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Every day after school, the boy perched on the stairs to watch students file into a basement dance studio.
Dance was for girls, his father told him, until eventually, Rowland Millar Butler won him over. At age 6, the boy began taking lessons in the art form that fueled his life for the next 70 years.
Butler, one of the founding dancers at Ballet West who went on to help launch the University of Utah's musical theater program, died of liver and pancreatic cancer on Feb. 14. The Salt Lake native was 77.
Former students and fans are invited to remember how Butler changed lives one step at a time at a memorial celebration on Sunday. (See box for details.)
"He was known for a quick wit and a mastery of the tap dance," says Ken Burton, the former business manager at Pioneer Theatre Company where Butler was the resident choreographer for 18 years. "His students loved him and they still quote him."
As Butler sent dancers out on the stage, he was known to say: "Smile, dammit." Or another phrase that might ring true to every dance teacher: "No, no, your other right foot."
Just last month, he was teaching master classes for the Mesquite-Toes Tap Team, a Nevada dance company of senior women, says Doug Bishop, a longtime friend and colleague. "He was always teaching, always looking for one more show to do," he says.
Adds daughter Jen Butler: "He truly danced right until he couldn't dance anymore."
Beyond his dance mastery, his students all say the same thing: Rowland Butler gave me confidence. Rowland Butler believed in me.
Butler began his career teaching dance at age 19, when he launched a Holladay dance studio, one of three he operated with his parents, Florence and Arvid. He charged 50 cents a lesson in those early days, according to an advertising flier, his daughter says.
Butler opened dancewear stores alongside his studios, and was known for a flamboyant style that included delivering toe shoes to dancers along the Wasatch Front while driving a Jaguar.
As a young aspiring dancer, Bruce Caldwell was fit by Butler for his first pair of ballet shoes. Caldwell, now Ballet West's ballet master, remembers watching Butler dance in "The Nutcracker" and other roles in early 1960s with Utah Civic Ballet, the company that grew into Ballet West. "I was amazed at his footwork and his beats at the time," Caldwell recalls.
Butler was mentored by Ballet West founder Willam F. Christensen, and stayed close to his former boss, helping to care for "Mr. C." in his final illness.
At the University of Utah teaching ballet and theater classes, Butler was known for a sparkling smile, his cool goatee, and a twinkle of mischief in his eyes, says Carol Schuberg, who went on to a New York performing career. "He made me a dancer," she says. "He really was life changing to so many of us. He gave us the confidence to go for it."
Cynthia Fleming, executive artistic director at Salt Lake Acting Company, says she still warms up with the same dance steps Butler taught her in the 1970s.
Fleming studied musical theater with Schuberg at the U., and then won a role in the Broadway touring show of "A Chorus Line."
"If Rowland Butler never would have come into my life, there wouldn't have been 'A Chorus Line' for me," says Fleming, calling Butler a "connector." "There wouldn't have been choreography. I owe him my career."
After Butler retired from the U., Bishop hired him to choreograph shows at the Murray summer theater, and later, to develop a dance program at Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts. He also taught dance at City Academy. Beyond creating dance choreography, Butler was exceptional in the way he remembered the history of each movement, Bishop says.
Schuberg was reunited with her former teacher last December when she returned to Salt Lake City to perform in Pioneer's production of "Oliver!" Offstage, she and Butler visited local senior centers with tiaras and boas to dance with elderly residents. He was still changing lives, she says.
One of Butler's most repeated phrases keeps echoing through the memories of Schuberg and so many others of his former students: "The end of one step is the beginning of the next."
"I took a dance class yesterday, and he was there with me," Schuberg says. "He's with us all. 'The end of one step is the beginning of the next,' and he's onto his next step."
Celebrating the steps of Rowland Millar Butler
When • Sunday, Feb. 26, 1 p.m.
Where • Marriott Center for Dance's Hayes Christensen Theatre, 330 S. 1500 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Also • To contribute to Rowland Butler's memorial, visit youcaring.com/rowlandbutler-751294