Last year saw a first, for the three excellent modern dance companies of Utah - the Children's Dance Theatre, Repertory Dance Theatre and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. For the first time in their history, they received a line-item appropriation from the Legislature to support their arts in education programs in Utah schools.

The modest $75,000 was put to excellent use. Divided equally among the three companies, it helped defray costs of their school programming - performances, lecture-demonstrations, teacher inservices, dance movement specialists teaching arts core curriculum to teachers and children, training for teachers to use dance as a teaching tool, and an introduction to the creative process. The combined services of CDT, RDT and Ririe-Woodbury in 1989-90 reached more than 80,000 Utah schoolchildren, at a cost of 56 cents per student.All three companies and their leaders have a history of long and diligent involvement with arts in the schools, which they have continued and perfected over the years, often with thoroughly inadequate compensation. Ririe-Woodbury and RDT were crown jewels in the dance-touring program of the National Endowment for the Arts during the '70s, before government cuts eliminated funds for this program. Indeed, Ririe-Woodbury was for a time the most widely toured company in the nation's artists-in-schools program.

By comparison, other major performing arts companies in Utah schools cost a great deal more than modern dance. In 1989-90, Ballet West saw 53,118 children, at a cost of $169,500, or $3.19 per child. Utah Symphony saw 70,905 children, for a cost of $415,500 or $5.86 per child. Utah Opera saw 65,547 students, at a cost of $63,700, or 97 cents a child.

One would by no means suggest that the offerings of these higher-priced organizations be cut or even curtailed. Much of their cost comes from busing children to performances that make an indelible, favorable impact.

But modern-dance programs and residencies are by their nature more immediately accessible and participatory. And when presented by Utah's nationally recognized personnel, they disarm most students completely and greatly predispose them to the creative arts and, by extension, to the whole educational process. I have seen it happen again and again in classroom situations.

In the past year, working under their new allotment, all three companies have researched and developed new programming and have traveled the state extensively. They project that during 1991 they will see a combined number of 103,500 children, spending $226,621. They are asking that 50 percent of their costs be supported by the Legislature, increasing their line item for modern dance educational outreach to $113,310.

Perhaps you think that the kind of arts teaching you enjoyed as a child is still going on in Utah schools, with resident music and art specialists.

This is not necessarily the case. Many districts have been forced to cut back on their specialists, and the responsibility for arts teaching (if any) has fallen to the classroom teachers, who are often quite ingenious in filling the gap. In a hit-or-miss situation such as this, the novelty, insight and enthusiasm that a dance residency can generate can hardly be overestimated.

I suggest that if the request of these three companies is granted by the Legislature, the few thousand dollars they receive will be spent with great care and consideration, and lead to many success stories among Utah schoolchildren.