Children’s Dance Theatre has helped build Utah’s dance-positive culture

By Amy Brunvand

In the pages of the December 1949 issue of Dance Magazine, modern dance pioneer Virginia Tanner (1915-1979) announced the formation of her new company: “We now have a CHILDREN’S DANCE THEATRE in Salt Lake City and this past season, on May 2, 1949, we gave a full concert in tribute to Doris Humphrey, the internationally known choreographer.”  Tanner was pleased to note that in Salt Lake City, children “do the child’s dance parts in plays rather than using adults pretending to be children.” She predicted that her new company “will contribute richly to dance in a community that is eager to accept the beauty these children offer in the form of dance.”

Seventy years later, the Children’s Dance Theatre (CDT) is still fulfilling that promise.  Nowadays CDT is a performing company of about 280 young dancers aged 8 to18, associated with the University of Utah Tanner Dance Program.  The company tours nationally and internationally, and puts on an annual children’s show here in Utah. But even if you don’t have kids you’ve probably seen CDT dancers on stage. They have performed with the Utah Symphony for Carnival of the Animals; they were the gingerbread children when Utah Opera did Hansel and Gretel; they danced two-by-two when the Madeleine Choir School sang Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde; they danced at the opening and closing ceremonies for the  2002 Winter Olympics.

Not surprisingly, a large number of professional dancers and dance teachers in Utah have CDT on their résumés.  Linda C. Smith, co-founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) got her start as a CDT dancer, as did RDT Artistic Associate Nicholas Cendese.  At West High School, Virginia Tanner’s alma mater, the dance teacher is Natosha Washington who danced the starring role in CDTs 2007 production of The Dream Stealer. Likewise, Jacque Lynn Bell who teaches choreography at the University of Utah declares on her résumé, “all of my teaching is influenced by my background with [Virginia Tanner] in creative dance.”  Mary Ann Lee, who has been CDT Director since 1979, trained with Virginia Tanner and was a member of Children’s Dance Theatre.

The anniversary program this March is a revival of The Dancing Man, based on a storybook by Ruth Bornstein, first performed by CDT in 1986. But this won’t be a replica of the previous show.

Emma Featherstone, CDT Program Manager and a former CDT dancer herself, says the  dancers are creating their own choreography together with their teachers.  Featherstone says the story is particularly special, “because it emulates our philosophy here at Tanner Dance. In the story, there’s a little boy who lives by the Baltic Sea and one day a man gives him a pair of silver shoes.  At first they don’t fit, but the boy grows into the shoes and becomes a dancing man himself, spreading the joy of dance.”

The image of shoes reminds Featherstone something Mary Ann Lee once 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.”

Since the founding of CDT 70 years ago, Tanner’s silver dancing shoes have passed through generations of kids who got a chance to dance the children’s parts.


“The Dancing Man.” Children’s Dance Theatre 70th Anniversary Performance.

Capitol Theater, March 22, 7:30pm, March 23, 2pm. Tickets:

This article was originally published on February 28, 2019.