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Carmadean’s Dance Camp: A Summer in the Shadow of the Atomic Bomb

Thirteen-year-old Barbara Kent (centre) and her fellow campers play in a river near Ruidoso, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, in the hours after the bomb’s detonation. Fallout flakes drifted down that day and for days afterward. ‘We thought [it] was snow,’ Kent says. ‘But the strange thing, instead of being cold like snow, it was hot.’

In the summer of 1945, as the world teetered on the edge of monumental change, a small dance camp in the desert near Ruidoso, New Mexico, was unknowingly positioned at the nexus of history. Carmadean’s Dance Camp, a retreat for young girls passionate about dance, became an unexpected witness to the dawn of the atomic age. This is their story.

A Summer of Dance and Dreams

Carmadean’s Dance Camp was an idyllic escape for many young girls in the summer of 1945. Nestled in the serene desert landscape near Ruidoso, New Mexico, the camp was a place where they could immerse themselves in the art of dance, away from the war-torn world. The camp, run by the charismatic Carmadean Winters, offered a rigorous yet joyful schedule of ballet, modern dance, and tap. The girls, ranging in age from 10 to 16, practiced tirelessly, often performing under the vast, star-studded skies of New Mexico.

Martha Jenkins, one of the campers, recalls, “We were so engrossed in our routines. The desert seemed like another planet, and we felt like we were dancing on the moon. Carmadean was a tough instructor, but she made us believe in our dreams.”

Susan Abernathy, another camper, reminisces, “We didn’t have a care in the world. Our days were filled with dance and laughter. We were far removed from the reality of the war. Little did we know, history was about to unfold right next to us.”

The Proximity to History

Carmadean’s Dance Camp was located approximately 50 miles from the site of the Trinity test, where the Manhattan Project’s scientists were preparing for the world’s first atomic bomb detonation. On July 16, 1945, the test was carried out, marking a pivotal moment in history. The explosion was so powerful that it was felt miles away, and its impact reached as far as the camp.

The Morning of the Test

The girls were awoken early that morning by a strange, bright light and a distant, thunderous sound. Confused and frightened, they gathered outside their cabins, unsure of what had happened. Some of them thought it was a massive thunderstorm, while others speculated about military exercises, given the ongoing war.

Julia Carter, one of the senior campers, later recounted, “It was the brightest light I had ever seen, even though it was still dark out. We were terrified but also strangely mesmerised. None of us could have imagined that it was an atomic bomb.”

“We were all just shocked … and then, all of a sudden, there was this big cloud overhead, and lights in the sky,” student Barbara Kent recalled. “It even hurt our eyes when we looked up. The whole sky turned strange. It was as if the sun came out tremendous.”
The Trinity test took place at 5:29 a.m. local time on July 16, 1945. It was three to five times more powerful than its creators had anticipated, producing heat 10,000 times greater than the surface of the sun. The explosion cloud may have reached a height of 70,000 feet.

Dancing in the Fallout

In the hours and days following the Trinity test, a peculiar phenomenon occurred. Fine, white particles began to settle over the camp, resembling snow. The girls, unaware of the true nature of these particles, danced and played in what they thought was a rare desert snowfall.

“We danced in the so-called ‘snow,’ laughing and twirling,” recalled Betty Lou Parker. “It was magical to us. We had no idea we were playing in radioactive fallout.”

Barbara Kent, aged 13 at the time remembers it as follows: “We were grabbing all of this white, which we thought was snow, and we were putting it all over our faces,” Kent says. “But the strange thing, instead of being cold like snow, it was hot. And we all thought, ‘Well, the reason it’s hot is because it’s summer.’ We were just 13 years old.”

Kent says that, since the blast, she began to hear of her fellow campers falling ill. By the time she turned 30, she says,

“I was the only survivor of all the girls at that camp.”

“The site had been selected in part for its supposed isolation. In reality, thousands of people were within a 40-mile radius, some as close as 12 miles away. Yet all those living near the bomb site weren’t warned that the test would take place. Nor were they evacuated beforehand or afterward, even as radioactive fallout continued to drop for days,” reports National Geographic.

Why Weren't They Evacuated?

The secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project was paramount. Only a select few in the government and military knew the full extent of what had happened at Trinity. The general public, including the residents near Ruidoso, was kept in the dark. This lack of information meant that the campers and their instructors were not evacuated or even warned about the potential dangers of the fallout.

Aftermath and Health Issues

Years later, many of the campers began to experience health issues that could be traced back to their exposure to the radioactive fallout. Some suffered from various forms of cancer, while others had chronic illnesses that plagued them throughout their lives.

Linda Foster, who was 12 at the time of the camp, struggled with thyroid cancer later in life. She shared, “None of us connected the dots until much later. It was heartbreaking to realise that what we thought was a harmless, even magical experience, was actually dangerous.”

Reflection and Remembrance

Today, Carmadean’s Dance Camp is remembered not just for its dedication to the art of dance, but also as a poignant reminder of the unforeseen consequences of scientific advancement and secrecy. The stories of the girls who danced under the desert sky in the shadow of the atomic age serve as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the unknown.



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