Magazine article Dance Teacher

Dancing through History

Magazine article Dance Teacher

Dancing through History

Article excerpt

As the dance program at University of Wisconsin-Madison celebrates its 80th anniversary, its faculty reflects on its beginnings and sows the seeds for a vibrant future.

In the early 20th century, one woman reluctantly agreed to start a dance program at the university where she'd graduated. She wasn't a dancer-she'd much rather play basketball or Softball-but after doing some research, she became excited about a new way of exploring movement. The woman was Margaret H'Doubler, and the dance program at University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first of its kind in the United States. H'Doubler approached dance as a means of expression, not a theatrical art, providing the field of dance with an intellectual element that had never before been considered, embodied by her phrase "the thinking dancer."

Eighty years later, alumni of UW-Madison have spread H'Doubler's vision across the globe and had a seismic effect upon the way dance is taught, written about, performed and appreciated. To mark this landmark anniversary of America's oldest dance department, we spoke with the faculty about the program's roots and hopes for the future.

In the Beginning

H'Doubler graduated from the university in 1910 with a degree in biology and philosophy and a keen interest in sports. She went on to coach women's basketball at the school and, in 1916, did graduate work for a year at Columbia's Teachers College in New York City, charged by Blanche Trilling, chair of UW-Madison's women's physical education department, to "find some dance worth a college woman's time." H'Doubler was to bring dance education back to Wisconsin. She visited many studios but was not compelled by the ballet classes, which seemed stiff and not creative enough. Near the end of her year in New York, however, she visited a music teacher who had her students lie on the floor to play, and it gave her an idea.

When H'Doubler returned to UW-Madison to teach creative movement, she started her classes on the floor so that her students could study the way the body moved without struggling to balance against the pull of gravity. As a former athlete, H'Doubler viewed the body as an instrument, one that could be developed through discovery and exploration. She often used a human skeleton as a teaching tool.

The dance program was officially founded in 1926, and the early curriculum consisted of four dance classes rounded out by studies in physical education, science, the humanities and music. The program was housed on the UW-Madison campus in a noble stone edifice called Lathrop Hall. Originally built in 1910 as a women's gymnasium, the building held three bowling alleys, a pool and a gym. (School officials were initially worried that the building was much too grand for "women's activities.")

At a time when women were expected to behave modestly, H'Doubler gave her students the chance to explore their physicality, something that was denied to most contemporary women. A slim woman who moved beautifully in spite of her lack of dance training, H'Doubler was an animated teacher who remembered every pupil's name. Her radical belief that dance could play a vital part in a college woman's life, as well as shape her approach to the world outside, galvanized her dancers' enthusiasm for the artform. The dance program at UW-Madison was so successful because H'Doubler rejected the idea that dance should be taught by imitation, and instead took what was then considered a revolutionary approach: building a dance curriculum.

H'Doubler drew from her science background to develop an innovative method to explore movement, one that was based on a conceptual framework for understanding space, time and force. Her dance students understood their bodies, how they moved and why. Not only could they dance, but they were also capable of writing about, teaching and discussing the artform. H'Doubler's methods soon spread to dance companies and dance departments across the country. …

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