Tom Ross: Square dancing paved the path for local boys to meet girls at Steamboat’s Perry-Mansfield

Tom Ross

— Karolynn Lestrud, of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, gave her audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum the rare opportunity Friday to see and hear camp founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield — as well as renaissance Routt County rancher Farrington Carpenter and the doyenne of Lincoln Avenue, Dorothy Wither — describing in their own words the early days at the camp.

Perry-Mansfield is celebrating its 100th anniversary in Strawberry Park this summer.

Lestrud provided commentary while screening a 1979 documentary about Perry-Mansfield, “Divine Madness” by Leonard Aitken. It includes Mansfield’s vintage footage that documents the camp’s role in the formative years of modern dance in America and is conserved in the archives of the Kennedy Center in New York.

“Divine Madness” also reveals that at first blush, the local Routt County citizenry didn’t readily understand what those young women “dancing around in the forest” were all about.

Wither recalled how husbands in Steamboat Springs forbade their wives to visit Perry-Mansfield for fear the curious young ladies at the camp might influence them.

“The townspeople thought something funny was going on out there,” Wither said. “The local women left milk and butter for (Charlotte and Portia) in the creek down by the gate,” but entering the camp itself was forbidden.

Carpenter, who homesteaded a landmark ranch along the Yampa River east of Hayden, described the time he enlisted the dancers from Perry-Mansfield to put a charge into a birthday party he threw in his own honor. He went to great lengths to show people a good time, piping a spring into his ranch yard to create a fountain and arranging for a group of farm trucks to use their headlights to illuminate the performance area.

“I introduced (the Perry-Mansfield girls) to square dancing,” Carpenter said. “They lightened the whole thing up.”

Throughout time, people in Steamboat began to relax their guard about the camp, which was busy laying some of the foundation for the modern dance movement. The great Agnes de Mille later would base her famed ballet “Rodeo” and the dance scenes in the musical “Oklahoma” on square dances she took part in at the Elkhead School northwest of Hayden.

Dancers and instructors at the camp were aware that they were blazing a new trail.

“Our intent was to express new ideas only through movement,” famous dancer Eleanor King said. “That’s the credo of modern dance, discovering new paths.”

As it turned out, the local teenage boys were busy finding new pathways to getting inside the camp to make new friends.

Lestrud told how, well into the 1950s, Perry-Mansfield remained exclusively a girls camp. But square dancing had become an honored counterpoint to the modern dance being explored at the camp, and in order to properly enjoy square dancing, they needed male partners. That’s where the local population of teenage boys benefited.

John Wither, nephew to Dorothy, was in the audience Friday and said he and other boys like Moose Barrows and Sandy Swineheart were eager to visit the camp frequently during the course of one or two weeks.

“We though it was just wonderful,” John Wither said. “Here we were with 300 girls we didn’t know before.”

“Did you ever try to sneak onto the campus before you were invited?” Lestrud asked with feigned innocence.

Wither replied, “No, I don’t think we ever did that before we were invited.”

Sureva Towler, who attended Perry-Mansfield in the 1940s and played a role in a production of “Finnegan’s Rainbow,” said she learned from her own life’s path that although the camp influenced famous actors like Dustin Hoffman and Julie Harris and included de Mille and Merce Cunningham among its instructors, one of Perry-Mansfield’s greatest contributions was to educate generations of devoted audiences for the arts.

“It became my life,” Towler said. “I ended up working for the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Lestrud agreed.

“Everyone who goes to camp here becomes a lifelong supporter of the arts,” she said.

Perry-Mansfield is hosting a public open house July 21 with shuttle buses running between the camp and the public school parking lots in Strawberry Park. And it will host an evening of dance July 26 to 28 at Steamboat Springs High School. Look for details at

Copies of “Divine Madness” are scarce but worth tracking down. The Bud Werner Memorial Library has one that currently is checked out.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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