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Dancers On Horseback

Ahhh…the air, the sky, the mountain peaks, the music, the dancers, the horses…THE HORSES??? Where’s the fit?

The ‘fit’ is the one-and-only oldest performing arts school and camp in America located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This is the much loved Perry-Mansfield summer school founded in 1913, a few years after Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield graduated from Smith College. Women of vision and passion, Charlotte was a musician and actress and Portia was a dancer. Their long, illustrious and well-documented personal and professional accomplishments are an altogether separate story.

Into this magical environment I (Michael) was invited to teach three ballet levels and to choreograph during the summer of 1972 – following in the illustrious footsteps of such former teachers as Agnes de Mille and Ruthanna Boris of Ballet Russe fame. Not knowing anything about Perry-Mansfield, except that I assumed it would prove to be a very pleasant summer job and that my four children would be enriched accordingly, I accepted the position. Soon, we were to learn that P-M, as it became to be known, also offered its nationally recognized horsemanship program as an important element of the performing arts curriculum.

If one loves animals, there is something alluring about the stature and grace of a horse that stirs the spirit. Not to mention the challenge of actually mounting and riding one for the first time. My children and I were immediately hooked. But, back to the dancer part of the story…

I often wonder why I loved walking into a freezing studio each morning at 8:30 a.m. stiff and tired from the previous night’s rehearsals that lasted until 10 p.m. Somehow in such a setting it was exhilarating. Brisk sweetly scented air, tall graceful pines and mountains in every direction — just the atmosphere to satisfy the dreams of a romantic young artist. There was no denying the inspiration from being in the presence of so many dedicated artists in a breathtaking setting.

For pure pleasure, afternoons could be spent fishing in the on-campus trout stream (my favorite), taking an afternoon riding lesson, journeying up the road to the hot springs to soak sore muscles, or experiencing a trip into town. The town of Steamboat Springs at that time was the rare combination of old western cowboy culture and modern tourist trade due to the recent popularity of Steamboat Springs as a world class ski area that rivaled Aspen and Vail. As mentioned, evenings were spent choreographing and rehearsing for the seasons culminating performance for townsfolk and people “in the know” who traveled from as far away as Denver.

Ten or eleven years after repeating this summer routine and soon after Elizabeth’s and my marriage, a position became available for Elizabeth to join the faculty and take charge of the children’s ballet division. Liz, a western girl raised in Denver who spent her summers in the mountains of Evergreen Colorado, jumped at the opportunity.

As a teenager, she made her professional debut as a dancer with the Central City Opera Company and kept that position for three seasons. As a teacher Liz had envisioned a time when she would have such an opportunity to teach in the mountains as P-M was now offering. It was a match made in heaven for both of us to be sharing this experience personally and professionally.


The living conditions could be termed “rustically charming”, and we happily shared a tiny cabin entitled “AspirINN” — so named as it adjoined the resident nurses’ station. One bed, one closet and one tiny fireplace — that was it. Fortunately the bathroom facilities (few cabins had any) were necessarily adjacent to the nurses’ quarters. We lucked out!

As rough as the living conditions seemed, we loved it. There was the satisfaction of meeting the challenge and we obviously had our youth on our side. We even made a flower garden out front to add more charm to the place.

Beyond the love of our teaching, the perks of camp life were; three delicious meals a day, access to the HORSES, romantic evening trail rides and the excitement of the big horse show at seasons end with the competitive barrel race for the brave hearted. Liz and I looked forward to this annual event and admittedly took pride in the ribbons won. It was such fun to have our students cheer us on.

This schedule continued until 1991. As a consequence we continue to this day to need our annual “Colorado fix”. Lucky for us we have access to a family cabin in the Sangre de Christo Mountains in Southern Colorado.

We aren’t barrel racing any more so no horses in the picture, but we still teach ballet in Kansas City. What a life!