Tales from the Tread: Pioneers of imagination | SteamboatToday.com

Tales from the Tread: Pioneers of imagination

Candice Bannister and Dagny McKinley
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
From left, Portia Mansfield, Charlotte Perry and Marjorie Perry are shown in this photograph.
Tread of Pioneers Museum/Courtesy photo

March is Women’s History Month when we commemorate and celebrate the vital role of women in American history. To this end, the Tread of Pioneers Museum honors local women who significantly contributed to our community’s cultural history and heritage. Two standouts in our local history are Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield.

Among their many impacts in the arts and culture realm, Charlotte and Portia are the founders of the world-renown performing arts camp, Perry-Mansfield. Described as “Renaissance Women,” these women were trailblazers of 20th-century dance and theater from Colorado to New York to California and beyond.

Portia Mansfield was a dancer, teacher, horsewoman, author, explorer, anthropologist and pioneer of documentary filmmaking. She also developed a series of exercises for dancers that became a precursor of physical therapy.

While Portia moved from one interest to the next, Charlotte was steadfast in her love of theatre. She was one of Colorado’s great directors and drama coaches. After studying under the great Lee Strasberg, she was instrumental in developing young actors who later became famous. She was also an innovator of children’s theater as a teacher, playwright and producer.

The ladies met at Smith College where one summer they accompanied Charlotte’s father on a bear hunting expedition in Northwest Colorado. There they fell in love with the outdoors and the mountains and curated the idea to start a summer dance camp. This school of dance would unite all that they treasured: beauty, creativity, the wilderness and more.

After a summer in Eldora, in the summer of 1914, they founded the camp in Steamboat Springs with some army tents and an 1880s homestead house known fondly as “Cabeen.” With help from local coal miners, the two women built the main lodge and cabins. Throughout the years, they added new buildings, including a theater, to accommodate the growing number of students. Their core belief: “Creative practice through art and nature manifests in an insightful, compassionate and courageous life.”

Over the decades, the camp evolved and pivoted to the times. In the 1920s, Portia Mansfield Dancers became the springboard for a dance company that toured extensively throughout the country’s Vaudeville circuits. In the 1930s, the camp became a focal point for the American modern dance movement and became known as a haven for creativity.

The women’s perseverance and innovation made Steamboat Springs a hub for collaborations, innovation and cross-cultural learning. Perry-Mansfield was one of the only organizations in the country to offer ballet and modern dance classes when contemporary dancers struggled to find studio space at a time when most Americans viewed modern dance as immoral. Over the years, Charlotte and Portia welcomed instructors and inspiration from around the world, including Africa, Japan and India.

When square dancing was popular in the 1950s, Perry-Mansfield organized a square dance competition that brought thousands of people from across the country to Steamboat Springs. During the second annual festival, Portia invited the Ute Indian tribe to participate in the celebrations. This event is believed to be the first time the Utes returned and shared their dances in this area since 1881 when the U.S. government forced them from their ancestral lands.

Over the years, many famous artists and performers have graced Perry-Mansfield’s studios: Dustin Hoffman, Agnes De Mille, José Limon, Merce Cunningham, Julie Harris, John Cage, Lee Remick, Jessica Biel, Corey Hawkins and many more.

Today, national and international students take classes from a premier group of accomplished faculty. Emerging artists study dance, theater, music, equestrian, visual art, creative writing and more. The tradition and reputation established over a century at Perry-Mansfield continues to lead the camp and its students to greatness. What began as two young women’s dreams created a foundational organization of Routt County and the nation’s cultural heritage.

Sources: Perry-Mansfield archives; special thanks to author and historian Dagny McKinley. Candice Bannister is the executive director for the Tread of Pioneers Museum. For more, TreadOfPioneers.org.

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