Tales from the Tread: Renaissance women

Portia Mansfield dancers. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For over 100 years, Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp has led creativity and arts in Steamboat Springs. For Women’s History Month, we honor and celebrate its female founders and their vision to create a one-of-a-kind organization that has become a leading name in the nation.

Smith College graduates Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield have been described as “Renaissance Women.” Portia was a dancer, teacher, horsewoman, author, pioneer of documentary filmmaking and more. Charlotte was a playwright, producer, drama coach and one of America’s great directors. Her trademark was incorporating dance into drama.

Charlotte and Portia’s mutual love of the mountains and nature sparked their desire to start a summer dance camp. This school of dance would unite their mutual passions: beauty, creativity, wilderness, and horses.

After founding a dance camp in Eldora in 1913, Charlotte and Portia established Perry-Mansfield camp in Strawberry Park in Steamboat with six army tents and an 1880 homestead house, known fondly as “Cabeen.” With help from local coal miners and a cart and mule, the two women built the main lodge, a theater and cabins. Throughout the years, Charlotte and Portia added new buildings to accommodate increasing attendance. In addition to participating in theater and dance classes, students blazed trails, built cabins, chopped wood and pumped water—offering a new character-building experience for many high society campers.

Charlotte’s sister, Marjorie, was the head horse wrangler at the camp. She taught the campers horsemanship and took them on exciting wilderness excursions. Always up for adventure, Marjorie made difficult and treacherous journeys from Steamboat to Denver on horseback and skis alongside her lifelong friend, Eleanor Bliss.

Marjorie also invited Carl Howelsen to Steamboat in 1913, a pivotal event that began his local legacy of ski jumping, Winter Carnival and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. An avid outdoorswoman, skier and equestrian, Marjorie was also once known as the best female shot in the country. For her contributions to the sport of skiing, Marjorie was inducted into the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame in 1988.

In the 1920s, the camp was the springboard for a notable touring dance company. In the 1930s, Perry-Mansfield became a focal point for the American modern dance movement. Dancers throughout the nation traveled to the camp to explore this new style, and it became known as a haven for creativity. Throughout the years, many distinguished alumni, faculty and guest artists have passed through the doors of Perry-Mansfield. Famous names such as Dustin Hoffman, Martha Graham, José Limón, Joan Van Ark, Julie Harris, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Agnes de Mille have either taught or studied at Perry-Mansfield.

Today, students ages eight years to college, participate in a variety of classed in dance, theater, music, equestrian, art and creative writing. With a highly esteemed faculty and reputation, the tradition of Perry-Mansfield remains unsurpassed as the camp continues to inspire and cultivate emerging artists.

Explore more of the fascinating history of Perry-Mansfield in the upcoming collaborative exhibit featuring the artwork of Chula Beauregard. This new exhibit opens at the Tread of Pioneers Museum for First Friday Artwalk on Aug. 6, 2021.

Candice Bannister is executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.

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