The ladies of legend

Perry-Mansfield celebrates 90 years in Strawberry Park

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The story has been told a thousand times and will be told a thousand more until it is solidified into history.

The story of the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp starts with two women. They were new graduates of Smith College, a prestigious women's school in New England. Portia Mansfield graduated in 1909 and Charlotte Perry graduated in 1910.

"The women who went to Smith at that time were from affluent families, and they wanted more out of life than raising babies," said T. Ray Faulkner, board member and former employee of Perry-Mansfield. "Back then, women had a few choices. They could become teachers, nurses or a secretary. Women who went to college were in an elite."

Perry graduated with a degree in psychology, and Mansfield earned a degree in education.

Perry's father owned a coal mine in Oak Creek, and his connection to Colorado drew her out West. She had a dream to open a summer program for dancers and talked Mansfield into joining her.

Their first attempt was a failure. In 1913, they opened a performing arts camp in Eldora, but the elevation was too high and the proximity to Denver drew crowds of Peeping Toms eager to see the dancing nymphs they read about in the newspaper.

With the help of Perry's father, the women relocated to a large homestead in Strawberry Park outside of Steamboat Springs. Starting with the log cabin already on the property, the women began building their dream.

Perry's brother, who by then ran the mine in Oak Creek, loaned her several of his workmen as carpenters. In 1918, the first building was completed.

By 1922, the women had formed a dance company that traveled the Vaudeville circuit. But Vaudeville was on the decline.

"It died for two reasons," Faulkner said. "With the invention of movies, people no longer needed to go to live shows, and it started changing toward burlesque in order to stay alive."

Halfway across the world, a woman named Isadora Duncan had been dancing for years in a style completely new to the world.

Duncan traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art.

Inspired by the ancient Greeks, she encouraged performers to dance in free flowing togas and bare feet.

They were exploring the seeds of modern dance.

"At the time Portia and Charlotte were dancing, Isadora Duncan was doing a lot of drugs and living in Europe, so the women never met," Faulkner said. "But Duncan had followers."

Some of those followers came to Perry-Mansfield; in the late '20s and early '30s, it was the only place to study dance in the summer.

"Before 1937 (when a dance program was formed at Bennington College), everyone who was influential in modern dance came through Perry-Mansfield," Faulkner said.

When things started to slow down, the women reorganized the school into a training camp for children as well as adults.

By the time Faulkner joined the staff as a cabin counselor in 1957, the school and camp was established as much of what it is today -- offering dance, theater and equestrian classes.

Perry and Mansfield dedicated their lives to the camp. Faulkner remembers them well.

"You never saw them when they didn't act with dignity," she said. "They were very formal. In fact, we all called them 'The Ladies.'"

Campers had to dress for dinner, including ties for the men.

"They were hard working and futuristic and they always thought in the positive. They never fired anyone, only moved them to another job," Faulkner recalled.

The atmosphere was experimental and forward-thinking. Toward the end of their careers, "The Ladies" focused on making dance an academic discipline in colleges across America, an accomplishment that present-day dance majors may take for granted.

"By 1965, they were little old ladies and they decided to retire," Faulkner said. They gave Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp to Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., that year. Stephens College ran the school through the early 1990s.

When Perry-Mansfield first opened, Steamboat was not welcoming to the two women. Dancing was a sin in Steamboat, a Protestant community at the time. By the 1990s, however, when Stephens College decided to dissolve the school, it was a group of Steamboat residents who raised the money to keep the school alive.

Friends of Perry-Mansfield Inc. now manages the school as a nonprofit group governed by a board and managed by an executive director. It raised the money to keep the camp alive through grants and major contributions from businesses and individuals.

In 1994, people involved with Friends of Perry-Mansfield burned the mortgage in the Julie Harris Theater fireplace.

"What's happening today," Faulkner said, "is much the same as 1913."

Now, the school enrolls 400 students each summer with classes spread between two theaters and four dance studios. As students of the camp always have, today's classes mix art with enjoyment of the outdoors.

"The Ladies believed in connecting the beauty of the outdoors with the beauty of the arts," Faulkner said.

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