Local author reveals rich history of local institution: Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp

A group of Perry-Mansfield dancers, group of dancers, taken the first year camp was open in El Dora, Colorado.
Perry-Mansfield archives – sourced from The History Press.
If you go... What: “Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp: a history of art in nature” When: 6 p.m. on Friday, July 21 Where: Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, 86 9th St.

Some say a photo is worth a thousand words, but for author Dagny McKinley, one photo in particular was worth a whole story.

It all began with a photograph of two women dancing with pure joy on their faces.

“Once you see that image, you can’t forget it,” said McKinley, who has lived in Steamboat about 15 years and first saw the photo when working for Jim Steinberg at Portfolio Publications. “I wanted to know why they were so happy.”

After five years of researching historical documents, letters and interviews, McKinley thinks she has uncovered the secret of these two women known as the founders of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp, Portia Mansfield and Charlotte Perry.

“They never let anything stop them. It’s as simple as that. When they decided they were going to do something, they did it,” McKinley said. “It didn’t matter what the social norms were or what was right or polite for a woman. They were visionaries.”

Her book, “Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp: A history of art in nature,” which was contracted with History Press, will have its release party from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. McKinley will give a short talk about her research and the book, followed by a Q&A and book signing.

Presenting the story of America’s longest continuously running performing arts camp took her about 10 months to complete, from contract signing to publication. The first thought it would take only six months to write a coffee table book with little text, which was her initial idea.

“I spent a lot of time with the archives. But mostly, I used the documents I read to paint the picture of what camp was like,” McKinley said. “One of the draws to camp is that, even though technology is taking over the rest of the world, you can visit Perry-Mansfield and step back in time.”

But once she started going through the archives at Perry-Mansfield, she became enthralled with how much the two women had accomplished in their lives.

“One of the things I think people forget about Perry-Mansfield was that it was the only camp of its kind,” McKinley said. “No one else at the time considered taking a dance camp and putting it in the middle of the wilderness. That idea of balance, of integrating different disciplines, of living and working with your instructors was completely new, and people responded to it to such a level that, at one time, they started and adult camp for the parents of the campers, so they could have the same experience their children did.”

Attracting celebrities, such as the Rockefellers, early on, many know Perry-Mansfield was home to established dancers such as Jose Limon and Harriette Ann Gray and actors such as Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Beal.

The word ‘no,’ McKinley said, was not in their vocabulary.

“When they encountered an obstacle, they saw it as a challenge to find a solution to,” McKinley said. “They were revolutionaries, and they achieved what, for many, was the impossible dream, and they inspired thousands of young students to do the same.”

Written in a timeline format, the book presents a brief history of how Perry and Mansfied started the camp and includes major events of each year, up to present. It also explores the contribution Friends of Perry-Mansfield has made in preserving the camp, which has required students to take part in the equestrian program, dance, theatre and art.

“Each discipline informed the other,” McKinley said. “Dance taught actors how to move with confidence, equestrian taught them posture and balance, acting taught them expression.”

Mansfield, McKinley said, “sang through life” and was able to anticipate what people would need and find a way to provide it. She is credited with being one of the first to come up with what would now be called physical therapy.

Perry was more steadfast in her passion, McKinley said; she was a woman who wanted to teach theatre, and though it took time to build confidence in herself, she came into her own once she started directing and is known for her famous saying, “I don’t believe you,” when someone wasn’t giving their best performance.

“If you know Perry-Mansfield, this book will help you fall more in love with it,” McKinley said. “If you haven’t heard of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp, Portia Mansfield or Charlotte Perry, you need to. When you look at everything the ladies accomplished in their lifetime, I think anything is possible, as long as I believe it is.”

Dagny McKinley’s interesting findings through her research of Perry-Mansfield:

  • Adaptability

Perry and Mansfield kept the school open during World War II, tailoring their curriculum to include target practice, exterminating rodents, digging trenches and vegetable cellars and more. Their adaptability allowed them to maintain enough attendance to keep going.

  • Barnstorming tours

They went on barnstorming tours starting in 1939. Instead of performing at the Palace Theatre in New York, as they did when they performed on the Vaudeville circuit, they instead visited universities, gold miners and ranchers across the West.

  • Vaudeville

They toured the Vaudeville circuit and, at one time, had four acts touring concurrently, possibly the only group to do that.

  • First year of camp

Held in El Dora, they borrowed a cabin of a friend of Charlotte’s mother, Ann Dickinson Brown, in 1914. It was a palatial estate with two lakes, screened porches, a boathouse and a gazebo. Campers slept on the porches, and the high elevation took its toll on quite a few of them. Severe storms that rolled through each afternoon were so deafening they had to stop camp until they passed.

  • Peeping Toms

Another challenge in the early years involved voyeurism. Once the men of Denver heard there were “nymphs” dancing barefoot in gauzy dresses, they dotted the hillside across from camp with spyglasses to catch a peek. Perry and Mansfield knew they had to move. Thanks to Perry’s father, they found their location in Steamboat.

  • Independent

On some level, they both knew that, to succeed with their career, they couldn’t have a traditional family, husband and children. They made the choice to pursue their dreams and instead built a family with the staff and students of Perry-Mansfield.

  • Other characters in the book you might recognize

Dustin Hoffman makes an appearance in the book, as does Jose Limon, Julie Harris, Virginia Tanner, Helen Tamaris, Linda Kent of Julliard, Ferry Carpenter and Stacey Tookey, of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame. Tookey taught at the camp last year.



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