In 1968, Robert Cobb was asked to lead the Health Sciences Department at Mankato State College. He accepted the appointment—but during the negotiations he requested that his wife, Florence, be hired as a physical education
instructor as well.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but my position was part of the negotiation of his appointment,” says Florence Cobb, who is now 94 years old. “We could not survive as we would like to on one salary, so my husband always saw to it that I had a job.”
Robert Cobb’s request on behalf of his wife had a profound impact on Minnesota State Mankato: Florence Cobb helped build the University’s nationally recognized dance program that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Cobb’s passion for dance came from her mother. “My mother was a dancer. She took ballet in the back of the studio, because she wasn’t allowed in the front room,” says Cobb. “I remember she was an inspiration.”
At age 16, Cobb attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. After earning her bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, she served as an assistant instructor there for several years. “It was low in pay, but high in experience,” she says, smiling.
Cobb studied dance in Madison, Wis., taught in Florida, and earned her master’s degree in health and physical education at
Tennessee State, where her husband Bob taught health sciences. They moved to Minnesota when he accepted the appointment at Mankato State College.
When the Cobbs arrived in Mankato, they were among just a few black faculty on campus. To combat feelings of isolation, Florence focused on her work and her students. There was no dance program at the University at the time, so she started adding dance classes to the curriculum one by one. Eventually, in 1976, she was able to establish a dance minor.
But Cobb still found herself having to advocate not only for an expansion of the arts, but also for safe dance practice and performance areas for her students. “She had to fight for the logistics of raising the floor in a dance studio in Highland Center,” says Julie Kerr-Berry, the director of the dance program at Minnesota State Mankato. “It was vital for dancers to be able
to safely train. She was a trailblazer.
“I commend Florence for what she accomplished and when she accomplished it,” Kerr-Berry adds. “She found creative solutions and had the generosity to draw people in. Her charisma, spirit and tenacity allowed her to do great things. She just didn’t back down.”
Cobb’s commitment went beyond creating a dance program. She was fully invested in the growth of individuals. “It wasn’t just dance class; Florence built confidence,” says Laurie Putze, ’84, ’96, ’03. “When you walked out of her class, you felt good about yourself. She would do anything for her students.”
While teaching at the University, Cobb also directed Orchesis—an extracurricular dance club. Under her guidance, a group of
novices evolved into a skilled college dance troupe that performed on and off campus. “We danced at the opening of the Blue Earth County library, in Rasmussen Woods and in surrounding communities,” Putze says. “We were everywhere.”
Cobb credits her students for the group’s success. “Orchesis really took off. I always had exquisite student workers to help me,” she says. “They did the work of the program, all the way from ushering to lighting to choreography.”
From Campus to the Community
Cobb also introduced modern dance to the Mankato community. She established the Starlight Dance Company in cooperation with the Harry Meyering Center. The company offered dance for adults with disabilities. When possible, Cobb also invited dance troupes to campus, both for the benefit of her students and the community at large. With a limited budget, she couldn’t accommodate as many as she would have liked. Still, Kerr- Berry says the level of talent that Cobb hosted was amazing.
“She brought in nationally renowned dance companies, like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Mary Hinkson—first black dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company—the Louis Falco Dance Company, the José Limón Dance Company, as well as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company,” says Kerr-Berry.
The exposure made an impact on students. “I became more global, less self-absorbed,” Putze says. “I learned there was more out there than my little world. That perhaps was her greatest impact, taking someone who had very little
exposure and showing us the potential.”
Cobb retired in 1988—well before the University first offered a dance major in 2005. But Kerr-Berry says her impact on
the dance program remains unparalleled. Today, students can select from six degree options as a dance major. “We owe this to
Florence for persisting and sometimes fighting so that dance could be acknowledged as a legitimate academic and artistic area of study,” Kerr-Berry says. “There is a whole group of her former students active in the dance community. She opened people’s perspective as to what dance is,” Kerr-Berry adds. “As an art form, dance can offer students a different experience. Florence understood this and drew people in with her passion and commitment as an artist and educator.”
“Dance is the extension of us, it is expression, it is creativity, it is artistry,” says Cobb. “My life has been a great experience expanding the whole concept of dance. It has been a wonderful journey and it was made so because of the response of the students.”