The Ladies




The narrative non-fiction story (109,391 words) of The Ladies is a tale of determination, passion and adventure of two women who break the constraints of society to pursue their dreams. Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield were both captivated by the arts at a young age. That passion brought them together and drove them to create a space where dance, theatre and the arts would always have a home. This space was called Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp. Because of the time in which they lived (the early 1900’s), as women, they faced opposition from many corners including family and friends. Despite the challenges of their time, they never let any person or obstacle stop them from pursuing their dreams and sharing the wonder of the arts with others.
At a time when women were expected to marry and have families, Charlotte and Portia chose careers. In doing so they were able to encourage thousands of students to pursue a life in, and an exploration of, the arts. The Ladies created a type of camp that to this day only exists in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Their choice of setting, in the rugged Rocky Mountains, allowed them to live where their hearts could breathe.

Charlotte and Portia met at Smith College in 1908 where the two became fast friends. Soon afterwards, Portia was invited to join Charlotte and her family on a bear hunt in the mountains south of Denver, Colorado. From that infamous adventure a seed was born – to start a dance camp in the mountains. At the time dance was considered immoral at best, yet these two women threw caution to the wind to make their dream a reality. Charlotte’s father forbade her to open a dance camp. When that didn’t work he threatened to disinherit her if she failed financially her first year. The Ladies made a $200.00 profit all the while attracting the attention of Denverites who spied on the students as they danced barefoot in gauzy dresses. Nymphs they were called.
Deciding they needed more privacy, the women scouted out a location in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They were not welcomed by the townspeople who had a strong ranching heritage and thought women dancing in the woods must be in cahoots with the devil. Their first years were spent hauling water from a twenty foot well, chopping their own firewood, teaching classes and living in canvas tents. From the start they believed in incorporating the ruggedness of mountain life with the arts through overnight pack trips on horses and exploration on foot of the areas surrounding camp.

By the early 1920’s, in order to expand camp, the women created a dance act that was the first to tour coast to coast on the Vaudeville Circuit and the only one to use classical music paired with Grecian and Roman inspired dance.

During the early years of Perry-Mansfield, modern dance was quietly emerging from different sectors in the United States. Unfortunately that style of dance didn’t have a home in New York. The ballet was considered the only respectable type of dance leaving modern dance pioneers without a place to work and expand their art. Perry-Mansfield filled this gap. They invited the top instructors in the country to come and craft their arts while teaching young students.  A few of the prominent dance teachers included Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and choreographer Agnes DeMille. After several years Charlotte developed a separate theatre program, which she ran for forty years, discovering talent in students such as Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Biel.

Along the way, Charlotte and Portia became each other’s family. They bickered like a married couple while pursuing their dreams as friends. Throughout the years, the women had a profound influence on the arts, dance therapy, filmmaking and more. They kept the camp doors open throughout two World Wars, the Great Depression and numerous other hardships. They let their love of the arts guide their lives and by doing so they were able to spread their passion to each student and teacher who passed through the arch at the entrance to Perry-Mansfield. What is perhaps most remarkable about these women is that they pursued their dreams late into their lives with Charlotte heading the Catalina School Theatre Program until she was 94 and Portia starting a Boys Mountaineering Camp in her 80’s before traveling the world several times over. These women were an inspiration to all who came into contact with them.

Perry-Mansfield Accomplishments:
•    Combined theatre, dance, art and wilderness in a single camp.
•    First dance company to tour coast to coast on the Vaudeville Circuit.
•    Became a hub for top modern dance teachers.
•    Attracted top performers of their time in dance and theatre including Jose Limon, Agnes DeMille, Julie Harris, Harriette Ann Gray, Dustin Hoffman and more.
•    Brought together traditional ballet and modern dance under one roof.
•    Portia invented ‘Correctives’ or what is today called dance therapy.
•    Invented the Western Rating System for equestrians.
•    Was the only place to offer both the Western Rating System and Eastern Rating System for equestrians.
•    Attracted national news organizations to cover their Square Dance Competition, which shut down Main Street in Steamboat Springs and attracted 5,000 people to a town with a population of several thousand.
•    Portia was the first woman to turn in a thesis on film at NYU and possibly the country. The film documented the Conchero Dancers of Mexico.
•    Won numerous awards for their work including The Governor’s Award, the Tajiri Award and local awards.

Book’s Place in the Art Historical Literature:
Anyone involved in dance from New York City to San Francisco has heard of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp. What makes this dance, art, theatre and wilderness summer camp different from other camps is:
•    Location deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
•    Is the longest continually running performing arts camp in the country (101 years in 2014).
•    Was the first institution to offer dance instruction for female physical education teachers.
•    Continued to teach the arts throughout two World Wars, The Great Depression, the Vietnam War, resistance from townsfolk and personal tragedy.
•    The camp ran year after year on a dream. Perry-Mansfield was only profitable for approximately two of the fifty years Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield ran it. Lack of funding didn’t hinder their passion. They did whatever it took to keep the camp running including working winters, creating alternate programs to bring in additional revenue and giving their love and their spirit to camp year after year.

The Ladies has been compiled from numerous interviews with Charlotte Perry, Portia Mansfield and those who knew them best. The author has been given access to the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp archives, which contain scrapbooks, clippings, photographs and more of the 100-year history of the camp. Research has also taken place at the History Colorado Museum, Denver Public Library and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The Ladies

Subject Matter:
The Ladies is the story of two women whose struggled against great odds to create an environment in which the arts could be explored, lived and infused into a person’s spirit. In an age when women were generally not educated, much less owners of their own business, these women pioneered a home for modern dance in the wilderness, which offered an inspirational environment where self-worth could be tested and self-confidence built. Their love of dance and theatre influenced thousands of students and teachers alike and they deserve to have their place in history recognized.

Intended Audience:
Educated women aged 25 – 50.  This book will appeal to anyone who has had a dream whether they have pursued it or not. What this book shows is:
•    The arts and nature influence, inspire and heal people from all walks of life.
•    Dreams should be pursued no matter how impossible they seem.
•    No one is ever too old to pursue a passion.
•    Failure exists on the path towards success.
•    There is a solution to every problem.

Author Qualifications:
Eight years ago when I moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado I worked for a photographer who was on the Board of Directors of Perry-Mansfield. At the time he was color-correcting photographs of Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield from their early years of their camp. The visions of these two women leaping in the air, smiles wide on their faces, was infectious. Those images never left me. I wondered what it was about what those women were doing that brought them such joy. Two years ago I was confronted with those images again and I felt their story had to be told. The further I dug into their lives, the more inspired and impressed I was. The arts and nature had shaped and changed their lives just as books, writing, hiking and art had saved mine.

I felt as if I knew these women. I understood Charlotte’s independent streak, the steady pursuit of a single dream (teaching theatre) throughout her entire life. Portia’s passions seemed to bubble up out of her and she flitted from one interest to another, always with a positive attitude always finding solutions for every problem. She was as comfortable dancing naked on horseback as she was recruiting students from the top schools across the country. Nothing daunted her. She was fearless.

Perry-Mansfield has had a huge influence on the culture and arts in Steamboat Springs, throughout the United States and has become known throughout the world. As an historian I understand how the story of Perry-Mansfield fits into local history as well as the universal desire to see people succeed against all odds. This story has the appeal of an exploration of the arts while at the same time helping each of us understand the home the arts has in our lives and our hearts.

I have been working closely with Perry-Mansfield alumni T. Ray Faulkner and Rusty Delucia as well as several members of the Perry family, including Ann Perry, Ken Perry and Ditty Perry.
This is a book that speaks to my heart and I believe that my involvement in the arts, passion for theatre and experiences in the wilderness make me the best person to write this story.

Chapter Breakdown:

The Ladies
The story of two women who overcame all odds to pursue their passion for the arts in a remote wilderness setting.


(1979) Charlotte Perry tends Portia Mansfield in her sick bed. At ninety-two years of age, Portia still has the heart and soul of a dancer, only her body refuses to obey her desires any more. The two women reminisce on all they have accomplished over the years: they not only created the first dance company to tour coast to coast on the Vaudeville circuit but they also created a hub for modern dance as well as brought together dance, theatre, the arts and the outdoors in a unique camp in the small town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Portia’s wish is to return to the verdant mountains where the cabins of camp are nestled, where Storm Mountain rises not too far off, shrouded in clouds through much of the winter, where the skies turn to fire from the last light of day or the first stretchings of dawn, where the smell of clean lingers in the mountain air and wildflowers cover the valley like a blanket in the summers and snows fall so deep you could drown in them in the winter; a place where land becomes part of the cycle of the soul.

Chapter 1:  (1914) Portia and Charlotte have a lot at stake the first year they open their Rocky Mountain Dance Camp. Young women in their early 20’s, Charlotte, always proper, always dressed and always in control will not give up on her dreams. In contrast, Portia is often labeled absent minded for her tendencies to misplace items the moment a new thought takes hold, but a better description for her would be full-minded, like a butterfly flitting from one thought to the next. Portia is the main breadwinner for her family since the death of her father and failure during her first year of running a summer camp means she will most likely spend the rest of her life teaching traditional dances to debutantes instead of pursuing a new freer style of dance that resonates with her. Charlotte’s father is strictly against women working and makes no bones about the fact that Charlotte will be disinherited if she fails to make a profit her first year.

Chapter 2: (1889) Exploring Charlotte’s childhood, the influences of theatre and acting are clear from Charlotte’s earliest years. While her father claims to look down on theatre people, he nonetheless is the one who exposes Charlotte to her first glimpse of theatre and the excitement of live performances. From a young age Charlotte butts heads with her father, whose favorite child is her older sister, Marjorie. Yet when Charlotte accompanies her father on camping trips they finally find common ground. This instills in her a love of nature and an understanding of the healing and growth that can take place in wild places.

Chapter 3: (1887) Dance, positivity and exploration are the constants in Portia’s childhood despite the upheavals and uncertainties of moving every few years due to her father’s failure at managing hotels. Unlike Charlotte, Portia is much closer to her father than her mother but his early death forces Portia to grow up quickly and take responsibility for the family.

Chapter 4: (1907 – 1910) The seeds of independence are planted in Portia and Charlotte when they both attend Smith College for women. With teachers who help develop and encourage their talents, they learn to be ‘lifters’ in their community not ‘leaners.’ Portia’s teacher convinces her to pursue a career in dance, which was unheard of – on the one hand for a debutante to pursue a career and on the other hand, for her to enter the world of entertainment, where a woman’s reputation was questionable at best. At school Charlotte shines in the theatre productions.

Chapter 5: (1910) Portia begins her dance career. Her movements cause controversy in her dance class when she dares to move outside of the five ‘taught’ positions into freer styles of dance. Her experimentation pays off and she is offered a job teaching an outdoor class for hundreds of school children of New York. From New York she moves to Omaha, Nebraska for a steadier source of income with which she can support her mother and younger sister.

Chapter 6: (1911) Portia returns to Smith College for Charlotte’s last days before graduation. Charlotte invites Portia to join her in Denver for a bear hunt with her family. During that excursion, a dream is born. The two women decide to start a dance camp in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When they tell their families, Portia’s mother decries her as crazy while Charlotte’s father positively forbids her. The two women ignore the warnings and hatch a plan to raise money for their venture.

Chapter 7: (1912) Like most debutantes of their day, Charlotte and Portia travel to Europe where they observe the choreography of life of different cultures, from Italian blue collar workers marching home singing after a day of work to women carrying baskets of oranges on their heads. After their exploration of art and landscapes they return to the United States where the influence of what they have seen impacts their art, their dance and choreography in future years. They also realize the importance of learning from other cultures, which is something they bring to Perry-Mansfield when they invite dance teachers from all over the world to share their talents.

Chapter 8: (1912) From her job in Omaha, Nebraska Portia moves to Chicago, Illinois where she invites Charlotte to join her. After her father repeatedly denies Charlotte permission to work, he finally relents when his wife intervenes on Charlotte’s behalf. While Charlotte’s father is stern with her, he more than encourages her sister, Marjorie, to accompany him on hunting trips, assist him in his business affairs and even dress like a man.
Charlotte joins Portia in Chicago where she teaches theatre, basketball and brings religion to life through dramatic performances of the bible. Portia’s time is filled with teaching dance along the coast and dancing and performing for companies throughout Chicago. When they sign up for a casket-making class in order to learn how to build furniture that can be disassembled and shipped by train, they face taunting and prejudice because they are women. They prove everyone wrong about what women can accomplish when the chair they have been building stands. The chair can still be found at Perry-Mansfield today.


(1979) Portia sifts through memories in Carmel, California. While flipping through old photo albums she comes across a picture of Charlotte dancing naked, completely uninhibited in the woods of Steamboat Springs. She remembers the early innocence of those days when alone, Charlotte and Portia could accomplish anything they set their minds to.

Chapter 9: (1914) After a financially successful first year of camp, Portia and Charlotte move their location from El Dora, Colorado to Strawberry Park outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, so their girls can have the privacy they need to dance without prying eyes. Small towns will be small towns and the residents of Steamboat make it clear they think the women are in cahoots with the devil. One woman vows to push the women out of town. Undaunted, Charlotte and Portia continue on with their dance camp. Charlotte’s father starts to come around when he sees her passion for the arts continue to grow.

Chapter 10: (1916) The Wild West is still the Wild West. While Mr. Perry worries constantly for his daughter’s safety, his son is the one to be kidnapped from his home in Oak Creek in 1916, making national headlines for killing a man during his brave escape.

Chapter 11: (1916) In order to supplement their income to keep camp going, as their second year saw them owing money, Charlotte and Portia move to Carmel for the winter. There they teach dance and batik scarf dying. The reward they get from teaching makes the financial struggle worthwhile, that and the ability to dance all day. Always thinking of ways to increase revenue Portia hatches the idea of creating a recreational camp for kids that will fund the money needed for the dance camp. She also invites instructors of modern dance and classical ballet to teach on the same campus, the first time this has ever been done. From their dance recitals, which combine modern dance and ballet in the same choreography, comes the opportunity to perform on the Vaudeville Circuit.


(1979) Portia performs her last dance on the lawn outside of The Ladies’ Carmel home. This time alone.

Chapter 12: (1923) From their first performance at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles, Portia and Charlotte realize that the Vaudeville Circuit may be the only way to make a steady profit from dance. They organize a dance troupe and head out to small towns across America with an act that combines classical music, acrobatics, dance and a storyline. On the road they encounter hardships and sexism along with the rewards of performing for live audiences. They finally earn decent money, every penny of which is put back into camp, building new structures including the Silver Spruce Theater and a Dance Studio.

Chapter 13: (1924) Even though Charlotte dances on the Vaudeville Circuit and has a strong interest in dance, her true passion has always been theater and set and costume design. In 1924 she establishes the Perry-Mansfield School of Theater on the same campus as Perry-Mansfield camp. But as always, they struggle financially. In a new scheme to keep money and interest in camp, Portia turns to the camp’s equestrian program with an eye to attracting more elite riders. Portia and the head of the equestrian program, Shannon Elizabeth, invent the Western Rating System, which gives credibility to the western style of riding where the focus is rugged mountain riding, as opposed to English style riding where jumps, and ring riding are the focus. Perry-Mansfield is the only establishment to offer both the Eastern Rating System and the Western Rating System. Portia and Shannon also create a standardized teaching method for horseback riding combining the strengths of each style of riding. A forward seat and concern for the horse’s comfort are the major focus.

Chapter 14: (1930) At the peak of their Vaudeville touring, Charlotte and Portia have four acts congruently on the circuit, each performing the popular ‘Squirrels and Girls’ act. At the same time motion pictures are taking off and Vaudeville takes a turn for the bawdier. Charlotte and Portia decide to pull their acts to save their reputation and the reputation of their dancers. With Vaudeville gone so is their main source of income.

Chapter 15: (late 1920’s through early 1930’s) During the Vaudeville years, The Ladies realize the importance of being in New York for dance connections so they relocate from Carmel, California to New York for their winters of work. Their days are filled with teaching theatre and dance up and down the east coast. Through this they are able to recruit students for camp and teachers from the best east coast schools. At the same time they continue their own education with Portia receiving an MFA from New York University and Charlotte continuing acting lessons. Just as the camp’s reputation is growing and they are gaining ground financially, Charlotte’s father dies and the Great Depression hits. Enrollment drops.

Chapter 16: (1931) Not ones to let anything get them down, Portia invents dance therapy and names it ‘Correctives.’ She teaches her new techniques to dance teachers from around the country while at the same time she creates a dance education program for female physical education teachers so they can take dance into schools across the nation. As these events are unfolding, P-M’s reputation as a place to create dance choreography in a wilderness paradise is spreading and Louis Horst, one of the leading composers of his time comes to Perry-Mansfield to teach and to help Portia develop music for her Correctives.


(1979) Portia breaks her hip and has to be hospitalized.

Chapter 17: (early 1930’s) Perry-Mansfield Camp is finally bringing in the caliber of dancer teachers they have always hoped for with Hanya Holm, Tina Flade, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. When they finally think their roller coaster ride is evening out, word of a new summer dance camp opening up reaches them. Bennington College, located on the east coast, provides training for dancers without the additional cost of having to travel halfway across the country. Things look bleak for Perry-Mansfield. Charlotte’s brother and mother die, pushing Charlotte further into life at camp to bury her feelings.


(1979) The women view a documentary of their accomplishments in Portia’s hospital room. It seems their lives have played out.

Chapter 18: (1935) Charlotte questions whether or not the camp can be profitable and if it’s worth continuing. Their undying passion for what they do attracts modern dance artists such as Harriette Ann Gray, Agnes DeMille, Jose Limon and more. The women vow that as long as there is a love for what they are doing and creating they will find a way to keep camp going no matter how many additional programs they have to add to the curriculum to raise money.


(1979) Portia’s health declines. The first of the dynasty of women that created Perry-Mansfield passes.

Chapter 19: (1941) When WWII hits Portia and Charlotte create a program tailored to helping women learn basic skills of keeping a ranch, learn first aid and other ways to support the war effort. While Perry-Mansfield offers an environment of learning for others, Portia and Charlotte continue their own education. Portia receives her PhD and is the first person to turn in a thesis on film, at New York University, documenting the Conchero dancers of Mexico. Charlotte stays steady in her pursuit of theatre and takes classes at The Actors Studio. The women launch an annual Symposium for the Arts to help spread the arts to rural America.

Chapter 20: (1955) The reputation of the theatre program catches up to the reputation of the dance program attracting students like Dustin Hoffman, Joan Van Ark, Julie Harris, Lee Remick, Jim Edmondson and more. Charlotte has an eye for discovering talent that show up to dance but are better suited to acting. This gives Charlotte the incentive to keep camp going.

Chapter 21: (1950’s) Money isn’t everything. Through camp Charlotte and Portia build their own families from students who they figuratively adopt as their own children. Neither woman has ever considered marriage because they know that to have a husband and a family would mean giving up their true love; the arts.

Tourant, en

Clearing out Portia’s belongings, Charlotte realizes the hole that’s left without her. She and Helen talk about the future.

Chapter 22: (1962) Forty-nine years after they open camp, the women start to feel their age. They are now in their 70’s and decide they should sell camp. Other organizations are wary about the cost of running a remote camp. Through Harriette Ann Gray’s influence, Stephens College agrees to ‘buy’ the camp for $10.00 and run it as The Ladies had run it. To prove the financial capabilities of camp, Portia recruits their largest enrollment yet with over 400 students.

Chapter 23: (1963) Under Stephens’ ownership, buildings are repaired and new ones built. The entire infrastructure of camp is overhauled. With regards to programming, Stephens’ strength is their dance program and they do not have much interest in, nor experience with, theatre. As a result, the Perry-Mansfield summer theatre program falters, as does the equestrian program. Twenty-five years later Stephens will sell the camp to Friends of Perry-Mansfield, an organization dedicated to restoring the reputation of P-M by reinstituting The Ladies’ original vision.

Chapter 24: (1966) Once Perry-Mansfield is sold, Portia and Helen Smith start Boys Camp. Charlotte is offered a position directing the theatre program at the Catalina School in Carmel, where she teaches until she is 94 years old. Without Charlotte’s financial help the Boys Camp fails after several years. Portia finds she is, for the first time in her life, disconnected from her students. This is a new generation. Discouraged by the endeavor, she stops dancing and instead travels the world several times over with her sister.


Helen passes, leaving Charlotte the last one standing. With all her close friends gone, Charlotte quits teaching and finally stops to feel, to experience and to celebrate the last moments of her life.


The Ladies

O Woman, come before us, before our eyes longing for beauty, and tired of the ugliness of this civilization, come in simple tunics, letting us see the line and harmony of the body beneath, and dance for us. Dance us the sweetness of life and its meanings, dance for us the movements of birds, the waters, waving trees, floating clouds, dance for us the holiness and beauty of the woman’s body. – Isadora Duncan

1880.  A log cabin is constructed in an unpopulated land now known as Strawberry Park, Colorado. Those who come to these parts tend to stay here until they die. Just below the cabin runs Soda Creek, creating marshy habitat where birds gather to whistle the first notes of spring and animals looking for a cool drink stop on a warm summer’s day. Grizzly bear, black bear, mountain lion, wolf, coyote, deer and elk have all called this land home at some time or other. The cabin, built with logs from trees on the property, like many other cabins of its time, is nothing special. The man who lives here has cattle and sheep and has adapted to a solitary life.

What is spectacular about this cabin are the views in every direction, Storm Mountain rising not too far off, shrouded in clouds through much of the winter, the skies lit up from the last light of day or the first stretchings of dawn. The smell of clean, mountain air, wildflowers that cover the valley like a blanket in the summers and snows so deep you could drown in them in the winter become part of the cycles of the soul. Among the critters of this area, the man and this cabin are just another part of an endless, peaceful landscape, private enough you don’t have to know your neighbors, but close enough to town that running out of supplies won’t spell death.

What this man unknowingly built was a home for the arts in a land where nothing like that existed. His property would become a home to thousands of pointed toes and arched feet, a place where the words of Shakespeare and Lorca and Tennessee Williams float on the air in early summer mornings and where The Ladies’ influence would shape the worlds of dance, theatre and art for more than a century. On this land, two worlds collide, carve and flow, one world into the next until the one could not exist without the other.

The man who built the cabin thought it would only last as long as he did.


1979. “Did we really do it?” Portia tried to sit up in bed, but struggled so Charlotte, who was more familiarly known as Kingo, helped her, propping a pillow behind her back.
“Do what?”
“The things everyone told us we couldn’t do.”
“You’re talking nonsense. Your dreams must be hanging onto you. Here eat a little something. You must be hungry.” Charlotte placed a tray with a glass of milk and an omelet on Portia’s lap as the early morning sun stretched into the sky. Charlotte had never learned to cook much more than an omelet, she always hired people to do that for her.
“I dreamt I was dancing. Do you remember when our bodies moved without all this creaking and crackling?” Portia picked up the sandwich, but as she moved it towards her mouth another thought took hold. Portia curved her arms, gracefully even at 92 years old, above her head. The sandwich, already forgotten, fell to the bedspread. Charlotte sighed, put the sandwich back on the plate and brushed off the crumbs.
“Don’t go getting yourself worked up. You need to rest. What were you dancing?”
Portia’s eyes lit up. “The Hesitation Waltz. Do you remember those years in Chicago, when we had nothing to eat but a dream?”
“To live in the mountains.”
“Let’s go back to Steamboat Springs, Charlotte, back to our mountains. We could listen to the aspen leaves, the sound of rain falling on a tin roof, or the call of the chickadees. We could stay until the first snows come.”
“That won’t work on me. You never left when the first snows came. There was always some excuse, ‘this isn’t a real snow,’ or ‘nothing stuck to the ground.’ When you get well, I’ll take you back to Steamboat Springs.”
“I’m 92 years old, Charlotte. My body is tired.”

The sun slanted through the window, casting rays across Portia’s bed. A salty flavor from the ocean filled the room. On the walls, Native American antique rugs hung. Portia’s shelves were crammed with photo albums of her work documenting the early days of life at the first summer camp to combine dance, theatre, the arts and horseback riding.

Stacks of paper edged in from the walls, each newspaper clipping collected tenfold. Charlotte’s shelves weren’t filled with any such sentimental notions. She didn’t approve of living in the past. Despite Charlotte being in her nineties, she still headed the drama program at the Santa Catalina School in Carmel, California and played violin in the Monterey Symphony Orchestra. On the days Charlotte taught, Portia would open her albums and run her fingers over the image of this camper or that excursion. In her mind she could see the Native American dances they attended, long before white people were banned. She could see each theatre performance Charlotte had produced. Modern dance evolved in the fragments of her mind and in the space of the camp that she and Charlotte conceived, at a time when modern dance was being birthed. Through her memories, ghosts of friends from around the world surrounded her. The black and white photographs, yellowed with age, mapped out the countryside that lived not in a memory, but in Portia’s heart. She vowed to return to her mountains one last time.

“There are worse places you could be,” said Charlotte referring to the Carmel home where they wintered for over two decades and finally retired to.
Charlotte slid her warm, wrinkled hand into Portia’s. When they looked at each other they saw the girls they had been, fresh out of Smith College, full of ideas and possibilities. The lines that etched their faces did nothing to diminish the youthful spirit in either of them.
“We were something back then. Nothing could stop us, not wars, not the Great Depression, nothing.”
“There is nothing that can stop us now,” said Charlotte. “Besides, I’ve never heard you so negative. What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t mean to be negative, no not at all, but this body won’t let me do all the things I want to do. Maybe I should have gone back to teach at camp one last time.” Portia squeezed Charlotte’s hand, looking out the window to a different place.
“Better to go out on a high note, my dear. Let me play for you a while. Maybe music will soothe your spirit.”

Charlotte returned with her violin. Her motions were well practiced, befitting of the symphony she played with. That was Charlotte, a constant force heading down the only road she knew, the only one she cared to know. Theatre and violin ran through her veins. Since she was a child, she had steadfastly pursued those passions. Portia, on the other hand, spent her life flitting from one interest to another, always learning, always turning in a different direction. When she saw a problem or a need, she found a solution.

Portia threw her legs over the edge of the bed, changed her mind and rested back against the pillows. Her long, red hair fanned out across the pillows. Her curls were more befitting of a child than an old woman. Charlotte noted a hole in Portia’s nightgown and vowed to get her something decent to wear. Portia never did spend a dollar to take care of herself.

As Charlotte played Josèph Joachim’s Notturno for Violin and Orchestra, Op.12 Portia’s eyes closed. Her breathing deepened. The world turned differently when they were young. The west, the Wild West, had no rules.

Portia’s eyes fluttered open.
“Knowing what you know now, would you still have met me in Chicago?” Portia asked.
“My dear, I would have followed you to the ends of the earth.”
“Whether my eyes are open or closed, I only see the past.”
“What do you see?”
“Our first year of camp, Vaudeville, I see you with your copper curls, your determined stride and your theatre students sitting around you. We danced on horseback, Charlotte, we closed the main street of Steamboat Springs for our square dances. We really did those things didn’t we? Tell me they aren’t just a dream.”
“There’s nothing you set your mind to that you didn’t accomplish.”
“You are the only family I have left, Kingo. You have Helen and Ingrid and I, I only have you.”
“Would you have traded your life for a husband and children, for a traditional family? A normal life?”
Portia smiled.
“I expected not. You’re in my blood, Portia, more of a sister to me than…well, I have class to teach. Now rest. We can talk more later.”
“I’m tired of talking. Will you bring me my knitting? Idle hands invite the devil, my mother always said.”
“Would you like the window open or closed?”
“Open. How else can the wind deliver the messages I need to hear?”

Chapter 1
July 15, 1914. In the distance, a train chugged closer and closer to Denver. Portia reached over and squeezed Charlotte’s hand. “This is it, Charlotte. Rocky Mountain Dance Camp is about to begin.” Charlotte couldn’t help but smile as Portia did an elegant little dance on the platform.

“Don’t get too excited, yet,” chided Charlotte. “We have a lot riding on this camp. If we don’t succeed I’ll be living on the streets and you, well you’ll be teaching debutantes basic dance steps until your toes bleed.”

Charlotte was smartly dressed in slacks and a blouse. Even in her early twenties, Charlotte had a regal bearing and posture that commanded respect. Portia, by contrast wore a softly flowing dress, her long hair still in braids, hanging down to her waist, a porcelain doll. There was a lot at stake for the two girls with their first year of camp. Charlotte’s father, the wealthy coal baron, Sam Perry, had threatened to disinherit Charlotte if they didn’t turn a profit. First of all, real ladies didn’t dance and second of all, they certainly didn’t run off to the high hills of Colorado to move their bodies in communion with nature. Charlotte was supposed to be a debutante, but somehow Sam had instilled too much of his own independence and stubbornness in her for her to want to follow a woman’s traditional path in life by marrying, settling down and raising a family. As for Portia, with the death of her father a few years earlier, she was the sole breadwinner of the family. Her mother had a small savings, but Portia felt responsible for her mother’s wellbeing and for giving her sister the same opportunity at education that she had been given.

When Portia and Charlotte finally raised the funds to start camp, they spent hours choosing just the right words for their brochure to entice likeminded women to join them for the summer. They wanted to make their alma mater proud. Those that had seen the brochure and read the mission statement felt an adventure awaiting:

Rocky Mountain Dance Camp is to be deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, where the rushing streams flow straight from the snowy peaks of the Great Divide, and the wind blows fresh through the forests of dense pine and spruce. Here life is free, simple, and sweet. For perfect expression in dancing, music or any creative art, freedom of the body, and of the spirit, is necessary. Life in the great silence of the stern white peaks is healthful and free, it recreates the body and the mind in simplicity and beauty. ”

The whistle startled Charlotte and Portia as the train pulled in and campers, lightly dusted with coal and dirt from the long ride, disembarked. The dancers were easily detected among the other passengers, not just by the excitement they wore on their faces but also by the way with which their bodies flowed across the platform. Most of the campers had been recruited from Portia’s dance classes in Omaha, Nebraska or from Smith College where both Charlotte and Portia had graduated.

“Welcome,” said Charlotte and Portia as they hurried to organize bags and horse drawn wagons for the fifty mile ride from Denver, Colorado to the mountains near El Dora, Colorado. Portia’s sister disembarked with her mother who would be helping with costumes and thus saving them money for a costumer. Portia embraced them both tightly. Clara Savage was a student that year and knew Charlotte and Portia from Smith College. Clara had almost been dismissed from Smith because of her poor mathematical skills. Fortunately a teacher who recognized the girl’s talent for the English language insisted she stay. Clara later went on to become the editor at Parents Magazine for many years . With a group of 12 young ladies, and trunks piled high, the wagons set out.

Coming upon camp was a sight to see. Nestled in at 9,000 feet above sea level, Dixie Lodge was built of wood and offered an open air balcony where the campers were to sleep. The cabin looked down upon Lake Eldora, which sat two miles below by horseback. Indigo waters butted up against pine trees, rolling hills and snow capped mountains. Above the cabin, Beaver Lake, a high alpine lake offered a choice site for afternoon recreation, although the waters never fully warmed despite the lake’s proximity to the sun. The hills behind them were still dusted with winter’s snow and the sky was painted a shade of blue that only exists at elevation. For some of the campers who had never been to the west, the views and the severity of the landscape were awe inspiring, which was exactly what Charlotte and Portia had intended. “Art is born of nature,” Charlotte often said.

The lodge had been rented to Charlotte and Portia by Annie Morris, a friend of the Perry family. In order to save the most money possible from the summer, Portia had the idea of having the campers’ mothers exchange work for their daughter’s tuition. One mother served as cook for the summer, so the only paid employee was a handyman named Jim Hazen. There wasn’t a free moment for Charlotte and Portia who taught classes in the mornings and afternoons, organized outings, tidied up and more. In order to make sure they had enough wood for the fireplace, Charlotte taught a class in wood chopping so they could benefit from the students helping to keep the camp running. Their passion and youth gave them the energy and determination to not give up even when they felt the exhaustion of sleepless nights planning the next day’s activities encroaching upon them.

Campers began their mornings stepping out of their bedrolls into the cool Colorado air. The screened in porch allowed no separation from the calls of the mountain blue bird or sparrow welcoming the girls to the day. After a hearty breakfast, with dew lapping their ankles, they donned their gauze dresses, cast off their shoes and danced under the rising sun. Wildflowers were picked and woven into hair for a more fairy or nymph-like effect. Perched on rocks, the dancers tossed balls back and forth and used their surroundings to inspire the movement of their bodies. With each stretch, reach, or step, the constraints of society fell away and being alive, feeling the body, the air, the moment became all there was.

Perhaps for a day or two the women’s giggles and laughter were answered only by the wind through the trees, but shortly after camp started a man, out for a walk near his cabin, glanced down from the hill to see nymphs dancing with abandon. Not long afterwards, Denver newspapers carried headlines of the strange activities in the hills. Men came up equipped with spyglasses, camping on the hill across from camp hoping to catch a glimpse. One brave man approached the gate seeking entrance to Nirvana, but when Charlotte, who was teaching a wood-splitting class at the time, opened the gate with an ax in her hand, the man quickly retreated. Word of men spying spread to the parents of the campers, several of whom felt their daughter’s reputations might suffer. Knowing the loss of even one camper would spell a financial loss for the camp, Portia scrambled to reassure each parent of the safety and moral strictness of their establishment.

Despite the illusion of play, the campers adhered to a fairly strict curriculum. In the mornings they learned Greek arm work, the Tarasoff technique (a technique of dance taught by the Russian ballet master, Ivan Tarasoff), character dancing, folk dancing, the One-Step Canter and the popular Hesitation Waltz. After the sun warmed the sky a dip in the lake cooled everyone off. After lunch, campers explored the outdoors, climbing mountains, doing calisthenics and studying and reading Greek plays in the lodge’s pine-walled natural theatre . Dinner was the main meal of the day and campers were required to wash up and dress in their finest clothes. Afterwards, classical music was played and time for lively discussions ensued. Sleep came easily after such full days and on their screened in porch, the women could feel the change from day to night, see the moon and sun rise and ponder on the end of a rainbow after a storm.

While the setting was breathtaking, so was the altitude. Some of the dancers struggled through camp with shortness of breath. Rest periods became mandatory. None of the campers had experienced daily life in the high mountains and they were unprepared for the explosive storms that let loose each afternoon. Almost like clockwork the clouds would roll in, thunder crashing as an accompaniment to the dance classes, lightening electrifying the air before the rains hit. While brief, the deluge was deafening, pounding down on the tin roof over the porch where the girls practiced their barre. Sometimes rain turned to hail drowning out all other noise. Then, within minutes, the sun would be shining again and all traces of the tumult would be gone.

If ever there was a free moment, Charlotte and Portia rode off on horseback to explore the world around them. Despite Mr. Perry’s prejudice against the camp, he loaned his daughter two horses for the summer. Since only Charlotte and Portia new how to ride, they stole those moments to catch up with one another and to talk about how to improve camp. Portia was constantly running the numbers of each expense, each meal, making sure they weren’t going over their strict budget. Charlotte felt real purpose for the first time in her life. She was lifting those around her. She was a working woman, not just working but sharing music and theatre, the two things dearest to her heart, with others. There was nothing else on earth they would rather be doing than what they were doing with camp. They were determined not to fail.

For that month in the mountains the focus was on each moment. World War I was temporarily forgotten. In place of thoughts of war and loss, a spark formed amongst those women that anything was possible. Truly possible.

Camp seemed to end with a blink of an eye. After the campers had been delivered back to the train depot in Denver, Charlotte and Portia sat down with their legs dangling off the edge of the platform, watching the train pull away. Portia gave Charlotte an impulsive hug.
“Don’t hug me until we finalize our finances,” said Charlotte.
“Even if we didn’t make a penny, we did it, Charlotte.”

After camp was closed up and cleaned up, Sam Perry called Charlotte and Portia to report to him. Sitting in his study with the two ladies opposite, he said “So, how was the summer?”
Both girls knew he wasn’t asking about the emotional success. Charlotte hung her head.
“Charlotte,” he boomed.
“We made $200.00, pop,” she said with a huge grin.
If a smile played over his lips, it was gone in an instant. “Well, I guess I won’t disinherit you after all.” That was all the blessing he ever gave for them to continue. Even though the camp was a financial success, The Ladies knew they would have to find a new location for the following year away from prying eyes.
“How did I ever turn out a daughter like you?” muttered Sam, as Charlotte and Portia skipped out of the office like two schoolgirls.

I. Rocky Mountain Dance Camp Brochure 1914. Perry-Mansfield Archives.
II. Interview with Charlotte Perry by Lucile Bogue. History Colorado archives.
III. Daily activities of camp (cite source) – pine walled natural theatre