Utah Dance: Why is Utah a Hotbed for Dance?

Robbie Fairchild has achieved rockstar status. Even for someone who leaps for a living, he couldn’t have anticipated how his jump from principal dancer with the New York City Ballet to a starring role on Broadway would change his life. Doors have opened not only on stage but on every conceivable screen, from Hollywood to Netflix to morning shows and Instagram.

During a recent guest solo performance with Ballet West, his lightning speed footwork resembled a stone skimming water, his jaw- dropping leaps suspended gravity and his dazzling smile underscored his athletic, old-school swagger. Eclipsing the polite applause usually reserved for ballets, the crowd’s roar implied an even deeper level of devotion. Fairchild, after all, is a hometown hero—another dance celebrity born, raised and professionally trained in Utah.

A Desert Dance Mecca

That dance would take root in Utah’s desert soil and become a wellspring for the art form has long baffled industry insiders. “The first time we came here, we thought: what is going on in this state?” TV personality Mary Murphy told reporters during a 2012 interview when explaining why her top-rated reality show, “So You Think You Can Dance” frequented Salt Lake City. “We don’t know, but we love it here.” It’s understandably startling to outsiders that Utah is a dance hotspot. We’re relatively small, yet boast a top-tier ballet company, the nation’s first repertory dance company, the first school of ballet at an American University, the world’s largest ballroom dance program and multiple powerhouse studios that crank out more pro dancers than Dirty Diet Cokes at a Utah soda chain.

The National Endowment for the Arts says Utah creates and performs more art than any other state, and ranks third in the nation for attendance at live music, theater and dance performances. Seems we not only create an abundance of dance—we consume an abundance of dance, too.

Fertile Ground: So, Why Utah?

“Utah has a unique history that nourished dance,” Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) Artistic Director Linda Smith says.

“The Native Americans established a long tradition of dance followed by the Mormon pioneers, who built a theater before they built their temple.”

Mormon settlers, Smith says, didn’t reject the body and didn’t see dance as sinful. In fact, they saw it as divinely interconnected with the mind and spirit—unlike many austere puritanical communities at the time. Singing and dancing were used to mark all special occasions, and every church member was expected to participate.

A progeny of those settlers, Ballet West’s Bruce Caldwell, current Ballet Master and Company Archivist, recalls growing up amidst a continual stream of ‘road shows,’ plays and festivals within the church during his 1960’s childhood. “People threw their lives into these things—the programs had a real showbiz feel.”

A Modern Prodigy & Vaudeville Star

Riding the community’s arts-loving tide, it was during the 1960’s that Utah’s reputation as a hotspot for dance crystallized.

Modern dancer Virginia Tanner and ballet dancer Willam Christensen didn’t have much in common—other than that they both hailed from Utah, refined their art with dance pioneers in New York and returned to their hometown as builders.

“She was a magician-queen…with technique born of skyrockets and mud puddles, of butterfly wings and kangaroo jumps,” a former pupil, Rosalind Pierson, wrote when describing Tanner and her first-of-its- kind dance curriculum for kids.

Celebrating unshackled, nature- based movement, Tanner’s newly formed Children’s Dance Theater garnered national attention, touring extensively and putting Utah on the map for dance. She was a ‘magician- queen’ in many respects, as it turned out. Upon learning that the Rockefeller Foundation sought to decentralize the arts in America, she convinced it to set its sights on Utah’s nucleus of talent for the foundation’s great experiment.

“I’ll never forget that moment when I realized I would be paid a living wage as a dancer—a 52-week contract,” says Smith of the seed money granted to Tanner for the creation of America’s first repertory dance company, RDT. “The foundation felt that to pay dancers was to dignify the profession.”

Around the same time, Christensen, a former vaudeville star from Brigham City who founded San Francisco Ballet, moved back to Utah and created a full-fledged ballet department at the University of Utah—another first of its kind. Encouraged by Tanner’s success, he approached the Ford Foundation in hopes of securing a grant for a professional ballet company, and the genesis for Ballet West was formed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has slammed Utah’s dance organizations due to event closures and postponements…

Unable to offer audiences
its scheduled programming, companies are finding other ways to present dance:

Ballet West: Virtual classes for healthcare workers and virtual library of works

Ririe-Woodbury: Free virtual classes for the community

Repertory Dance Theatre: Online courses for teachers and virtual classes

Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company: Online viewing of past performances

SBDance: Free “curbside” performances by appointment

Dance on Every Corner

A flood of professional companies have followed—from Ririe-Woodbury to Odyssey Dance Theatre to BYU Ballroom Dance Company to Ogden’s Imagine Ballet Theater.

With a statewide push for dance exposure in K-12 curriculum—thanks to strong voter support for the Zoo, Arts, and Parks tax—interest from incoming students remains high, fueled when kids see their favorite dance celebrities as framed alumni on studio walls. Salt Lake’s Ballet West Academy has launched hundreds of dance careers. Companies such as Dance Impressions in Farmington and Creative Arts Academy in Bountiful have seen students turn into overnight TV celebrities—but none more so than Orem’s famed Center Stage and The Dance Club.

Feeding the reality TV dance craze for nearly a decade on “So You Think You Can Dance’ followed by ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ Orem- native Chelsie Hightower trained at Center Stage, as did many other DWTS celebrities including Derek and Julianne Hough. Her decision to return home in 2013 to pursue a career in teaching and choreographing allows her to mentor the next generation and continue the legacy of top-notch training in Utah.

COVID-19 and the Future of Utah Dance

With the uncertainty in the performing arts created by the COVID-19 pandemic, will Utah’s dynamic dance scene survive?

“We have been encouraged by the amount of folks buying season tickets for next year,” says Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute. “We’ll get through this.”

RDT’s Smith agrees, but says if Utahns want to keep seeing great dance, their support is paramount during the crisis.

“If you can, keep your season subscriptions and be flexible about start dates. Donate if possible means,” she says. “It’s up to us to keep this legacy alive.”

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Heather Hayes
Heather Hayeshttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
A Salt Lake native, Heather Hayes has been a voice for Utah’s arts and culture scene for well over a decade, covering music, dance and theater Salt Lake magazine. Heather loves a good yarn, no matter the genre. From seatmates on ski lifts to line-dwellers in a grocery store, no one is safe as she chats up strangers for story ideas. When she’s not badgering her teenagers to pick up their dirty socks or spending quality time with her laptop, you can find Heather worshiping the Wasatch range on her bike, skis or in a pair of running shoes.

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