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Remembering School of Dance legend Bene Arnold

When University of Utah Distinguished Professor Emeritus Bené Arnold passed away last week, one truth was reaffirmed: Arnold’s passion for ballet has fueled countless dancers, teachers and artists. “Bené Arnold inspired a lifelong learning in me and many of her students, not because she adhered to any prescribed teaching method, but because we saw what she loved to do with her life,” said School of Dance faculty emeritus Sharee Lane.

Bené Arnold with Gordon Paxman at the San Francisco Ballet.

Arnold’s love for ballet began when she took dance classes as part of her recovery from a severe childhood illness. At 9 years old, she said, “I may not be able to walk but someday I will dance.” By age 13, she had decided she would dance ballet on pointe professionally. “Ballet is a wonderful thing for rehabilitation,” Arnold once said. “I know what it’s done for me. I don’t know what kind of condition I would be in [without dance].”

In 1948, Arnold joined the San Francisco Ballet Company, where she rose to the rank of soloist. She eventually transitioned from performing to teaching and moved to Salt Lake City in 1961 where she studied ballet and education at the University of Utah.

In 1963, Willam Christensen, founder of Ballet West, asked Arnold to be the company’s first ballet mistress, a position she kept until joining the University of Utah dance faculty in 1975. She continued to be involved with Ballet West, teaching at the Ballet West Academy and working as a rehearsal director for the young dancers in the annual “Nutcracker.” Arnold retired from the University of Utah in 2001, though she returned to be interim chair of the Department of Ballet from 2008-2011.

Arnold’s students remember her as a very traditional teacher who pushed them to be their best. “She was old school and had a tough demeanor which was indicative of the profession at the time,” said U professor and alumni Maggie Wright Tesch. “I was continually grateful for the backbone she instilled in me as I moved through my 18-year career.”

Rehearsal director and company archivist at Ballet West, Bruce Caldwell, said Arnold set him on the course of his whole career. “What remains ingrained with me is her mentorship and the standards that she set for me in my youthful ballet career,” he recalled. “She would let me know when I was in error, not just in the studio or onstage, but also in my life struggles as well.”

“Bené Arnold was a force of nature,” said School of Dance Director Melonie B. Murray. “I remember first meeting her in 2015 when she was recognized with a Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Fine Arts. I was a new faculty member and she greeted me like a long-lost friend. Bené’s presence was magnetic, and she thrilled the students by recounting stories of working with the Christensen brothers and her time with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West—even jumping up to demonstrate some of the iconic choreography from Willam Christensen’s ‘Nutcracker’ (in her late 70s at the time!)”

Bené Arnold as Berthe in Giselle

Arnold’s career is marked with many awards, from the Utah Governor’s Award for the Arts to a Lifetime Achievement Award from CORPS de Ballet International. She was instrumental in creating Utah’s ballet scene and is a major figure in the learning lineage of many ballet dancers and educators. “Bené always had a strong opinion, and once she set to work on something, was tireless until its completion,” said Caldwell. “ I can honestly say that I don’t think Ballet West, or more broadly, the arts scene in Utah, would be where it is at today without all of the incredible (and unsung) work that Bené did to help it progress.”

When Arnold received the College of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award, she said, “Working in the professional ballet world, and the Department of Ballet at the University of Utah, gave me my biggest challenges and my greatest joy! I had lots of work, sometimes with a very small salary, but it was worth it, because of the opportunity to keep learning from amazing artists and keen-minded people, who challenged and broadened my mind, by their intelligence and often fascinating ideas!”

Arnold’s drive and enthusiasm for ballet will continue to impact the School of Dance and the Utah dance world for years to come. “Her legacy lives through us all who continue with the passionate work of developing artists in the field of dance,” said Tesch. “She was a rare breed,” said Caldwell. “But I think that I can speak for everyone who has had any interaction with her, you don’t forget her.”

“The U’s School of Dance continues to benefit from her years of stellar stewardship,” said Murray, “and I hope she would be proud of how we continue the legacy of excellence she left behind.”