Many early pioneer women in Utah through religious spirit taught and instilled in their children a love for the arts and a joy in participating in song and dance. It seems only natural that American modern dance would take artistic root in Utah soil and this new expression of dance movement would find its way into higher education. Today, the University of Utah Modern Dance Department is considered to be one of the outstanding schools for dance education in the nation. In addition, Utah's professional modern dance companies began their existence on the University of Utah campus.
Modern dance had gone by many names over the years but is essentially a form of dance expression which evolved from dancer's objections to the limitations imposed by classical ballet of the day; it is free from the limitations of a codified method of training. Modern dance is not a system; instead, it is a point of view, an art form that consciously communicates ideas, feelings, and emotions through movement. The first mention of dance in the University of Utah catalog is as part of a course offering of the Physical Education Department in the academic year 1906-07. Professor Maud May Babcock, director of gymnastics for women and assistant professor of elocution and physical culture, was generally credited for the introduction of dance into the program.
By 1909 the expansion of dance in the curriculum was noted when all physical education classes for women included dance in one form or another. The dance offered was folk dance as well as an adaption of classic dancing call the Gilbert Technique.
From 1913 to 1930, dance productions were listed as "dance dramas," "ballet pantomimes," and "natural rhythms." During this period, dance titles listed in the Utah Chronicle included Hiawatha, If I had a Tail, Scarfs, May Day Gallop, and the Hoary-Headed Dandelion. Directors were Georgia B. Johnson, Emily Brinton, Mattie Tipton, Blache Hayes, and Rhea Wahle Cornelius.
In 1930-31, Assistant Professor Myrtle E. Clancy made significant changes in the curriculum; titles and explanations of classes were altered.
Myrtle Clancy Knudson (she married in 1937) and Blanche Hayes later established a chapter of Orchesis (a Greek word which means "to dance"), which provided an organization where interested students could receive extra-curricular experience in dance techniques, performance, and choreography. The Utah Orchesis group was one of the first organizations of its type to be established west of the Mississippi. In 1931 the Spring Orchesis Concert was held in the recently completed Kingsbury Hall. Until 1931, all dance performances had been held outdoors. From this time, the Orchesis performances were staged regularly within the theatre.
In 1940 Elizabeth Roths Hayes joined the department to head the dance program. With a pioneering spirit, the young teacher form the East was determined to build a department according to her own vision. In 1941 major changes in the dance curriculum were inaugurated by Hayes. Many courses were added to the Physical Education curriculum. The class initiation and careful implementation by Elizabeth Hayes addressed the need to give professional preparation to prospective teachers in dance methods classes. This was a fruitful period in which the groundwork was laid for the teaching minor offered in dance through the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation in 1944-45.
Three classes in music for dance also were introduced at this time. These classes were taught by Miss Maurine Dewsnup, music director and composer. She accompanied technique classes and composed original music for the dance concerts that were presented.
In 1950 men appeared as dancers in concerts and as member of Orchesis. Costumes changed from long skits to leotards-a new look for modern dance. That same year, ballet was offered as part of the dance curriculum and in 1951 parallel programs of ballet and modern dance were offered at the University of Utah. Willam F. Christensen (a Utah native) came to the university to establish a major program of ballet that would train dancers to perform in a student company. This later became the highly visible professional ballet company Ballet West.
During the ten-year period from 1950 to 1960, performances were give by members of Orchesis with choreography by both students and faculty. In April 1958 a professional orchestra was hired for the first time. Forty-four members of the Utah Symphony, directed by Harold Goffredson, provided musical accompaniment. The professional orchestra played for concerts in Kingsbury Hall for a ten-year period, from 1958 to 1968. During this time, the dance productions were gradually expanded and standards of public performance for student were raised.
In 1951 Joan Jones Woodbury, a Utah native and University of Wisconsin graduate, was hired to teach dance in the Physical Education Department. Shirley Russon Ririe, a former student under Elizabeth Hayes, joined the dance staff after a year as an instructor in dance at Brigham Young University. The two formed the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964 with department alums as members. In 1970 they became a full-time company and are know internationally.
In 1966 a $370,000 grant to establish Repertory Dance Theatre was made to the University of Utah by the Rockefeller Foundation. The grant was the first of its kind ever awarded to a university by the foundation. The project director was Virginia Tanner, a Salt Lake native who associated with the University of Utah in 1960 as a dance teacher of children through the Division of Continuing Education. She was a lecturer and director of Creative Dance as well as being responsible for forming the Children's Dance Theatre. Mary Ann Lee assumed directorship of the Children's Dance Theatre program after Virginia Tanner's death in 1979.
Linda Smith, a former member of the Children's Dance Theatre and a department graduate, assumed the role of artistic director for Repertory Dance Theatre. When Repertory Dance Theatre and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company went their separate directions, university students and graduates had the opportunity to audition for the two professional companies and to study with company members and guests during summer workshops.
In 1969 Loabelle Mangelson-Clawson, a department graduate and charter member of Repertory Dance Theatre, joined the university dance faculty; in 1978 she formed and became artistic director of Performing Danscompany, a student company. Also in 1978 Ballet and Modern Dance became separate departments in the College of Fine Arts. In 1989 the Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance was completed on the University of Utah campus and now serves the Ballet and Modern Dance Departments as well as student companies.