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date: 25 November 2020

Mansfield, Portiafree

(19 November 1887–29 January 1979)
  • Deborah Jowitt

Mansfield, Portia (19 November 1887–29 January 1979), dance educator, choreographer, and camp director, was born Portia Mansfield Swett in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Edward R. Swett, a hotelkeeper, and Myra Mansfield. She received her early schooling in Winter Park, Florida, where the family moved in 1899, and, after another move, in New York City at Miss Morgan’s School for Girls (1903–1906). As a child, she danced for her own pleasure and, occasionally, for hotel guests. Entering Smith College in 1906, she majored in philosophy and psychology but also was exposed to the Delsarte System of Expression and gravitated toward the physical education department. She was instrumental in organizing a dancing class at Smith. Classmates remembered her clouds of red hair, her lissomeness and grace, and her vivacity.

While at Smith, she met Charlotte Perry of Denver, who became her colleague and lifelong companion. After graduation in 1910 and a summer of dance study in Paris and Milan, Portia Swett enrolled in the ballet and character dance classes of Louis Chalif in New York and in the fall of 1910 set up a studio in Omaha, Nebraska, where she taught social dancing and organized cotillions.

Like many impressionable young dancers, she thrilled to performances by Anna Pavlova, Adeline Genée, and Ruth St. Denis. She continued to study: with Vernon Castle and Irene Castle on trips to New York, with Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky when she began in 1912 to teach at Miss Morgan’s Dramatic School in Chicago (dividing her week between Chicago and Omaha).

With Perry, she planned a summer dancing camp in Colorado that would combine teaching and performing with the women’s love of horseback riding and the outdoors. The first summer trial run was held in 1914 on rented property on Lake Eldora in Nederland, Colorado. In 1915, reportedly for $200, the two women bought a sizable tract of land in Strawberry Park outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and themselves helped to construct the rustic Rocky Mountain Dancing Camp (later Perry-Mansfield). Mansfield, Perry, and Colorado residents from those early days have all recounted the mixture of bafflement, delight, and horror with which local ranchers viewed the scantily clad nymphs flitting about beneath the pines and aspens.

Mansfield and Perry taught in various eastern schools during the winters and continued their studies in dance. A 1923 brochure for the Steamboat Springs school and a winter camp the two had opened in 1917 in Carmel, California, offered training in ballet, Greek plastique, Spanish, Oriental, and “other Character Techniques”; improvisation, composition, and theory; riding and swimming. Perry taught drama, in which she had begun to be interested; she was to develop a theater program at Perry-Mansfield, to direct plays, and to become a notable teacher of acting.

In 1921 Portia Swett changed her name to Portia Mansfield, a name she believed was more appropriate for the small groups of dancers, Perry sometimes among them, that began to make public appearances as the Portia Mansfield Dancers. It was also in 1921 that Mansfield first provided choreography and costumes and sent four of her protégés on the vaudeville circuit to join the act of Hungarian violinist Ota Gygi and his ballerina wife, Maryon Vadie (the experience was documented by one of the dancers, Flavia Waters Champe, in Innocents on Broadway [1987]). At some point, four companies toured simultaneously. Reviews from 1924 of a group of Portia Mansfield Dancers list ten dancers, including one man. Publicity from vaudeville tours and concert appearances of the various companies indicates a repertory that blended the exotic with the exalted, including such titles as “A Picnic Day in Holland,” “An Etruscan Screen” (praised as “a unique thing of lines and angles”), “Slave Dance,” “Rhythmic Games,” “Unfinished Symphony,” and “Hymn of Joy” (Beethoven). In 1930 waning public interest in vaudeville caused Mansfield to disband her companies and concentrate on teaching—in New York and Baltimore during winters and during summers at the camp, by now officially called Perry-Mansfield.

In 1933 Mansfield received a master of arts degree from New York University and in 1953 (when she was in her sixties) a doctor of education degree from the same institution. Her dissertation topic was “Conchero Dancers of New Mexico,” which included a film as part of the project. Mansfield had become interested in photography early in her career; several photographs by “Portia Swett” grace Gymnastic and Folk Dancing (five volumes published between 1923 and 1929 by Mary Wood Hinman, a noted Chicago teacher).

As the dance faculty at Perry-Mansfield expanded, many major figures in modern dance taught there, among them Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, José Limón, and Agnes de Mille. Mansfield developed her own form of rhythmic training, based on the ideas of Bess Mensendieck, Mabel Ellsworth Todd, and Lulu Sweigard about natural and healthy motions of the body. Mansfield’s Body Mechanics and Fundamental Movement exercises are preserved on a 30-minute film by that title made probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Her Sixty Exercises in Rhythmic Movement were published in book form in 1939. An article she contributed to the Journal of Health and Physical Education in January 1935 put forth utopian ideas debunking “etiquette” and positing the growth of a “more real democracy” based on values inculcated in movement classes, among them, equality (“not kindness which might imply condescension”), safety first, culture, personal hygiene, gallantry, and temperance. Much later, in 1966, she contributed a series of articles to Dance Magazine on exercises for the elderly: “Help Them Move Young.”

Mansfield and Perry continued to direct Perry-Mansfield and to teach there until 1965, when the camp was turned over to Stephens College, which had been granting college credit for studies there for several years. However, the next summer, with college friend and longtime colleague Helen Smith, Mansfield started a boys’ camp on the nearby premises of the Whiteman School and operated it until 1976. In 1970 she was awarded the Governor’s Award for her contributions to Colorado culture. In 1974 she received the American Camping Association’s Honor Award for her fifty-year tenure at Perry-Mansfield.

Mansfield will not be remembered as a major choreographer or dancer but rather as an innovative force in dance education and a pioneer during the period that contributed to the development of what came to be known as modern dance. Perry-Mansfield provided a nurturing atmosphere for the gifted and famous who studied and taught there. She died in Carmel, California.

Bibliography

Various films and publications by Portia Mansfield, as well as manuscripts and scrapbooks pertaining to her career and to Perry-Mansfield, are housed in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. Other memorabilia are preserved at Perry-Mansfield. Lucile Bogue, Dancers on Horseback (1984), chronicles Perry-Mansfield and the careers of its two founders. Mansfield is mentioned frequently in Flavia Waters Champe, Innocents on Broadway (1987). A Divine Madness, a videotape of reminiscences containing archival photographs and films by Mansfield, was completed at the time of her death. An obituary is in the Steamboat Pilot, 1 Feb. 1979.