Tanner dance program honors founder

By Rosemary Campbell, Staff Writer

Mary Ann Lee grew up dancing in the Children’s Dance Theatre and loves passing on her knowledge to dance students.

Lee, director of the U’s Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program and Children’s Dance Theatre, took over the organization in 1979 when Virginia Tanner, the founder of the program, passed away.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Children’s Dance Theatre, which became part of the Tanner program in 1949. In honor of Tanner, the theater is putting on a performance called “Coming Home” Friday and Saturday at Capitol Theatre. The performance focuses on Tanner’s original philosophy of “creating worthwhile human beings one dancer at a time.”

Tanner was born in Utah in 1915, but it wasn’t until she turned 18 that she realized her love of dance, Lee said. After a few years of dance lessons in Colorado and New York, Tanner returned to Utah in 1937 and started her studio by teaching adults and children, ultimately focusing on the children.

Tanner brought the program to the U in 1961, when it became an auxiliary of the College of Fine Arts. After Lee took over, the programs continued developing.

“The seeds were in Virginia’s mind but not in a fully developed way,” Lee said.

Now, each of the six divisions of Tanner’s program focuses on a different part of the community, including arts and education, disabilities, community partnership and Children’s Dance Theatre.

The arts and education program is not solely a function of the U and has different divisions extending throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Elementary schools can include the arts in their classes through the program.

Lee said the goal is to “weave dance into all areas of the curriculum.”

The Dancers with Disabilities and Community Partnership programs contribute to the community with the music and art forms that help people with physical and mental challenges, Lee said.

Within the Children’s Dance Theatre, there are 5,000 students whose ages range from 2 to 18. The students pay tuition to the U and the Tanner program, but 4,000 of them have received scholarships. People who want to dance should be able to, Lee said.

Joni Wilson, a dance teacher in the studio, is one of them. Wilson has taught there for more than 15 years and like Lee, grew up dancing under the direction of Tanner and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in dance from the U.

Wilson said that when Tanner was alive, “many programs were in place, but not to the extent they are now. It’s really Mary Ann’s legacy.”

Wilson said she has taught dance at four other universities and none of them had anything like the Tanner Creative Dance Program. With its community outreach, emphasis on family and international ties, the U is fortunate to have the program located here, she said.

Wilson said she stays with the dance studio because it makes a difference in people’s lives, and because of the passion the children have to persue their artform.

Rebecca Meadows, director of development and marketing, said having the arts programs in her schools in Maryland made her see the value of the Tanner program. She started working for the program seven years ago and said students learn how to work together to solve problems and it gives them something to be passionate about.

“I love to see what we’re able to give to children,” Meadows said. “We’re using dance as a means to do a lot of good things for kids (and) I see how it changes kids’ lives.”

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Patrick Harrington

Maryanne Lee’s Creative Dance students rehearse at the Tanner Dance Studio for their performance, “Coming Home” being shown at The Capitol Theatre Feb. 27-28.