Utah's Rich Dance History, an Interview with Joan Woodbury

03 January 2019 Published in News and Announcements

“Utah is such a vibrant dance state.”

This statement by Joan Woodbury sparked my thinking about assumptions: prior to moving to Utah, I had heard that, due to religious affiliations, most of the state’s inhabitants don’t support the arts. In reality, there are more arts events every week than I can attend, and there are venues that range from small - to large - scale theaters, galleries and museums throughout Salt Lake City. 

c82cc4e14a1d2c8c8ffff9840d24b558 MUtah has been an incubator for dance for centuries. The state is home to eight federally recognized tribes: Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Skull Valley Band of Goshute, Confederated Tribes of Goshute, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, and White Mesa Community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and each has their own distinct traditions. For example, the Ute American Indians perform the Bear Dance annually each spring, and its first recorded observance dates to the fifteenth century, although it is believed to have started long before. 

When European settlers arrived in the 19th century and colonized Utah, they were, in Joan Woodbury’s words, “followers of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS]… It is interesting to know that the first white settlers were converts who had originally come to the United States from predominantly the British Isles, England, Scotland, and Wales. My descendants were Welsh and it is common knowledge that the Welsh people loved to sing, and had wonderful voices. (My father had a very beautiful clear tenor voice, and I, a very high coloratura voice... clear and fragile… and we both loved to sing)… One of the first things the settlers did when they finally arrived in Salt Lake was to build a theater.  And of course they sang, and built the tabernacle in the Salt Lake Temple complex downtown, which has absolutely grand acoustics. And, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony are a tribute to that legacy as well.”

At the University of Utah, the first female member of the faculty was Maud May Babcock, who came to the U from Harvard, and established the University Theater, the  Department of Physical Education, and the Department of Speech, for which she served as Chair. According to one of her students, the LDS Church Patriarch Joseph F. Smith, “[S]he eloquently and firmly stood her ground, always on deep-seated principle, and became a formidable champion of any cause, principle, or procedure which she espoused. Everything written about Miss Babcock suggests that she was a very congruent person—her beliefs, her rhetoric, and her behavior seem to have been in amazing alignment. She expected perfection of herself and was able to elicit the same from her students.”

It seemed fitting to learn about Babcock and her formidable leadership from Joan Woodbury, a woman who has also left an indelible imprint on the arts.Woodbury was hired by the U in 1951 by Elizabeth Hayes. Both Hayes and Woodbury graduated from the University of Wisconsin where they had been students of Margaret H’Doubler, who created the first dance degree in higher education in the United States. This was the same year, 1951, Willam Christensen created the Ballet Department at the U. It’s important to note that since modern dance was associated with physical education, it was housed in the Department of Physical Education (as it was at the University of Wisconsin). 

Christensen’s decision to house his program in what was then the Department of Speech was a reflection of his beliefs about ballet: as a student in the Ballet Program, Alexa Knutzen, researched in her history course last semester, “Christensen’s vision for the ballet department was based on the idea that ballet needed to be recognized as an art form, not a sport. In other words, he did not want ballet to be part of the physical education department, which was where modern dance programs were commonly placed. At the University of Utah, ballet joined musical theater as part of the Speech Department, and Christensen set about developing a conservatory-style program.” Knutzen interviewed artists who studied under Christensen and developed a terrific research project that revealed how Christensen developed a distinct form of ballet, different from what George Balanchine created on the east coast, and one that was informed by his belief in capturing audiences’ attention. Undoubtedly, Christensen’s methods were influenced by his years as a vaudeville performer, and Knutzen presented fascinating connections between Christensen’s pedagogy and choreography, showing how ballet can be an art form that highlights accessibility, relatability, and joy. 

To continue this theme of Utah as an incubator for dance: the LDS Church sponsored many dance programs throughout the state, including the dance department at Brigham Young University, with its specializations in Ballroom, Ballet, and Modern dance. Woodbury adds, “Elizabeth Hayes, working with the chair of the PE Department, was instrumental in convincing all of Utah’s high schools to hire full-time time or part-time dance teachers. During the 1950s, Elizabeth encouraged them to first hire Dance Department Majors with PE minors from the U. Later, with the help of Gordon Paxman in the Ballet Department, they canvassed the state and got the office of Education to approve full-time dance teachers in the schools. So, the ground in Utah was absolutely ripe for dance when Shirley [Ririe] and I, and others, started a small dance company Choreodancers in 1952, which sort of petered out as company members moved away, and we called the next group, around 1958 or 1959, The Dancers Company and then, in 1964, officially formed the Ririe Woodbury Dance Company.”

What strikes me as I learn these histories is the power of women, like Babcock, Hayes, Ririe, Woodbury, and Virginia Tanner, in establishing dance institutions in Utah and gathering the support of Utah’s inhabitants. As Woodbury explains, “I don’t think that any other state in the Union has had the sort of sanctioned enthusiasm for dance as has Utah. At this point, dance is funded by the State through the Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools [POPS]. It is also funded by the ZAP tax for the residents of Salt Lake County (and several other counties in the state have similar taxes now), as well as by the Utah Division of Arts and Culture, by the National Endowment of the Arts, and by all of the incredible foundations and organizations and individuals who donate and come to our performances.”

And it’s not just the widespread support for dance, but it's the intelligence and vision of leaders like Christensen, Ririe, and Woodbury who created such a vibrant landscape. Listening to Woodbury talk about her own lineage, I learned that she not only studied with H’Doubler, but also worked with Mary Wigman and Alwin Nikolais. “It was through Nikolais that I discovered how to choreograph and improvise,” says Woodbury. While I had known that her company, Ririe-Woodbury, preserves and performs Nikolais’s repertory, I did not know that Woodbury traveled to Berlin to study with Wigman. As she explained, “I wrote for a Fulbright Award, not from the university, but at large, and I got it.” Her stories about the complicated relationships between Wigman and the Third Reich, as well as her development of the curriculum at the U, and of her own Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, could fill another article. 

After we spent an afternoon talking “dance history,” Woodbury gave me four boxes of books that are now available to students in the School of Dance to borrow and read (just stop by office #214 to peruse a shelf I have named “The Woodbury Collection”). Her dedication to and knowledge of dance are extraordinary, and it has been great to debunk those stereotypes about Utah as a “dance-less” state.

By School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly