slippers ’N Masks Youth Dance Theatre will take to the stage, where dancers 7 to 18 years of age will enjoy all the fun and excitement that performing before an audience can bring. But this year’s show will be bittersweet, as it is the final performance of the dance troupe’s founder, Pamela Cohen. “I teach 30-plus classes every week throughout the county,” explains the longtime dance instructor. “And I’ve been doing that for 40 years. It’s time to move on.”
With four decades of teaching kids and adults (through Oxnard College, programs at public and private schools, and community classes in Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo) under her belt, one can’t begrudge the 67-year-old her retirement. Still, she’s been such a fixture on the local dance scene that it’s hard to imagine the community without her. “You just can’t go anywhere without running into someone who knows her,” observes Georgeanne Lees, cultural affairs and interpretive outreach supervisor for the city of Ventura. “She opened the door to the arts — dance in particular — to thousands of families. And once that door is open, it doesn’t close.”
Ballet was Cohen’s first love, and she danced professionally for more than 10 years before exploring jazz, tap, modern and even Middle Eastern dance forms. She brought all this knowledge to Ventura in the 1970s, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as two teaching credentials. She’s been teaching dance, tumbling and theatre ever since. “She’s so enthusiastic and vibrant,” says Kathryn Lawson, Ventura’s Arts and Education coordinator, “and she really taps into what’s new and popular.” Cohen has received numerous accolades for her dedication, including an Arts Educator of the Year Award from Ventura Mayor Mike Tracy in 2012.
Described by Lawson as “like the Energizer bunny,” it’s no surprise that Cohen intends to have an active retirement. Traveling is on the schedule, and she hopes to put her dancing shoes back on, too. “I might try to get more into dance for myself,” she says. “At this point I’m going to do whatever comes up.”
Cohen started the Slippers ’N Masks program in 1980, and has taught the siblings and children of students she had in her early days. “They just keep coming back,” Lees says. Part of Cohen’s appeal to multiple generations is her noncompetitive environment and an emphasis on fun. “My motto is ‘If it feels like work, you’re not going to do it much,’ ” Cohen explains. “We want everyone to enjoy the arts — that’s what fosters the likelihood that they’ll come back. They enjoyed the experience.”
Maintaining contact with many of her pupils through the years, Cohen put the word out that she’ll be retiring this year, and invited everyone to come help her celebrate. Several former students answered the call, and have assisted with choreography and other aspects of the production. Some will also perform. This year’s production is appropriately named Dance Out . . . the Memories, and will feature favorite dance routines from The Little Mermaid, Willy Wonka, Grease, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins and several other shows from Slippers ’N Masks’ history. With 60 cast members — one of the program’s largest ever — and several alumni expected, Cohen anticipates this year’s audience will be packed. “If you want to go, get here at least half an hour early! It’s going to be standing room only,” Cohen advises.
It should be an occasion to remember, to honor a dance teacher the community will find impossible to forget.
Dance Out . . . the Memories, May 1-2 at Mound Elementary School, 455 S. Hill Road, Ventura. Admission is free. For more information, go to www.dancinwithpam.com.