The Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp is the oldest continuously operated performing arts camp in the United States. It is located near Steamboat Springs and was established by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield in 1913. The camp served as an important site for the development of modern dance, choreography, and performing arts education. The camp has many distinguished faculty and alumni, including 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 and spent the summer studying ballet in Europe. She returned to teach dance in New York City and Nebraska. In the fall of 1912 she visited Perry in Denver. As the two young women accompanied Perry’s father on a hunting trip, they 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 the Rocky Mountain Dancing Camp. This first camp was located 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.
Perry and Mansfield looked for a new location. They settled on Steamboat Springs because it was remote and had better summer weather. They saved $200 teaching dance lessons in Chicago. In 1914 they used the money to buy five acres in Strawberry Park, a few miles north of Steamboat Springs. At the time, the property had only one building—a log-cabin homestead. Perry and Mansfield used it as their living quarters and called it the “Cabeen.”
By 1917 the camp attracted fifty students. Mansfield taught dance classes while Perry taught drama, design, sets, and costuming. Initially, they spent their winters teaching in Chicago to raise money for the camp. In 1918, with the camp on more stable financial footing, they moved to Carmel, California, where they started a winter arts school.
In 1921 Mansfield started a professional dance company that studied at the Steamboat Springs camp during the summer. They toured the United States and Canada for the rest of the year. In 1930, however, several factors, including the Great Depression and the declining popularity of vaudeville, led the company to disband.
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 twenty-five years, 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. New buildings were added to the property. They were placed in an informal layout and had log siding to maintain the camp’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 built before 1960.
The camp’s most notable structures include the Julie Harris Theater, built in 1958, and the Louis Horst Studio, an open dance floor built in 1960. The Julie Harris Theater is one of the few departures from the camp’s rustic style. It was based on a design by Canadian architect Willard Sage, an actor on the camp’s staff and a student of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the camp’s dance program expanded significantly with the addition of modern dance. This new dance style emphasized individuality, creativity, and freedom in its movements. The camp was one of only a few schools in the United States that taught both classical ballet and modern dance. It became an important training ground for modern dancers, choreographers, and composers.
Much of the camp’s staff consisted of young women who were creating modern dance as we know it today. Also, 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 teachers. Choreographers often taught at the camp or used it to test new ideas.
In 1930 the camp started to offer more traditional summer camp activities. These included camping, swimming, and tennis. In 1934 equestrian instructor Elizabeth Shannon began offering horseback riding. This became an important component of the camp’s curriculum. The camp added several riding rings, and campers took horseback rides into the nearby Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.
The camp’s cultural influence was extensive. It held local performances in Steamboat Springs, and in 1950 it helped start the Steamboat Springs Square Dance Festival. It also hosted the region’s first Symposium of the Arts in 1952. This was instrumental in the establishment of the Colorado Council on the Arts (now Colorado Creative Industries). In 1953 the camp became home to the first National Rating Center for Horse 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 students and staff members traveling to the camp 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.
Stephens College Years
By 1963, after five decades of leading the camp, Perry and Mansfield decided to retire. They donated 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.
Return to Independence
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 raised enough money for a down payment. Friends of Perry-Mansfield took over operation of the camp. By 1994 the group raised enough money to pay off the mortgage and own the camp outright.
Friends of Perry-Mansfield have 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 fundraising campaign. The Gates Family Foundation, the Boettcher Foundation, and the State Historical Fund all contributed. With the money, the camp added new performance venues and renovated 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. It offers a variety of dance, theater, and equestrian programs for students from elementary school to college.