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Pioneer of modern dance in Utah dies at the age of 96

Nov 6, 2023, 7:23 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — Joan Woodbury, one of the pioneers of modern dance in Utah, has died at the age of 96.

The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company is celebrating its 60th anniversary and is mourning the death of Woodbury, one of its founders.

Woodbury and Shirley Ririe created Utah’s first modern dance company in 1964.

What they did was groundbreaking. As wives and mothers, they ”job shared” before anyone knew what that was. Woodbury said,  “We were very passionate about all of it. We knew we wanted to dance, that was first. And we wanted to choreograph and to teach.”

In the history of modern dance or contemporary dance in America, only two other companies, Martha Graham’s and Paul Taylor’s, both in New York City, had founders with them longer than the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

Appreciation for a pioneer of modern dance

Former dancers often returned to express their gratitude, including Tammy Metz Starr.

“What Joan and Shirley are to me are a wonderful representation of all the awesome, strong women I’ve had the opportunity to meet through dance,” Metz Starr said.

Woodbury was the first dancer to receive a Fulbright Scholarship. She created more than 100 dance works and before retirement in 2011, led her dancers on tours throughout the world. In 2018, the State Department invited the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company to tour Mongolia.

And here is this quote from ”The Dance Insider” in Paris,  “… American dance company that is ready to thrill and delight.”


Desire for a bright future

Woodbury and Ririe wanted only a bright future for their company. Woodbury put it this way, “It needs to have its own rebirth and go forward with that.”

Ririe added, “And we’re OK with that.”

From humble beginnings to worldwide recognition.

Woodbury is being remembered as a legend in American modern dance.

From her company:

The Ririe-Woodbury community mourns the recent loss of Joan Woodbury, Utah dance pioneer and the company’s prolific co-founder. Joan passed away last week after a brief illness, surrounded by family. Joan was a woman of great vision, trailblazing ahead so the rest of us could fearlessly brave the unknown. Leaders like Joan empower us to succeed and embolden us to take gigantic leaps of faith. Even now, her memory asks us to dare more broadly and beautifully than we imagine possible.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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Pioneer of modern dance in Utah dies at the age of 96