A Tribute to Miss Pearl
Pearl Wagstaff-Garff was a legend in the Salt Lake City children’s dance community. She started the Dancers’ Theatre Company, a non-profit, and the Life Arts Center, a school of the integrated arts/science. Pearl received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Utah Dance Education Organization. Pearl was a teacher, shaman, dancer, and artist, known as “Miss Pearl” to many of her students and friends. For over 50 years, children were the love of her life and her life’s mission. You can read more about Pearl and her life’s work in Catalyst Magazine here>>.
Repertory Dance Theatre honors her memory by sharing thoughts from three of her students and teachers.
Tami Redd Knubel
Miss Pearl, well-known for her enduring belief in “The Child as the Artist” has left a footprint in children’s dance education that will forever be in the heart and community of the Salt Lake Valley and beyond. I first met Miss Pearl at the age of 8, becoming a member of her 501(c)3 dance program “The Moving Company.” She had worked diligently for this non-profit status and constantly sought to advance opportunities for children in the arts. From a young age, Miss Pearl instilled in me and every other dancer I have spoken with through the years…a belief that we were each very unique, gifted, talented and special young dancers. I always knew that Miss Pearl believed in me and that she saw unlimited possibilities in my future. She somehow instilled this belief in countless students.
This encouragement continued into adulthood when I had the privilege of teaching for her in both “The Creative Learning Center” (her pre-school) and “The Life Arts Center” and “Dancer’s Theatre Company” (previously The Moving Company) classes. After teaching for a few weeks in the pre-school and feeling like a complete failure, I asked her to come and watch me teach. At the end of the class, she smiled and gently told me to “slow down and lower” my voice…that with my high-speed, high-pitch tone…everything was going right past the little ears in the room (I will never forget her re-enactment of my voice) 😊. That simple advice opened the door to the past 21 years of unequivocal joy in teaching children the fine art of dance. That was how Miss Pearl saw dance…as a fine art. When others began to turn it into competition, she held true to her strong belief that it is a fine art…above the competitive field.
Miss Pearl shared the magic of Mr. Monkey, the fun in Suzy Q toes, and an unimaginable joy in movement as a means for children to express themselves to this world. Tiny toes will continue to gallop and jump and turn as those of us who were blessed with her awareness of the gift of dance…continue to give to the next generation. Thank you Miss Pearl…for a lifetime of bringing dance to everyone willing to take that first leap!
Tami Redd Knubel…former student and employee of Pearl Wagstaff-Garff
My memories of Miss Pearl are associated with a passionate force that was creative, caring, artistic and determined about educating children and really all humans in the power of movement and dance as well as the importance of art in all people’s lives.
She was a risk-taker. She believed in her intuition and followed it always. It was a part of this process that I was hired, sight unseen, by Miss Pearl, in the fall of 1995 to teach some classes at The Life Arts Center. I was moving to Utah to dance part-time with Repertory Dance Theatre and a friend of mine suggested I send my resume to Miss Pearl to see if she needed teachers. I received a phone call shortly after and she told me that I would be teaching the following classes, and presented a short list. This began my teaching tenure at Life Arts Center.
From Pearl I learned many things, but the main things that stick with me the most are the following; let go of your lesson plan and see where the students are taking you; Use the knowledge that you already have to lead your class, you already know a lot!; patience; creativity has its own time table.
Pearl provided so many wonderful experiences for her students and staff. She constantly strived to have the students perform in as many venues as possible and allowed them not only to perform our work but their own as well. She encouraged creativity in all forms and the students blossomed underneath her leadership. I know many of her students that are dance teachers and arts administrators today, because of their experience growing up at Life Arts Center.
Artistic Associate / Education Director
Repertory Dance Theatre
I started dancing with Miss Pearl at the age of 3. I still remember dancing with my little “bee” costume and fabulous wings across the stage. I remember shrieking in delight when the piano in the studio would switch from the light happy music to the deep tones of the “alligator” as we ran to the monkey bars.
I have no doubt that my experience from a young age at the Life Arts Center and with Miss Pearl shaped me into who I am today. I continued dancing through my senior year of high school at the Life Arts Center and made friends I am lucky enough to stay in touch with today. Dance has been a constant in my life. Even though I don’t dance as much as I’d like (even working for a dance company), I am inspired every day by the dancers around me, and I have Miss Pearl to thank for spurring that love of dance from the moment I stepped into her studio.
Pearl gave me a confidence I didn’t know I had. Every so often, we would be invited to perform a solo (our “Golden Ribbon Dance”) to the music of our choosing in front of the class. I’ve always been incredibly shy, but in those moments Pearl gave each of the inspiration to perform and show that we mattered. She also gave us the opportunity to perform on some of the city’s biggest stages (literally) at Kingsbury Hall and The Capitol Theatre — as well as the Rose Wagner where I now work every day, ironically. The confidence I gained performing, both in the studio and in the theatre, translated to the rest of my life, on a variety of stages.
Pearl instilled in me at a young age that every child is an artist, anything can be a dance (even a run to the monkey bars), and that dance can take you anywhere. I am forever grateful to Miss Pearl.
Repertory Dance Theatre
Rebecca Keene Forde
What beautiful tributes!
Sending my condolences for all of you who knew Miss Pearl so well.
Rob & Judi Voye
Like all of the contributors to this piece, Miss Pearl was a huge part of our lives. We had two girls, Ally & Julia Voye, who danced with Pearl beginning when they were tiny tots. Ally continued dancing with The Life Arts Center through high school, then majored in dance (World Arts & Cultures) in college. Ally & three of her college mates started their own dance company post-college. Ally worked with children & movement throughout her college years and continued for an additional 14 years post college in schools, arts education programs & community arts programs. Her love for dance & movement & children began with her relationship with Miss Pearl. We grieve along with all of Pearl’s family, friends, students & collegues.
Rob and Judi Voye
Ardent fans of RDT