We all know Steamboat as an Olympian-producing ski town mecca where cowboys pull skiers down Main Street during Winter Carnival. But what a lot of people don’t know is Steamboat also home to Perry-Mansfield, the oldest continuously operating performing arts school and camp in the country. Every summer, it attracts 250 students from across the country and showcases over twenty performances. There’s also an equestrian program that is the oldest English riding program in the country west of the Mississippi.
What’s even more fascinating is its history. Founded in 1913 by Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield, the vision was to create a theatre and dance camp in the mountains. It’s wild to imagine these women, who were later dubbed by locals as “the mad ladies of Steamboat,” landing in a pioneer town full of ranchers and miners with a mission to teach “natural dance forms” and “artistic expression close to creatures and mountains and out of doors.” How progressive they must have seemed, dancing in fields of wildflowers at the Perry-Mansfield campus in Strawberry Park, where the non-profit organization still exists today, in long flowing skirts.
They were so progressive, in fact, that the prestigious summer program is still operating under the same principles today. “It’s very interesting that they chose this location and that we’re still here,” says Executive Director Toni Quick. “What’s happened here for over 100 years makes Steamboat what it is today. It was a wild western town that has softened because of this arts camp. It exposed Steamboat to people from all over the world who came here to study dance and theatre.”
“The Ladies” (as people within the organization still affectionately refer to them) tried starting their first camp in 1913 in Eldora, outside of Boulder, but the weather proved to be too cold. The Perry family was from Denver, and they were familiar with the Steamboat area because they held mining interests in the Oak Creek Mine. The women found the property in Strawberry Park and operated there from 1914 until 1965 when they transferred ownership and gifted the camp to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. “It was a women’s college that offered dance and theatre instruction, so there had been some faculty overlap,” Quick says. “If you were a dance major, you were required to do summer study here.”
In 1990, Stephens College was going to sell the camp, and a group of local residents and alumni rallied to purchase the camp from the college. The resulting nonprofit, “Friends of Perry-Mansfield Inc.,” closed on the property in 1992. “Throughout all this time, we’ve operated in much the same vein,” Quick says, continuously offering dance and theatre as well as the equestrian program. “It goes back to The Ladies being very deliberate about where they placed the camp when they retired. That mission and that vision were so important. Everyone realized what a treasure it was, and so the community stepped in to protect it from being sold for development.”
That effort paid off. The summer program and its facilities still thrive today, with the same rustic vibe still intact. “We are still operating pretty much the same way they did,” Quick says. “Most of our buildings are not winterized and we get lousy cell phone reception.” Even still, participants hand in their phones and are only allowed to check them once a week to foster full immersion study. “I think it’s harder for the parents than it is for the kids,” she says. Every year, students from all over the country audition for coveted spots in the summer programs and a chance to train with some of the nation’s finest dance and theatre professionals. Even though “The Ladies” are no longer with us (Perry died in 1983 and Mansfield in 1979), their spirit is still alive and well at a small dance and performing arts camp, close to creatures, mountains, and the outdoors. //perry-mansfield.org