Betty Ford: The woman who wooed the Russians to Vail
July 9, 2011
VAIL, Colorado – Dance came to Vail the same way skiing did: with a little luck and a lot of help.
It was the summer of 1989, just a few months after Vail hosted the World Alpine Skiing Championships for the first time. The Vail Valley Foundation staff had received a call that the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, in the midst of its first U.S. tour, had to cancel its shows scheduled for Texas. Would Vail be willing to host the world-renowned ballet company’s first U.S. performance instead?
“Everybody said, ‘Shoot, we really don’t know that much about dance, but send us the information,'” said John Dakin, vice president of communications for the Vail Valley Foundation.
Within a day, the Foundation was able to rally enough financial pledges to pay for the shows. But money was just part of the challenge.
Former President Gerald Ford used his connections with the State Department to help bring the ballet academy to Vail, according to the book, “Betty Ford: Vail Valley’s First Lady.” But it was Betty Ford, who struck a special friendship with the dance academy’s leader, Madame Sophia Golovkina, that nurtured Vail’s long relationship with the academy, and with dance in general, said Allie Coppeak, an organizer with the Foundation.
At the time, the academy’s visit to Vail was the “biggest thing to ever happen” to Vail, Coppeak said. Dakin recalled school children waiting in Vail with flags and homemade signs to welcome the dance academy when it arrived. The three performances were sold out, but a rainstorm the first night threatened to ruin the performance, which was scheduled for the newly built Ford Amphitheater.
“We were literally holding tarps over the soundboard and there were sparks coming off the soundboard,” Dakin said.
But nobody left. Not even the Fords, who had turned out for the performance. That impressed Golovkina, he said.
From there, the academy established a summer school in Vail where the Bolshoi teachers would come over and teach American dance students. Again, President Ford would help expedite the visas for the Bolshoi teachers. The former first lady, who was a dancer when she was young, immediately became very involved in who the students and teachers would be, Coppeak said.
“The Fords were genuine fans of dance and cared about moving this thing forward and establishing this cultural exchange,” Dakin said. “They were much more involved than just being ambassadors.”
And from there on out, whenever Golovkina was in Vail, Mrs. Ford would have a tea party in the couple’s Beaver Creek home. It was mainly a women-only party, with President Ford only popping in for a few minutes to say hello, Coppeak said.
“That was the highlight of Golovkina’s visit here,” shesaid.
By 1993, Vail’s experiment with dance had became established enough that other dance companies were invited to perform. The event was renamed the Vail International Dance Evenings – the precursor to what is now the Vail International Dance Festival.
In the meantime, Ford and Golovkina maintained their friendship up until Golovkina’s death in 2004, Coppeak said.