In 1933 Virginia Tanner began studying dance and later performing with Evelyn Davis in Washington D.C. while she lived with and worked as a nanny for the Lawrence McKay family. During the summer of 1935, Virginia registered for the summer dance workshop at Colorado State College of Education where Charles Weidman, the nationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer, John Martin, a foremost New York Times dance and art critic, and Evelyn Davis taught. Following the workshop, Virginia traveled to Perry Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Steamboat Springs, Colorado to study with Doris Humphrey, American modern dancer and choreographer. Virginia arrived with just $10.00 and a bus ticket home to Salt Lake City. By sewing costumes, working in the dining hall and doing other jobs at Perry Mansfield, Virginia was able to study with Doris Humphrey for the three-week summer session. That summer was a to begin a long-time relationship between Virginia and one of America’s most important modern dance pioneers, Doris Humphrey.
In 1935, Virginia returned to the University of Utah to resume her undergraduate studies and later to supplement her income, she launched her teaching career by teaching dance in her mother’s home. She charged students 25 cents per class.
In 1937, Virginia was appointed to the position of instructor of dance at the McCune School of Music and Art in Salt Lake City. In the 1940s Virginia Tanner became the Director of Dance at the McCune School of Music and Art. Tanner’s Dance Program resided on the third floor in the ballroom which included three rooms, and a changing room. Visual art classes met the attic space. In 1943, Virginia presented the Children’s Theatre Dance Group and presented it first at a concert at Rowland Hall-St Mark’s School in Salt Lake City.
In 1943, Virginia also organized Modern Dance Theatre, an adult company directed by Virginia and Barry Lynn. The company included other professional dancers and some of Virginia’s most talented older dancers. The company continued until 1950 and toured throughout the intermountain west and northwest.
During the summers between 1938 and 1945, Virginia continued her dance training in New York City, at Bennington College and at Perry Mansfield in Steamboat Springs. Virginia also taught at Perry Mansfield and began teaching for Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman at their studio in New York City when the company was on tour.
At the McCune School of Music and Art, Virginia continued to grow her children’s dance program from 75 students in 1941 to 200 students in 1947. During the 1947 centennial production of Promised Valley in which Virginia danced but also served as rehearsal director for renowned New York choreographer Helen Tamaris, Virginia became acquainted with Dr. C. Lowell Lees of the University of Utah Department of Theatre. In the years that followed, Virginia choreographed productions staged by Dr. Lees at Kingsbury Hall. Virginia employed adult dancers but also used many of her young students in these productions.
In 1949, Virginia presented the first formal concert of the Children’s Dance Theatre at Kingsbury Hall. Virginia invited Doris Humphrey to attend the concert and spend a week with her in the studio.
Following the concert Doris wrote to Virginia:
“Your children have left an indelible impression with me of true creative dance. To some people, children cannot be artists. They are charming, yes and imaginative, but are regarded as too immature to produce anything worth of the serious name of Art. I have long disagreed with this idea, and your children offer a wonderful proof of the young artist, guided wisely, untarnished y dogma or routine, un-stereotyped and lovely. This source of fresh ideas in dance-art is a treasure house to which you have found the key. Only to one who believes in children and understands them could this treasure have been unlocked. Congratulations for bringing the Children’s Dance Theatre to reality, and for being its faithful guardian and creator. Their performance I saw in Salt Lake gave me a lift in spirit which I shall always remember. I think beautiful children dancing have more to teach us than we have to teach them.”
“From the fist, there was beauty. The children were wonderfully disciplined yet gloriously free…they danced as if they had faith in themselves, had a love for those of us who were seeing them, actively believed in their God and rejoiced in all of these.” This is a quote from Walter Terry, Dean of American dance critics who saw the Children’s Dance Theatre perform at Jacob’s Pillow in Lee, Massachusetts in 1953. That summer Virginia Tanner received unprecedented invitations to perform at Ted Shawn’s famous “Jacob’s Pillow, the Connecticut College School of Dance, and New York University’s summer camp. A photographer from Life magazine captured the event in a cover story for all the nation to witness.
The period between 1950-1960 was incredibly fruitful for Tanner Dance and Virginia Tanner’s Children’s Dance Theatre. The company was comprised of approximately 25 of Virginia’s most advanced students. In 1950 Virginia Tanner married Robert Bruce Bennett, who became Virginia’s business manager and the director of public relations. Bruce Bennett was a talented writer and helped promote Virginia in receiving invitations to prestigious venues and wrote extensively about the program. Several articles about Virginia and her teaching philosophy appeared in Life, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan and Dance magazine as well as in other local and national publications.
In 1951, Virginia gave birth to Miriam Kay Bennett (Ginger). Not long after, Virginia resumed a rigorous teaching schedule. The program thrived and received invitations to perform in the Granite Arts concert series in Salt Lake City, in Rexburg, Idaho, in Denver, Colorado, and at Steamboat Springs, Colorado at Perry Mansfield Arts Camp. During the summer of 1952, Isadora Bennett and Richard Pleasant, influential New York booking agents saw the Children’s Dance Theatre perform at the Rocky Mountain symposium of the Arts in Steamboat. Impressed by Tanner’s teaching technique and artistry of the young dancers, the two agents sought additional performance venues for them. The month-long trip in 1953 to Connecticut College, Jacob’s Pillow and New York City was remarkable for this company of dancers from Salt Lake City. At each appearance of the Children’s Dance Theatre, Virginia would speak briefly, stressing the three significant phases of her studio teaching: technique, the development of the student’s mind through application of what she called mental challenge, and the inspiration to compose, which she prompted by way of creative tasks. These three aspects of her work with the children were then demonstrated by the group through a technical section, rhythmic studies, improvisation and brief studies that evolved out of the directed explorations. This kind of teaching with young dancers was a new pedagogy to Virginia’s professional peers and set her apart as a pioneer in children’s creative and modern dance work.
Soon after the 1953 trip to the east coast, Virginia moved her program to three beautiful studios above the Temple Bowling Alley at 15 East North Temple. The building was previously the Odeon Dance Hall. The building had been converted into a bowling alley on the main floor and up a steep flight of stairs were three beautiful studios, dressing rooms, an office and a faculty dressing area. The program, still affiliated with the McCune School of Music and Art of Brigham Young University, flourished in its home and received a new name, the Conservatory of Creative Dance. Enrollment increased and Virginia brought in professional dancers to augment her own gifted teaching staff. They included Juan Valenzuela, Robert Blake, Jan Day, Ruth Burke, Anne Cannon, Janet Lish and Barbara Luke. She continued to recruit professional musicians who included Norma Dalby and Ruby Brown. Many guest artists also visited the program including Ruth St. Denis, Jose Limon and Harriett Ann Gray. Shirley Ririe who had left Virginia’s faculty member at the McCune School, to join the faculty at the University of Utah. In the 1950s, she and Joan Woodbury with Joan and Ray Kingston and Loabelle Mangelson along with some of Virginia’s older dancers and teachers began a company called the “Choreodancers”, which was a precursor to the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. They rehearsed at the studio and performed there and also with the Children’s Dance Theatre on the Granite Arts Association performances at Granite High School. Virginia sponsored a performance by the Jose Limon Company where Virginia’s former student, Lola Huth, was featured. Lola also returned to choreograph and teach for Virginia when she was not on tour with the Limon Company. Between 1955 and 1961, the Children’s Dance Theatre performed on the Granite Arts Association Concerts at Granite High School in Salt Lake City.
In 1956, Virginia Tanner and the Children’s Dance Theatre were invited to perform at the Monterey Children’s Festival held at Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California. In 1956 and 1957, The Children’s Dance Theatre was featured on the NBC live documentary show Wide, Wide World, hosted by Dave Garroway. The first show featured dancers performing at the Utah State Capitol and the second at Lagoon. In 1957, selected students travelled to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to perform. In the summer of 1958, ten selected dancers traveled with Virginia Tanner and her family to study and perform for two weeks at Idyllwild Arts Foundation of the University of Southern California at Idyllwild. Mary Ann Lee was selected to travel with Virginia on all of these trips and to perform with the company. In 1962 through 1965, Virginia continued teaching and performing with members of the Children’s Dance Theatre at the Idyllwild Arts Foundation.
During the 1950’s with the help of faculty members Ruth Burke and Anne Cannon, Virginia was developed her professional development summer workshops for teachers. Anne Cannon and Ruth Burke began the Dance Art Program. Virginia and her husband Bruce worked with the Rockerfeller Foundation to create a grant to bring important choreographers in American Modern Dance to the Department of Dance at the University of Utah.