Virginia Tanner, founder of the Tanner Dance Program, left an unparalleled creative legacy. Many of the Tanner Dance faculty studied under and danced with Miss Virginia; others did not have the opportunity to know her. More than 30 years after her death, Miss Virginia’s vision for children persists. Another generation dances onto the world stage, engaged in imaginative thought and spurred to action through the methods she developed.
Virginia Tanner was born April 25, 1915, in Salt Lake City. During summers in the late 1930s, she studied with choreographer and modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey at workshops in Colorado. Virginia traveled to New York City to continue this study, but, in the end, her love of teaching prevailed and she chose to dedicate her art to inspiring young people. She once said, “The motivating force behind my work is not only developing excellent dancers, but more importantly, developing young people who are useful, imaginative, worthwhile human beings.” This philosophy is the foundation of the Tanner Dance Program.
In 1937, Virginia founded her Creative Dance Program, and in 1947, added a performing company called the Children’s Theatre Dance Group. By 1949, she had re-named it Children’s Dance Theatre. Doris Humphrey attended the first Children’s Dance Theatre concert, held in May 1949 at Kingsbury Hall. She watched in wonder and at the end of the evening commented, “Your children have left an indelible impression with me of true creative dance…Your children offer a wonderful proof of the power of the young artist, guided wisely, untarnished by dogma or routine, unstereotyped, and lovely. This source of fresh ideas in dance–art is a treasure house to which you have found the key.”
In 1953, the Children’s Dance Theatre received unprecedented invitations to perform at Ted Shawn’s famous “Jacob’s Pillow” in Massachusetts, the Connecticut School of Dance, and New York University’s summer camp. A photographer from Life magazine captured the tour in a cover story and famous photograph. Walter Terry, Dean of American dance critics wrote, “From the first, there was beauty. The children were wonderfully disciplined, yet gloriously free… They danced as if they had faith in themselves, had a love of those of us who were seeing them, actively believed in their God, and rejoiced in all of these.”
Virginia Tanner is recognized internationally as a pioneer of children’s dance and as one of its finest teachers. The late José Limón, celebrated dancer and choreographer, proclaimed in 1978, “Salt Lake City is the most blessed city in the world to have the world’s master children’s dance teacher. There isn’t any place, and I include New York, London, Paris, Moscow, that has anyone who can touch her genius for teaching children the exciting purity of the dancing arts.”
Following Miss Virginia’s death in 1979, Mary Ann Lee assumed the artistic directorship of the Tanner Dance Program. With characteristic modesty, Mary Ann said, “When I stepped into Virginia’s magic shoes, I knew that her feet and mine were different sizes. But I also knew that the philosophy had to be continued and the program expanded to include many of the people that Virginia had so beautifully inspired and trained.”
Virginia Tanner’s vision of creating joyous, worthwhile human beings through dance and the arts has become an enduring seventy-seven-year legacy. Since its inception, the University of Utah Tanner Dance Program has brought the joy and positive influence of the arts into the lives of more than one million students, teachers, and community members. Today, the Tanner Dance Program is different, yet remarkably the same. The organization is much larger and serves a broader range in its growing community, but Miss Virginia’s founding philosophies are the guiding principles. The tradition continues: roots, strong training in the art form of dance, and wings, the nurturing of imagination and creativity.