Guide to the Penny Furgerson papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1957-2006
Creator: Furgerson, Penny (1936-)
Extent: 10.00 linear inches.
Collection Number: IWA0280
Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Summary: Native of India who founded the Gateway Dance Theatre, a Des Moines-based company specializing in multiethnic dance.

Administrative Information

Alternate Extent Statement: Photographs in boxes 1 and 2
2 CDs [d0028-d0029]

Access: The papers are open for research.

Use: Copyright has been transferred to the University of Iowa. See gift agreement for additional instructions.

Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 383) were donated by Penny Furgerson in 1996 and succeeding years.

Preferred Citation: Penny Furgerson papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Address: 100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5068
Curator: Kären Mason

Biographical Note

Penny Thomas Furgerson, pharmacist, dancer, choreographer, and theater director, was born in Bombay, India, in 1936. Thomas studied at Xavier College in Bombay; in 1956, she graduated with honors and received a bachelor of science degree in pharmacy. After graduation, Thomas moved to Des Moines for graduate work at Drake University where she met and married Lee B. Furgerson, Jr., a native of Waterloo, Iowa, who was a student at Iowa State University in Ames. Penny Furgerson graduated with honors from Drake in 1959 and began her career in pharmacy with internships at Katz Drug Store and Des Moines General Pharmacy. Over the next twelve years, Furgerson worked at several pharmacies in Iowa, largely in administrative capacities. In 1972, Furgerson was hired by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, where she worked until her retirement in 1997. Penny and Lee B. Furgerson had three sons - Lee, Tom and John. Lee B. Furgerson died in October 1998.

Dance had always been a central part of Penny Furgerson's life. She studied classical Indian dance for many years as a youth, and performed in college and public programs in India. She danced with the Ram Gopal Company representing India at the International Festival of Arts in Scotland in the late 1950s. Inspired by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Penny Furgerson and her husband founded the Gateway Dance Theatre in Des Moines in 1972. The Furgersons saw the need for an alternative to the jazz and ballet classes offered by the local dance schools in Des Moines; they also wanted to make dance accessible to low-income students. The Gateway Dance Theatre blended styles from Africa, the Caribbean, and India into a unique, contemporary, experimental form of dancing. The purpose of the company, as described on a grant proposal, was to "develop and possibly create a totally new concept of dance by integrating elements of ethnic, classical, interpretive, popular, primitive, and folk dancing." The Gateway Dance Theatre was both a dance school and a performing troupe. Lee Furgerson served as director and general manager while Penny Furgerson taught classes, and choreographed and danced in the theatre's performances. Gateway offered master classes with guest artists and held many workshops. The dance theater was staffed by volunteers and partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Gateway Dance Theatre performed in many venues across the state, especially in schools and festivals.

Content Description

The Penny Furgerson papers date from 1957 to 2006 and measure 10 linear inches. The papers are arranged in four series: Biographical information, GatewayDance Theatre, Indo-American Association of Des Moines, and Professional.

The Biographical information series (1957-2003 and undated) includes newspaper clippings about Furgerson, announcements of the Furgersons' wedding in various newspapers, Furgerson's resume, the funeral program of Furgerson's grandmother, Dr. Anna Chandy Thomas, papers pertaining to the Furgersons' sons and their musical band, and an undated family photo of Lee and Penny Furgerson with their three young sons. The correspondence includes letters from Furgerson's mother and grandmother in India, and letters from her husband, Lee B. Furgerson. The letters from Lee Furgerson are on a disc, and hard copies have also been printed and included in the correspondence folder. In these letters, Lee Furgerson relates the racial barriers he encounters trying to find suitable housing for himself and his bride in the early 1960s.

The Gateway Dance Theatre series (1971-2006) constitutes the bulk of the collection. It includes administrative records (a list of board members includes Edna Griffin), dance programs, correspondence about the dance company, information on the classes and workshops sponsored by the theatre, materials on teaching dance to children, and details on the theatre's performances around the state. Publicity materials, including a photo of three Gateway dancers, and information on various art programs in Des Moines and Iowa reflect the Furgersons' efforts to provide performance opportunities for their dancers. In one disappointing turn of events, Furgerson wrote a letter respectfully declining to perform in the 1974 Midwest regional performance of the Second World Festival in Chicago because one of the requirements for participation was that all members of the company be of Afro-American descent. As Furgerson explained, although 98% of the company was African-American, she herself was Indian, and one of the primary dancers was white. "Rhythms of the World", a DVD of a program aired on Iowa Public Television's Living in Iowa in 2005, completes the series. The segment features an interview with Furgerson and footage of rehearsals and performances of the Gateway Dance Company.

The Indo-American Association of Des Moines series (1974-1997) consists of membership lists, treasurer's reports, incorporation papers, and flyers. Furgerson served on the executive committee of the association, which was formed by those interested in Indian culture.

The Professional series (1974-1994) consists of items related to Furgerson's employment with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa (BCBS). The memorandums cover a variety of pharmacological programs including home infusion therapy and provider payment programs. Correspondence, performance evaluations, and job descriptions in this series depict tension between Furgerson and her employer: documents describe repeated efforts by Furgerson to obtain an office which suited her position, and disagreements over job duties and evaluations; a letter from Des Moines civil rights attorney Alfredo Parrish to BCBS is included. Lee B. Furgerson also worked for BCBS in the 1970s, and documents relating to his tenure as chair of the Humans Relations Council are included. An information brochure advertising a diabetic cookie company started by the Furgersons completes the series.

Related Materials

In IWA: Betty Jean Furgerson papers, Lileah Harris papers, and Martha Nash papers.

Furgerson, Harris, and Nash were Penny Furgerson's sisters-in-law (sisters of Lee B. Furgerson).

Detailed Description of the Collection

Browse by Series:


This collection is indexed under the following subject terms.

Personal Names:
Furgerson, Penny, 1936-

Corporate Names:
Gateway Dance Theatre
Indo-American Association of Des Moines

20th century

Modern dance
East Indian American women
Women in community organization
Women in pharmacy
Minority women


Geographic Names:
United States -- Iowa -- Des Moines

Genre/Form of Materials:
Personal papers
Computer files
Video recordings

African American Women in Iowa