Janet Muse Gray was known for her no-nonsense teaching style and fervent passion for dance that prepared students for a world outside her tiny studio on Imperial Avenue in Salt Lake City, whether they were performing on Broadway, in commercial studios in Los Angeles or in Utah’s burgeoning dance community.
A force in Salt Lake City’s dance world, Gray, 66, owner and artistic director of Janet Gray Studio, died Jan. 19 of cancer, at her home surrounded by family.
As news of her death spread, admirers from coast to coast poured their hearts onto her Facebook page in pictures, stories and words. They described her as “legendary,” “tough,” “strong,” “generous” and possessed of “unbounded energy.”
Gray opened her studio in 1978, a time when it was still hard for women to get bank loans. But as a single mom with a young son, she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She built her brand of tap and jazz over the years, becoming one of the most sought-after teachers in the city.
Salt Lake City dance writer Ashley Anderson, a former student, recalled Gray “as someone who believed in social justice and she believed that the arts were critical to social justice. All of her students, like me, were taught tap as an art form with a profound African-American lineage. Young women were taught to be educated and empowered both in and out of dance; to be responsible, to be conscientious, and to consider the impacts of their actions on others.”
Gray was a board member for Repertory Dance Theatre and was highly respected by her peers Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, founders of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. “Janet was a dear friend of mine,” Woodbury said, describing Gray as a “driving force in the art of dance, particularly in tap, in Utah and beyond.”
Even after retiring from teaching, Gray retained a strong presence in the studio attached to her home.
Instructor Carly Anderson recalls more than once when she and Gray would be hovering over the front desk working on the class schedule, and Gray would intuitively look up, spot a student far across the room and characteristically impart a decisive correction.
She was famous for her custom-made T-shirt reading, “I Yell Because I Care,” Linda C. Smith, artistic director for RDT, wrote in a November article. Gray and Smith were close friends of fellow tapper Bill Evans, who was honored on RDT’s most recent performance, “Top Bill.” By the time “Top Bill” opened in November, Gray was too frail to go to the theater, so Evans and RDT came to her. They performed the show for Gray in her studio and stayed afterward to laugh and reminisce.
Gray, who had a degree in psychology from the University of Utah, was an adjudicator for Utah Shakespeare Festival’s High School Shakespeare Competition; worked 16 years as an adjunct professor in the U.’s ballet department; and had a long list of choreographer and guest teaching credits.
Two of her most famous students were Mark Reis, who danced on Broadway in “Chicago” and “Fosse,” then moved to California to oversee hiring and choreography for Disney; and Richard Hinds, the choreographer or director of such Tony-nominated works as “Come From Away,” “Newsies” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Three of Gray’s longtime instructors, Elle Johansen, Stephanie Pike Thomas and Carly Anderson, will continue to operate Janet Gray Studio, although Thomas joked, “It will take all of us to do Janet’s job.”
Gray fought multiple types of cancer for the past five years, according to her son, Josh, who helped his mother run the studio through the years. Upon the last diagnosis, Josh Gray said his mother “bravely accepted that she would transition on her own terms, without fear of death, and in her own home surrounded by loved ones.” He made sure her wish was granted, and scheduled visits during her last weeks with many friends, students, faculty and relatives.
In lieu of flowers, Josh Gray requested donations be made to the Huntsman Cancer Institute Wellness Center, where he said his mother received enormous support, strength and care. (Visit https://give.huntsmancancer.org/page/4215/donate/1 for information, selecting the wellness center in the “designate my gift” field.) A celebration of life will be announced later this spring.