1 of 28
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Dancers perform as the University of Utah Tanner Dance Program Children’s Dance Theatre present Elfwyn’s Saga in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2017. Elfwyn's Saga is a tale of magic, greed, and heroism. CDT students range from second grade through high school.

SALT LAKE CITY — Like the precious, pure and noble metal that symbolizes 70 years, Tanner Dance and the Children’s Dance Theatre exhibits platinum's same qualities of purity, timelessness and strength.

This 2018-2019 school year marks the platinum anniversary for the program that looks to the future and continues the legacy of its founder, Virginia Tanner (1915– 1979), and her vision of “developing young people who are useful, imaginative, worthwhile human beings,” as she once said.

A visionary's beginnings

Tanner, or “Miss Virginia” to her students, was born in 1915 and grew up in Salt Lake City. After studying in New York City in the late 1930s, Tanner returned to Utah and began to teach dance in the original Deseret Gymnasium, built in 1910 and located where the Church Office Building now stands.

The Deseret Gym under construction in 1909.

In the early 1940s, Tanner directed the dance program at the McCune School of Music and Art at the McCune Mansion located at 200 N. Main. It was during this time at McCune that Mary Ann Lee, current director of the Tanner Dance Program, first saw Tanner and her students dancing in Ginny gowns. Lee decided, at the young age of about 4, that she wanted to dance like “Miss Virginia.”

“She was always thinking about dance,” Lee recalled of Tanner. “She was always thinking about the next project, always excited about the creative process.“

Anne Cannon, who taught at Tanner Dance until 2016, was also part of Tanner’s creative process in those early years. When she was about 4 years old, Cannon danced at the McCune Mansion, later moving with the dance school when it relocated to the basement of a motel while the space above the North Temple Bowling Alley, formerly the Odeon Dance Hall, was remodeled for her Conservatory of Creative Dance. (Now where the Church History Library sits.)

In 1949, at their new conservatory location, Tanner established the Children’s Dance Theatre. The CDT gave its first official performance at Kingsbury Hall that same year.

Tanner Dance
Mary Ann Lee, director of Tanner Dance Program, dances with a young student. The organization celebrates 70 years this season.

While it's likely that parents and friends came to support their children at that first performance, Cannon remembers one very special guest in the audience that night: Doris Humphrey, a pioneer in early American modern dance. Tanner, who had studied with Humphrey in New York years earlier, invited her old teacher to see what she had started.

“(Tanner) understood children,” Cannon said. “(Children’s) contribution to dance was not recognized as being of value, particularly in those days. When Doris Humphrey came, she validated the work that Miss Virginia was doing with children.”

Growing and expanding

Around 1961 the program moved again, this time to the barracks building on the University of Utah campus. It was a rich era for Tanner Dance.

Lee remembered the “funny, funky, lovely WWII barracks building with lots of light,” she said. It was while at the barracks that “Miss Virginia” took the CDT to Washington, D.C., to perform for the White House Conference on Children, and later that same year, she developed a national children's dance program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks to her positive experience with the NEA, she was able to secure funding for Tanner Dance's Arts in Education, a program that is still going strong today. Tanner also helped form Repertory Dance Theatre in 1966 thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Through all this growth and movement, Tanner still managed to find time to focus on what was most important to her.

Tanner Dance
Virginia Tanner began teaching dance classes in the early 1940s. In 1949 she established The Children's Dance Theatre. The organization celebrates 70 years this season.

“She was gentle strong, kind compassionate, firm and disciplined,” said Joni Urry Wilson, a 30-year-long Tanner Dancer instructor who started with "Miss Virgina" at age 5. “She allowed us to be children and that’s what we knew she wanted us to be, but she also wanted us to be our best selves.”

Tanner passed away in 1979 and Lee became director of the Tanner Dance Program. Lee, who had taught in low-income schools in New York City and Oakland, saw the need to expand Tanner Dance's Arts in Education program.

“I just thought, ‘We absolutely need to start working more in schools where we go to the children,’” Lee said of her vision.

Lee said that Tanner Dance is now in 25 schools throughout Utah, supporting 4,500 students with a free dance class each week. She believes that art education in the classroom is helping to make a difference in how children experience school.

“If (children) can learn through the art, that is extraordinary and we really change the climate of the school,” Lee said. “If you’re going to dance with somebody and be their partner, you can hardly not be kind and speak (well) to them, and support them and do all the things that you’re required to do in a dance class. I think that does change the community.”

Looking forward

Tanner’s legacy continues to nurture creative voices with several programs and services offered at the U. and along the Wasatch Front. These programs include the Dancers with Disabilities classes for children and adults, the Fine Arts Preschool, the French Immersion Program and the teen programs of Tipping Point Dance Company, Momentum Dance Company and In Motion Dance Company. Also founded was the Creative Dance and Studio Program with classes at the U. and at satellite locations in Ogden, Brigham City, South Jordan and Park City,

When construction began on the Student Life Building, which replaced the old barracks, the Tanner Dance Program moved to the George Thomas Building at Presidents Circle from 2012 to 2014.

In February 2014, the newly completed Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex was dedicated on the U. campus. The new home has bought new possibilities as Tanner’s and now Lee’s vision carries the program into the future.

Samantha Little Photography
A young dancer with the Tanner Dance Program. Tanner Dance and The Children's Dance Theatre celebrate 70 years this season.

As the Tanner Dance Program and the Children's Dance Theatre gracefully ages into its 70th year at the new complex, Lee sees the company expanding its satellite locations and growing its programs. Lee also aims to keep the excellence of the program and not lose sight of the philosophy to develop each individual.

"Each of these kids, whose parents entrust them to our care, are so precious,” Lee said. “We believe that about them and we also want to help them be their best selves and that's who they really are. … (Dance) is quite empowering and those skills and those abilities and those confidences and that self-efficacy, really translates into everything in your life. There's nothing more joyous.”

If you go …

What: “Building Center” documentary

When: Nov. 2, 3 and 5 p.m.

Where: 1720 Campus Center Dr

How much: $10 for general, $5 for children ages 12 and younger

Web: tannerdance.utah.edu/performances

Also …

What: Ring Around the Rose: “Decades”

When: Nov. 10, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,

Where: Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South,

How much: $5

Phone: 801-355-2787

Web: artsaltlake.org

Also …

What: “Tanner Talks” speakers

1 comment on this story

When: dates, times, location and price to be announced

Web: tannerdance.utah.edu/performances

Also …

What: “The Dancing Man,” Children’s Dance Theatre 70th anniversary show

When: March 21 and 23, 2019, times vary

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: price to be announced

Web: tannerdance.utah.edu/performances

Also …

What: Studio Spring concert

When: May 11, 2019, 1 and 4 p.m.

Where: Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah

How much: price to be announced

Web: tannerdance.utah.edu/performances