Established by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield in 1913, the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp near Steamboat Springs is the oldest continuously operated performing arts camp in the United States. In the early twentieth century, the camp served as an important site for the development of modern dance, choreography, and performing arts education. The camp’s many distinguished faculty and alumni include Agnes de Mille, Louis Horst, Charles Weidman, José Limón, John Cage, Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Biel.
Establishment and Early Years
In 1910 Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield met as undergraduates at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Mansfield graduated that year and spent the summer studying ballet in Europe before returning to teach dance in New York City and Nebraska. In the fall of 1912 she visited Perry in Denver. The two young women accompanied Perry’s father on a hunting trip and devised a plan for a summer arts camp in the mountains. The idea was innovative at the time. Summer camps were a recent development, and it was unusual for a rustic camp to offer a performing arts education, especially under the direction of two unmarried women.
In 1913 Perry and Mansfield established their initial camp—called the Rocky Mountain Dancing Camp—at a rented house near Lake Eldora in Boulder County. The camp attracted twelve students, but the location proved troublesome. First, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the camp faced harsh and unpredictable weather; second, the camp apparently attracted too many curious men from Denver who used binoculars to try to watch the women dancing in the woods.
In search of a location that was more remote and had better summer weather, Perry and Mansfield settled on Steamboat Springs. They saved $200 teaching dance lessons in Chicago and in 1914 used the money to buy five acres in Strawberry Park, a few miles north of town. At the time, the property had only a single building, a log-cabin homestead called the Cabeen, which served as Perry and Mansfield’s living quarters.
By 1917 the camp attracted fifty students. Mansfield taught dance classes while Perry focused on technical direction (designs, sets, costumes) and, starting in 1917, taught drama. Initially, they spent winters teaching in Chicago to raise money for the camp, but in 1918, with the camp on more stable financial footing, they moved to Carmel, California, and started a winter arts school. In addition, in 1921 Mansfield started a professional dance company, which studied at the Steamboat Springs camp during the summer and toured the US and Canada for the rest of the year. The dance company lasted until 1930, when the Great Depression and the declining popularity of vaudeville ended it. Perry and Mansfield decided to refocus their energy on their Colorado summer camp, which had been renamed the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp. For the next quarter-century they spent their summers in Steamboat Springs running the camp and their winters in New York City studying and teaching.
Growth and Influence
The camp grew steadily through the middle of the twentieth century. From the five acres they started with in 1914, Perry and Mansfield gradually acquired a total of eighty-eight acres by 1949. The buildings they added to the property were placed in an informal layout and had log siding to maintain the area’s rustic feel. In 1918 they built a two-story main lodge, and the main dance studio opened in 1922. Many other cabins and dormitories have been added over the years, with the majority dating to before 1960. Among the camp’s most notable structures are the Louis Horst Studio, an open dance floor built in 1960, and the Julie Harris Theater, built in 1958. One of the few departures from the camp’s rustic style, the Julie Harris Theater was based on a design by Canadian architect Willard Sage—a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s—who also served as an actor on the camp’s staff.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the camp’s dance program expanded significantly with the addition of modern dance, which emphasized individuality, creativity, and freedom in its movements. At the time, the Perry-Mansfield Camp was one of only a few institutions in the United States to support both classical ballet and modern dance, and it quickly became an important training ground for modern dancers, choreographers, and composers. Much of the camp’s staff consisted of the young women who were creating modern dance as we know it today. Moreover, the camp was one of the first dance schools to train men, with male teachers joining the staff in the 1920s. Most modern dancers spent time at the camp as students or faculty, and choreographers often taught at the camp or used it to test new ideas.
As it grew, the camp also offered more traditional summer camp activities, such as pack trips, camping, swimming, and tennis. In 1930 the camp formally added recreation to its existing arts program, and in 1934 equestrian instructor Elizabeth Shannon began offering horseback riding, which became an important component of the camp’s curriculum. The camp added several riding rings, and every Monday campers took a horseback ride in the nearby Mount Zirkel Wilderness.
In addition to its important role in the development of American dance, the camp’s cultural influence was extensive. Locally, it held performances in Steamboat Springs and in 1950 helped start the Steamboat Springs Square Dance Festival. It also hosted the region’s first Symposium of the Arts in 1952, which was instrumental in the establishment of the Colorado Council on the Arts (now Colorado Creative Industries). In equestrian sports, the camp became home in 1953 to the first National Rating Center for Riding in the Rocky Mountain region.
The camp’s reputation attracted a growing number of students. In the early years campers were primarily young women from wealthy families in the East. The Burlington Zephyr train even had private sleeper cars to accommodate them and staff members traveling to Perry-Mansfield from New York and Chicago. By the middle of the twentieth century, people from all over the world attended the camp. In the summer of 1959, it had 276 students, including some from Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
The Stephens College Years
By 1963, after five decades of leading the camp, Perry and Mansfield began to step away from it. They decided to donate the camp to Stephens College, a women’s college in Columbia, Missouri, with a strong performing arts program. After a four-year transition period, Stephens took full control in 1967. The camp became a summer campus for Stephens, with the college renting out the cabins when they were not in use.
Perry and Mansfield retired to Carmel, California. In the early 1970s they received the Colorado Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in recognition of their lifelong contributions to the arts and arts education.
Return to Independence
When financial pressures forced Stephens College to sell the camp in 1991, local citizens formed a group called Friends of Perry-Mansfield to keep the camp open and save the property from development. With the help of a $60,000 loan from Steamboat Springs, the group quickly raised enough money for a down payment on the property. Friends of Perry-Mansfield took over operation of the camp, and by 1994 the group raised enough money to pay off its mortgage and own the camp outright.
Friends of Perry-Mansfield have revitalized and expanded the camp’s programs. In 1997 the camp started a New Works Festival to help playwrights jump-start new productions. In 2001 the camp launched a five-year fundraising campaign to renovate existing buildings and add new performance venues. With help from the Gates Family Foundation, the Boettcher Foundation, and the State Historical Fund, the camp was able to renovate the Cabeen and other historic buildings. The camp now has four dance studios, two theaters, two art studios, two writing studios, a costume shop, and a music lab, and it offers a variety of dance, theater, and equestrian programs for students from elementary school to college.