Women of Wisdom

Shaping dancers and model citizens: A reflection on the life of arts educator Pearl Wagstaff Garff

By Naomi Silverstone & Cally Flox

A dance, like any great story, has a beginning, middle and end. It begins in stillness. There is a starting shape. Then the story unfolds through sequences of movement with varied timing, energy, shapes. Finally it returns to stillness.

Pearl Wagstaff Garff (December 1941-September 2019) made extraordinary contributions to the arts during her lifetime. Most knew her as a dancer and educator. She was a gifted pianist and could have pursued music studies at the University of Utah but she chose instead to focus on Dance and Theater Education. In 2011, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah Dance Education Organization in honor of her contributions to dance education. “Miss Pearl,” as she was known by her students, was also a choreographer, a practitioner of integrated arts therapies and trained in holistic aspects of the healing arts.

But the accomplishment for which Pearl Wagstaff Garff will be most remembered is as founder and director of the Life Arts Center in Sandy. Her purpose with the Center, founded in 1976, was to focus on the creative development of “the Child as the Artist.” She carefully crafted a culture in which each child could find and express his or her own voice. Children at the Life Arts Center playfully engaged in every art form every day—dance, drama, music, visual art and literature. Miss Pearl believed that creative play was both a natural activity for children and a tool through which they could learn.

Early on, Miss Pearl designed a differentiated curriculum that met the special needs of each learner, depending on their age and stage of development. Most importantly, she believed that children need healthy, responsive adults at each stage of life. These adults and caretakers at the Center were tasked with not only helping the children learn art but also how to connect to the world. Caretakers modeled healthy emotional responses. They helped grow each child’s self-esteem and emotional literacy. Overall, the atmosphere created by Miss Pearl was warm and caring. The Center felt like a “family” of trained professionals who understood and honored each child.

The children were given opportunities to share their artistic experiences with parents and with the wider community. On parent visiting days at the studio, families danced together. Arts events throughout the community sometimes featured the children’s performances. An annual favorite was dancing at Murray Park. Down the big hill the children would run with large fabric flags, ribbons and double circle skirts. The scene was always joyful, with hundreds of children twirling, rolling, running and jumping on the freshly cut grass. Other performances involved the Center’s non-profit affiliate, Dancer’s Theater Company. This group performed original plays written by Pearl Wagstaff Garff with support from professional dancers, actors, musicians and artists.

Not to be left out, adults were also able to partake in Pearl’s unique artistic offerings. She called her adult classes Spirit Dancing in the Body. This process-based experience included movement, drumming, drawing and talking circles to align the mind and body for resilience and personal transformation.

The hearts of many were unleashed within the walls of the Life Arts Center. Thousands of children who grew up there are now serving in our community as business leaders, government officials, health professionals, leaders of non-profit organizations and artists. “Use your voice and your movement to express yourself and to respect the contributions of others,” Pearl and her staff would say, encourage students of all ages.

Miss Pearl completed her own journey on September 8, 2019. Her loss was very sudden. During an annual health check up she received a shocking diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was told she only had three to five days to live. Pearl, true to self, turned to her alternative healers. With their help Miss Pearl was able to hold on for the next two months.

Of course, it was not Pearl’s style to go in sadness. After mobilizing her healers, she asked her family and friends to throw a “pre-funeral” party. One hundred people and bounteous food appeared. While many were still in shock, Pearl circulated and spread her wisdom. Speak only love, she told us. As she faced her dying process, one she was determined to do consciously, she remained a teacher to us all. To one old friend who understood the language of dance, she said, “I am looking for my finishing shape.”

Cally Flox was on the faculty at the Life Arts Center for 11 years. She is currently the founding director of the BYU ARTS Partnership and author of A Teacher’s Guide to Resiliency Through the Arts. Naomi Silverstone is a retired social work professor whose daughters had the exquisite experience of learning from Miss Pearl, their first teacher.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.