Margaret H’Doubler 1889–1982

The architect of dance in higher education

H’Doubler with her ever-present sidekick, a human skeleton

Though Margaret H’Doubler was not a dancer—she took only a handful of classes in her lifetime—she is considered the founder of dance in American higher education. At a time when dance was considered an inappropriate, sexually promiscuous activity for women, she offered her students the chance to explore their physical and creative sides.

Born in Kansas, H’Doubler graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1910. After teaching physical education at her alma mater for six years, she spent a year in New York. Blanche Trilling, UW’s PE chair, requested that she poke around the city and find some dance “worth a college woman’s time.”

Although H’Doubler was initially turned off by what she saw—particularly the stiff, imitative and possibly physically damaging dance that often passed for studio ballet training at the time—she was drawn to Alys Bentley’s creative movement classes for children in NYC.

She was able to apply Bentley’s creative problem-solving approach when she returned to UW a year later and taught her first dance class as part of a summer session.

Initially, her classes were for women only. They began with students lying on the floor—a scandalous practice in 1917—to feel the pull of gravity. H’Doubler encouraged exploration and self-discovery. For example, students might slowly roll from their backs to their stomachs, to study the motion and sequence of each part of the body as it twists.

Over the next decade, she crafted the curriculum for an interdisciplinary dance major—the first in the U.S.—within UW’s physical education department. In 1926, the program began accepting students. For the next 25-plus years, H’Doubler carefully honed the program. The goal was to create teachers; she was less concerned with training performers.

By the time she retired in 1954, H’Doubler had effectively franchised dance education: Many of her students went on to head dance programs in other colleges and private and public schools. Ten years before her death at 93, she received an honorary doctorate from UW. DT

Classroom Style

H’Doubler’s classes were notable for their unconventional start—on the floor, free from worry about balancing—and problem-solving approach, rather than a focus on technique. H’Doubler, who was not a dancer, rarely demonstrated for her students. Instead, she relied on a human skeleton (it became her trademark) to illustrate the body’s anatomy and physical ability.

Fun Facts

  • Soon after establishing dance classes at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, H’Doubler organized a weekly workshop for students to study dance outside of university coursework. She named the group Orchesis, from the Greek word for the universal nature of movement. Men weren’t allowed to join the dance club until 1933.
  • The University of Wisconsin–Madison dedicated its Lathrop Hall to the burgeoning dance program. In 1998, the university renamed the remodeled space Margaret H’Doubler Performance Space.

 

Two of H’Doubler’s students, circa 1920

The Legacy Lives On

Many of H’Doubler’s students followed in her footsteps, founding dance programs of their own. Some of her more famous pupils include Mary Hinkson, who became a leading dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company; Anna Halprin, the postmodern dance pioneer who founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop; and, for a brief period, Martha Hill, who later directed Juilliard’s dance program. H’Doubler’s book, Dance: A Creative Art Experience, was used widely in U.S. dance education during the latter half of the 20th century.

Resources

Print:

“Margaret Newell H’Doubler: Founder of the nation’s first college dance program,” by Janice Ross, Dance Teacher, December 2005

“The Non-Dancing Mother of Dance Education,” by Janice Ross, Dance Teacher, October 2000

Web:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org

UW-Madison Libraries, Archives and Oral History: “Margaret H’Doubler and the Wisconsin Dance Idea”: archives.library.wisc.edu/uw-archives/exhibits/athletics/athletics16dance.html

Photos courtesy of University of Wisconsin–Madison archives

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.