Many Utah women remember their "Ginny gowns," fanciful cotton dresses designed for maximum creative expression and cherished by female students of the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance program. Some might even have one tucked away in mothballs or in the hope chest. Former students surely must remember their childhood days in the dance studio, punctuated as they were with gentle instruction in point and flex technique. Anyone who spent time under the careful tutelage of Virginia Tanner must agree they were fortunate to be part of this program and to experience the vibrancy, love, and creative energy of a most remarkable woman. Through the spirited and inspired guidance of current director, Mary Ann Lee BA'68, the seeds planted in 1949 by Virginia Tanner have been widely sown; Virginia Tanner Dance Theatre has matured far beyond its beginning as a tiny dance school that cropped up on the vast University of Utah campus.

Lee refers to a recent slogan of the school "Roots and Wings" when describing the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program. "Our program is unique," she says. "We offer our students very strong roots of dance fundamentals, then add to it the wings of the creative process. Our students learn to soar, not just to dance." Lee has believed in and promoted the Tanner ideals since becoming director of the program in 1979. Perhaps she absorbed the philosophy as if by osmosis while attending the school from age four on, or as a member of Children’s Dance Theatre (CDT), the performance section of the Tanner program.

Virginia Tanner Creative Dance and Children’s Dance Theatre are Utah institutions.

More than 900 paying students enroll each session in the U-campus headquarters and four satellite programs in Ogden, Park City, Bountiful, and Sandy. An additional 400 scholarship students receive the benefits of both Tanner programs free of charge double the number who were on scholarship nine years ago. In fact, the Tanner school has never been in better shape. Lee attributes this strength in part to the professionalism of its staff and faculty. The instruction they provide helps maintain a reputation of quality which in turn sustains funding from private sources. Lee and her staff have worked hard to earn the support of such charitable organizations as the Burton, Eccles, Dumke, Tanner and Dee Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Cynthia Buckingham, a member of CDT’s 22-person board of directors, "We’re fiscally sound because our track record of success speaks for itself. Donors get a lot for their money because of the state-wide recognition of the program’s excellence and the amount of exposure we get through our outreach activities." Both branches of the program have annual concerts in Salt Lake and Ogden that allow students and performers to show off their training, the only difference being that CDT takes a bit more masterful tack.

The troupe that is known as Children’s Dance Theatre is comprised of students from the Tanner Creative Dance program who have auditioned and been accepted. CDT performs for more than 40,000 Utahns each year and has made appearances as far away as Washington, D.C. and Malaysia. But entertainment is only one facet of CDT. The company also tours the state and performs lecture/demonstrations in rural schools, conducts teacher and community workshops, and teaches dance classes for children in schools and community settings. Appearances are sponsored in part by the Utah Arts Council’s Performing Arts Tour. For all CDT does for its community, the program was recognized in 1993 with a Governor’s Award in the Arts. Indeed, community outreach is a specialty of Lee’s, and the Tanner program has grown over the years to include many "special population" children that would not otherwise benefit from Virginia Tanner’s belief that all children are gifted. To accomplish her goals, Lee has adopted the philosophy: if they can’t come to us, we’ll go to them.

Also, through CDT, Virginia Tanner Creative Dance has provided faculty for three Salt Lake inner-city elementary schools: Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson all schools with ethnically and economically diverse populations. Lee says, "we need to try harder to open doors for these kids. Dance is a new way for them to communicate, maybe the only one through which they can truly express themselves without bias or stereotypes getting in the way. It is also a way for teachers to see another side of their students, giving them a new understanding of the nature of that student." For Lee this was a natural path an outgrowth of Virginia Tanner’s long- held belief in the inherent beauty of children and the use of movement as an avenue for creative expression.

An important part of the in-school programs at Lincoln, Washington, and Jackson elementary schools involves teachers in creative arts. Integrating dance into other areas of the school curriculum provides educators with skills for teaching dance, music theory, and other visual arts that un-endowed public schools might not be able to provide.

Lee began these programs because she could see what she calls fertile ground. "The teachers were willing, the parents were excited, and the community was supportive," she says. But the school programs are just the beginning of Tanner’s community outreach. Under Lee’s guidance, the "special populations" dance program also provides weekly on-site dance classes to children recuperating from surgery at Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children, classes in Salt Lake and Ogden at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind, and brings physically and mentally challenged children to the U dance studio for classes. Finally, the Tanner Program offers a geriatric class at a Salt Lake City Alzheimer’s facility. The need for special population classes is great says Lee Ë; not only do they break down prejudices, but they allow students with disabilities to transcend their worlds. One of the Washington Elementary students told her teacher recently, "It’s so great to come to dance class. I get to leave everything else behind. I’m not judged for where I come from. I’m just a dancer like everyone else." A nurse at Shriner’s Hospital adds, "[The Creative Dance Program] allows a child born with physical handicaps to learn that his/her body is beautiful, and can provide joy and pride. The Tanner program cultivates this dignity and self worth. Tad Poulton Simonson BFA’73, a faculty member for Virginia Tanner Creative Dance, puts it yet another way; "Believing in the abilities of all individuals is at the core of Virginia Tanner’s ideas about teaching dance. By embracing her prinicipals, I’ve learned to nurture the confidence in each child I teach. It is a wonderful feeling to stand back and watch a child’s face light up, knowing that I have allowed that child to tap into his or her potential."

"Working with the Tanner program also makes us adaptable as teachers," Simonson adds. "That’s why the Tanner program works so well with special populations. I believe so strongly in what I am doing, I can go into any situation and make it work."

Many Utah parents are familiar with the routine of dropping their children off once a week in front of the barracks protruding from the parking lot a stone’s throw away from the University’s student housing. But most don’t realize what a symbiotic relationship there is between the U and the Tanner dance program. "We’re not just on the U campus, we’re a part of the larger institution and it’s a part of us," Lee says of the relationship between her school and the University. The U provides Tanner with a number of resources, the barracks space that houses the program, fundraising assistance from the campus’ central development office, registration through the Division of Continuing Education, and many other administrative and outreach functions. The Tanner program’s reputation for excellence contributes to the U’s community orientation. And, the creative dancers in turn provide entertainment at many U functions, including the Young Alumni Association’s annual Family Day celebration.

Furthermore, there are countless connections between the students and faculty of the University and Tanner Dance Theatre. Lee is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the University’s Modern Dance Department, which was recently ranked third in the nation among 300 college and university dance programs by Dance Teacher Now magazine. "There really is a revolving door between Tanner and the Modern Dance Department. Many teachers at the Tanner school started as students there, went to the U to study Modern Dance, and then completed the circle by returning to the Tanner school to teach. In fact, almost half of the faculty at Tanner are alumni of the University. " Simonson has been involved with Tanner for almost 26 years. She was a Tanner student when she was eight, then a teacher’s assistant while attending the U, and is now a faculty member. Simonson comments, "We [all of the faculty] are very emotional about our involvement with the Tanner program. Teaching dance here isn’t just a job for us, it is truly a way of life. The University is also important to the program. Many of the faculty received their professional training at the U and this connection has definitely influenced the curriculum at Tanner" Ties such as Simonson describes are important and help maintain consistency in teaching at Tanner. However, Lee adds that each teacher is provided some free reign in teaching.. "It is also important to have faculty members who have gone away for a while or received degrees elsewhere. Having all Tanner/University trained faculty would not provide the balance needed to promote creative growth," Lee says.

Looking toward the Tanner program’s 50th anniversary in 1999, the Children’s Dance Theatre boar Ëd is establishing some long-term goals. Maintaining the program’s strong foundation is at the top of the list. Building on that, the board intends to expand parental involvement and community outreach to special populations, make initial preparations for a new building, and heighten efforts to institute multi-disciplinary modern dance curricula in more of Utah’s public schools.

Also on Lee’s agenda is tracking down past students. "Unfortunately, good records were not kept early on and we would really like to find more of our alumni," Lee says. "Our fiftieth anniversary will be a big celebration ... but we can’t have a party without inviting all of our past students," she adds with a wry grin.

At least through 1999, it will be business, fun, and dancing as usual for the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance program. Lee and her colleagues will continue to evoke the spirit of Virginia Tanner by lending the strength of her school’s enduring roots to students throughout Utah. And, they intend to provide the gentle push from the nest that is needed to inspire present and future students to take wing and soar.


For more information about fiftieth anniversary activities and to update alumni records, please call the Tanner studio at 581-7374. Virginia Tanner Creative Dance will present its annual dance concert in Kingsbury Hall April 19 and CDT will perform on May 30 and 31 in Capitol Theatre.