Pioneering Dance Group

These days, legacies are measured by online searches.

The results that pop up on the computer screen for Orchesis, a dance group formed at the University of Wisconsin in 1918, reveal a lasting legacy indeed. The hundreds of present-day photographs of Orchesis groups and details about their upcoming performances across the country serve as ongoing tributes to innovative dance professor Margaret H’Doubler BS1910, MA1924 and her trailblazing students.

The teacher first made her own mark at the UW — and ultimately far beyond — by instructing her students about dance using methods that demonstrated the connection between body and mind. H’Doubler’s classes became so popular that campus administrators approved her proposal to establish the nation’s first dance major in 1926.

Yet during the discipline’s formative years, the classes weren’t enough for college women who welcomed the chance to move their bodies freely and break from the constraints of early 20th-century society. They asked H’Doubler if they could pursue dance outside of class. She agreed and created a student group she named Orchesis.

“In my readings, I ran across that word, and I believe that the Greek translation means ‘the science of human motion,’ ” H’Doubler recalled during an oral history interview conducted in 1972. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a lovely name for a dance group?’ ”

Word spread, and H’Doubler and her students received invitations from other schools to demonstrate their novel approach to dance. Although UW president Edwin Birge initially allowed the women to travel — a privilege until then afforded only to male students — he eventually told them to stop, declaring, “After all, we can’t have the university known as a dancing school.” Henceforth, the group stayed on campus, giving demonstrations to visitors (often wearing garments they had made themselves), and rehearsing for their annual public performance.

Soon Orchesis “served as a name and prototype for dance groups that sprang up in high schools, colleges, and universities all over the country,” wrote Mary Alice Brennan MS1967, PhD1976, a UW professor emerita of dance.

H’Doubler marveled at her students’ dedication, recalling that they checked a bulletin board in Lathrop Hall every day to see if visitors were coming to campus, and then happily hosted a quick performance. “They never missed a one,” she said.