Margaret H’Doubler and the Wisconsin Dance Idea

Margaret H'Doubler, c. 1965.
Margaret H’Doubler, c. 1965.

No discussion of Wisconsin’s physical education department would be complete without mentioning the dance program and Margaret H’Doubler. Along with a few other progressive thinkers, H’Doubler helped to reinvent our understanding of dance and movement.

A Wisconsin student and WAA president, H’Doubler was hired by the physical education department after graduation, despite having no teaching background, to coach basketball.

After several years H’Doubler left to pursue graduate work at Columbia University. She was urged by Blanche Trilling to spend her time in New York looking for a form of dance that could be taught at Wisconsin. According to Trilling, H’Doubler, horrified at the suggestion, exclaimed “What, and give up basketball?” She accepted the challenge, but was largely discouraged.

Dance department performance, c. 1950.
Dance department performance, c. 1950.

Toward the end of the 1916, she wrote to Trilling, “Sorry, it’s no use. There’s nothing you’d have, or I’d teach. The dance world is all pride and petty rivalry, the techniques mostly defy the human structure and function and the presentation is anti-educational in every way.”

Shortly thereafter, however, H’Doubler was struck by inspiration in a music class, and what eventually came to be known as the Wisconsin Dance Idea was born:

We’ll begin on the floor, relieve the body of the pull of gravity and explore movement in a basic way. We’ll rediscover the body’s structural limitations and possibilities, we’ll attend to movement sensation. We’ll create movement out of our knowledge of body structure, no imitation. We’ll study movement as movement first. We may never arrive at dance, but we’ll make an honest beginning.”

In 1917, H’Doubler taught the first dance class at Wisconsin. She rarely performed demonstrations, relying instead upon a skeleton to illustrate anatomy, and her students’ understanding of their own individual bodies. After students were instructed in the fundamentals of movement, they tapped into their own creativity to invent dances. They even made their own tunic-like garments for performances.

The emphasis was always on dance as a means of personal expression rather than as an art form.Although she initially expressed doubt, Blanche Trilling was won over by the group’s first public performance, Dance Drama, at the 1918 Field Day.

Early Orchesis performance
Early Orchesis performance

Trilling provided support and institutional encouragement, and along with Dean Sellery helped H’Doubler create a curriculum for the first dance major in the United States. They held meetings with engineers, physicists, biologists, and philosophers to create an interdisciplinary approach to the study of dance and movement. The program began in 1926.

A weekly workshop was convened, organized as a WAA club, for students who wanted to study dance above and beyond university coursework. The group’s name, Orchesis, came from the Greek word for the universal nature of movement, which incorporated H’Doubler’s ideas about synthesizing the physical with the spiritual and the intellectual.

A traveling demonstration group helped spread the word, to wide acclaim, until President Birge instructed them to stop: “After all, we can’t have the University known as a dancing school,” he protested. From then on, interested parties came to Madison to observe H’Doubler’s approach. The club was opened to men in 1933.

H’Doubler helped free dance from the rigidity of ballet and the “five steps,” and worked toward a greater understanding of the body and our relationship to it—helping to create the foundation of modern dance. H’Doubler’s innovative approach received international acclaim, and has gradually become the standard method for teaching dance. She taught at Wisconsin until her retirement in 1954.