Steamboat Springs Perceptive visitors stepping through the welcoming gates of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp can spot bits of history in the rustic buildings and feel the special aura of the area.
Founded in 1913 by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield, the summer dance and theater camp in the natural surroundings of Strawberry Park was registered as a historical landmark of Routt County in 1993. Records indicate that it's deemed historical because of its significance in the modern dance movement and its prominence of being the oldest performing arts school and camp in the country.
"They used the beauty of the outdoors to bring out beauty in the arts," said Ray Faulkner, an assistant to the director of Perry-Mansfield from 1957-1965.
Perry and Mansfield were attracted to the West when Perry's father invited the girls in 1910 to go on a bear hunt in the Colorado mountains. Three years later, after graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, the girls moved west to start their dream dance camp in the heart of the Rockies. In 1913 they first pioneered the camp at Lake Eldora, about 40 miles west of Denver, but after a year they moved Perry-Mansfield across the Continental Divide to the roughneck-, cowboy- and miner-inhabited town of Steamboat.
"They wanted to live in the beauty of Colorado, in the beauty of the outdoors and they originally wanted to create this dance thing," Faulkner said.
The townspeople had a rough time accepting the women, Faulkner said, because they were seen by many in the town as crazy, nude women dancing the woods. This image came from Perry and Mansfield wearing dance outfits of sheer, chiffon tops and pink tights.
They also spiced up the life in town when a troop of costumed women came into town and danced for the residents. After their performance, Ferry Carpenter asked them to stay and join in a square-dancing routine. Square dancing was unknown to the polished dancers, but it took them only a few minutes to add extra jigs to the grand rights and lefts, Carpenter recounted in a video documenting the development of Perry-Mansfield.
"You couldn't help but like them," Carpenter said in the documentary. "They were like people from another world."
Ignoring rumors of two dancing mad women in the woods, Perry and Mansfield began building their camp with the assistance of a carpenter crew sent over by a local mine in Oak Creek owned by Perry's brother. When Mansfield and Perry purchased the 15-acre property for $200, the only building there was a cabin built in the 1800s. The women lived in the cabin while the rest of the camp was being built and the carpenters stayed in tents on the property.
The first structure built was a large dining room that served as a dance studio. There is a room off the side that they called the fireplace room where they slept and had meals, Faulkner said.
In 1917, the second of the main buildings was built, incorporating a larger dance studio with a theater at one end. For play performances, chairs were lined on the dance floor so the audience could look onto the stage, Faulkner said.
The first six living quarters started as tents but eventually evolved into cabins when wooden slabs were put up as walls.
"(Perry and Mansfield) never stopped doing, they never stopped challenging themselves," Faulkner said. "They lived for the moment and they lived for the time."
During the time when Perry-Mansfield originated, the nation was in an industrial revolution at the turn of the century and people were open to change. It was when modern dance began developing and, coincidentally, Perry-Mansfield existed when modern dance was evolving.
Mansfield worked at creating dances in the modern fashion. She never was labeled a developer of modern dance, but she had the space and brought in the right people, Faulkner said.
Another large event that affected the historical significance of Perry-Mansfield was a 1906 national convention of physical education. At that time, the president of the convention made the statement that dance should be a part of physical education because it was believed that physical education would develop physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health, Faulkner said. Dance would cover the emotional and spiritual aspects that other activities lacked.
People came back from the convention and told teachers that they had to teach dance in their curriculum, but there wasn't a college that taught dance. However, Perry-Mansfield served as a place from the 1920s to the 1940s where women came to study dance so they could go back as physical educators and teach dance as part of their program.
"Perry-Mansfield served a need for educators in the realm of dance and it served a need for artists who were developing their own statement about dance," Faulkner said.
As the reputation of the camp grew, other curricula were added. Horseback riding was always a part of the camp, but eventually drama became a large program and recently creative writing was added. Many people who have passed through Perry-Mansfield's doors during its more than 80-year existence have became famous. Students have ranged from dance company founders to actors, writers and choreographers. Records show that Agnes DeMille attended Perry-Mansfield when dancers joined locals for the square dance, which inspired her famous ballet, "Rodeo."
Larissa Keever is an intern with the Steamboat Pilot /Steamboat Today