On a poster over the desk of SI computer typesetter Joanne Cowen, an airborne Mikhail Baryshnikov executes a full leg extension. That's your first clue. Or she may mention in passing that the clatter of her keyboard reminds her "of Polynesian dancers—the ones that jump between bamboo poles." Getting the picture?
In 1965, having worked for 10 months at TIME, Cowen became a dancer at the Latin Quarter, a Manhattan nightclub. One night she was photographed there with University of Texas linebacker (and Atlanta Falcon-to-be) Tommy Nobis, and that shot appeared in SI (June 20, 1966) in a story about the NFL and AFL making peace. Before making her official debut at SI in 1976, Cowen was a dancer for seven years at hotels in Las Vegas.
A surefire way to earn Cowen's wrath is to refer to her as a typist, a transgression comparable, she says, to calling a dancer a show girl. Says Cowen, "All a show girl has to do is walk a straight line and be nine feet tall."
Cowen grew up in Queens, her childhood enlivened by mother Rose's saxophone and father Henry's trumpet. Both had been music majors at NYU. Henry, now 72, played in various big bands—with Ted Lewis, Bunny Berrigan and Carmen Cavallaro—in the late '30s and '40s, and later in orchestras for Broadway musicals. Rose, now 70, played with an all-woman band.
Cowen has stopped performing for the public, "except for an occasional spontaneous tap dance in the frozen-food aisle." However, you can tell from the way she rattles through a 3,000-word piece—briskly yet rhythmically—that she's still got the beat.