Tales from the Tread: Women of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
“The history of the place seeps into your soul and changes who you are forever … There is not another place on earth quite like it. It is life changing. It feeds the soul, rejuvenates the spirit and educates and challenges the artist.”
— Tammy Dyke-Compton and Christopher Compton, co-directors of dance at Perry-Mansfield
In a time when women’s roles and adventures were usually quite limited, two Smith College graduates broke the mold and set out from the East Coast on the journey of a lifetime to start a summer dance camp in the Rocky Mountains. Their vision was to join their love of the outdoors with their passion for dance and creativity. To that end, in 1915, Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp began in the woods of Strawberry Park in Steamboat Springs.
“An absorption in an art with heart and mind; a sense of close brotherhood of the arts and the values of a way of life close to creatures and mountains of the out-of-doors,” wrote camp co-founder Charlotte Perry.
To celebrate Women’s History Month and the irreplaceable heritage of Perry-Mansfield, at 4 to 6 p.m. March 20, the Tread of Pioneers Museum joins with Friends of Perry-Mansfield to present “Wise Women: A Historic Evening at Perry-Mansfield.”
The event is part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to recognize the pioneering local women who shaped our history and region. The event includes a historical snowshoe tour around the camp with historian Karolynn Lestrud, hot beverages by a bonfire, a historical reenactment featuring the characters of the camp’s founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield and a historical talk with Dagny McKinley, author of the book, “Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp: A History of Art in Nature.”
Space is limited, and a donation of $20 is suggested at the door. To sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perry-Mansfield is nationally renowned for promoting creativity in the arts. Perry and Mansfield have been described as “Renaissance Women.”
Mansfield was a dancer, teacher, horsewoman, author, explorer and pioneer of documentary filmmaking and of using dance movement as exercise. She had a unique knack for finding young, unknown dance teachers who became legendary founders of modern dance.
Perry was one of America’s great directors and drama coaches. Her trademark was incorporating dance into drama. She was also innovator of children’s theater as a teacher, playwright and producer.
The idea for starting a performing arts camp began one year in college, when Perry and Mansfield accompanied Perry’s father on a bear hunting expedition in Northwest Colorado. Although they did not like the idea of hunting bears, it was then that they fell in love with the mountains and found the idea to start a summer dance camp. This school of dance would unite all that they treasured: beauty, creativity, art, the wilderness and horses.
After one year in Eldora, in summer 1915, the beginnings of their dream camp were erected in Steamboat Springs with six army tents and an 1880s homestead house, known fondly as “Cabeen.” With help from local coal miners, the two women built the main lodge, a theater and the cabins. Throughout the years, new buildings were added to accommodate an ever-increasing flow of students, as well as theater and other arts instruction. Many of the early structures still remain as potent storytellers of the camp’s rich heritage and will be featured on the snowshoe tour.
In the 1920s, the camp became the springboard for a dance company that toured extensively throughout the country’s vaudeville circuits. In the 1930s, Perry-Mansfield became a focal point for the American modern dance movement. Many dancers came to the camp to explore this new style, and Perry-Mansfield became known as a haven for creativity and performing arts excellence.
Over the years, many famous artists and performers have graced Perry-Mansfield’s studios, such as Dustin Hoffman, Agnes De Mille, José Limon, Merce Cunningham, Julie Harris, John Cage, Lee Remick, Jessica Biel, Corey Hawkins and many more.
“To know the story of Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield is to be inspired. By dreaming, believing and working tirelessly they transformed the lives of thousands of dancers, actors and artists around the world,” said McKinley.
Today, national and international students take classes from accomplished faculty from around the world. Students, ages 8 through college, take classes daily in dance, theater, music, equitation, art and creative writing. The tradition of Perry-Mansfield remains unsurpassed as the camp continues to prepare emerging artists for the stage.
Candice Bannister is the executive director of Tread of Pioneers Museum.
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