SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City lost a force in the dance, theater and arts community when beloved dance instructor Janet Gray passed away Jan. 20, after a long battle with cancer.
A 66-year-old dancer, entrepreneur, choreographer, mentor, mother and “second mother” to thousands of students, Gray wore many hats but primarily owned and artistically directed Janet Gray Studios for 40 years, leaving an immeasurable mark on the community and the lives of those she touched.
“It’s been overwhelming to see all these hundreds and hundreds of letters that keep pouring in,” said Janet Gray's son, Josh Gray. “She’s touched so many lives.”
A 'second mom'
Janet Gray loved dance from a young age, determined to make it her career, even if her parents didn't approve.
“My grandparents were terrified back in ’78 when she said she wanted to open a dance studio instead of go into psychology,” Josh Gray said. “They literally cried. They said, ‘People don’t need dance. It’s not a necessity,’ but she just hard-nosed it.”
She found a mentor and teacher in tap legend Eddie Brown, who she met through another well-known name in the tap world, dancer Gregory Hines. As a young dancer training in California in the late 1970s, Janet Gray attended one of Hines' performances, and afterwards, with her typical self-confidence, she walked up to Hines and declared, "I need a tap teacher." He introduced her to Brown, who himself was discovered by tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the two became friends. She made several trips to California to work with Brown until she finally brought him out to teach a master class to her students.
Known for her grit, determination and tough-as-nails expectations for both dance instruction and professional behavior, Janet Gray was often intimidating but for all the right reasons.
“She really did yell because she cared,” said Stephanie Thomas, former student and current faculty member of 29 years. The dance instructor was famous for wearing a bedazzled shirt with the saying, "I Yell Because I Care," as a gentle reminder to her dancers. “We’re going to frame that and hang it in the studio, I’m sure,” Thomas said.
“That toughness is what I fell in love with my first day as a student. If she’s not paying attention and you’re not getting critiqued, then there’s a problem,” she said. “I loved the challenge of earning her respect.”
“One thing about Janet was she was consistent with her demands,” said former student Jenny Barlow. “A lot of people are afraid of that, but I thrive under that kind of pressure.”
“She produced wonderful students and dancers," Barlow said. "I can always tell when I teach dance combinations during auditions which students were Janet’s — especially if it’s a tap sequence.”
But for every pirouette, split leap and shuffle-ball-change coming out of Janet Gray’s studio, you’re just as likely to see many 4.0 students, college graduates and students with perfect attendance.
“Most dancers are not going to dance professionally,” Thomas said. “But Janet knew dance was a vehicle to learn loyalty, commitment, hard work and determination. Janet knew that the people who get the jobs — any job — are the ones who show up on time, work hard, are kind and respectful.”
“You’ll see on Facebook everyone called her a second mom and that’s really true,” Thomas continued. “She emphasized education; all of us faculty members have college degrees. She was very protective of her students — she wanted to meet who they were dating. She’d say, ‘A man is not a retirement plan, make sure you’ve got your own path.’ She wanted them to achieve their full potential.”
A dance family
That potential was often a nudge from Janet Gray towards an audition, tackling choreography and helping many students conquer fears.
“When she told me I should audition for ‘Cats,’ I didn’t sleep! I was terrified. But she knew I could do it,” Thomas said.
“Janet kept up on all of her students,” Thomas said. “She was the embodiment of service. At the pinnacle of her career, when she was so busy, I’d see these amazing moments where she was doing something for one of her students — visiting them at the hospital, seeing their shows, taking kids on a road trip. It’s extraordinary how she’d reach out and made sure their personal life was going well.”
“Those students were her family,” Josh Gray said. “She supported them. She followed through, and it was really important to her.”
“I want people to know how hard she worked. She was a single mom, and she did all this without any help,” Josh Gray said. “We ate boiled chicken and frozen peas, and we were totally fine. But she had two others jobs — teaching at the University of Utah and the Interlochen Arts Academy — and none of it was easy. She was so smart about her studio. She so aggressively paid off the land and the lease that we have no overhead. She’s created such a stable foundation that we’ll be here for decades.”
Janet Gray left the studio to her son who also runs two of his own companies, including an animatronic robotics company.
“I’m a little bit removed because I’m not a dancer,” he said. “But I grew up in the studio. I’ve been around my dance my whole life. Every time the studio has been remodeled or upgraded, I’ve been a part of it. I know the bones and the core. And I still feel her presence in there.”
Josh Gray, along with the studio faculty, plans to stay the course — keeping his mom’s vision for quality, tastefulness, professionalism and classical training.
There are no immediate plans for a service, but Josh Gray encourages friends and students to leave messages on his mom’s Facebook page.
“We will likely have some type of gathering in the spring," Josh Gray said. "But it’s business as usual. Can you imagine the specific yelling I’d get if we didn’t keep going? The studio is important, and we haven’t skipped a beat.”
“She called me the Silverback,” Josh Gray added. “It’s my job now to protect Janet Gray Studios. Her last gift to me was a stainless steel travel mug with a silverback etched in — JGS Protector. I’m honored, and now in the studio we ask ourselves, ‘What Would Janet Gray Do?’ And that’s what we’re going to do.”