Theses Bachelor's

In the Care of Women: Dance in the Physical Education Department at Teachers College, Columbia University in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Wacha, Megan Elizabeth

The advent of the twentieth century shocked America like the electricity that drove it. Modern inventions made society quicker and more efficient, while the life of the individual became increasingly sedentary and spiritually lacking. The doctrines of Christianity weakened against the power of Darwin's theory of evolution. Cities grew stronger in direct correlation to the weakening of the female body. Women, with their husbands, were exchanging rural life for the bustle of the city, and with this move came the expansion of leisure time and other changes in lifestyle that were blamed for their physical maladies. The remedies for these maladies traveled both extremes. For instance, well-respected Dr. S. Weir Mitchell ordered his patients to be completely inactive both physically and mentally, and to completely submit to his orders. In contrast, there was a rise in the belief that both men and women should participate in physical activity in order to maintain the highest degree of physical and mental acuity. This led to the rise of physical training and, in time, to the introduction of dance in higher education. Women were able to use this rising interest in physical health as the impetus to change the world around them. By the early twentieth century, methods of movement conditioning such as Dalcroze eurhythmics, calisthenics, and various forms of gymnastics developed, under feminine guidance, into aesthetic, natural, and art dancing. These forms of movement allowed women to embrace and free the physical form of their bodies and explore their emotional and intellectual potential. This exploration was best done in a private, socially acceptable manner. Dancing in the theatre and entertainment industry was connected to immoral behavior. Even a dancer such as Isadora Duncan, whose performances were often compared to a religious experience, was at times reprimanded because of her bare-legged and unbound body. The academy, however, offered a moral environment in which to develop movement and teach that movement to a larger population. As soon as dance lost its uplifting social and moral importance, it would be removed from the curriculum. At Teachers College, Columbia University, women were able to use their newly discovered physical and intellectual capacities to attain positions of authority in the academic institution. This is significant because, at the turn of the century, women were only recently being admitted to institutions of higher education. For instance, it wasn't until 1889 that Columbia University established Barnard College, a female counterpart to the all-male undergraduate Columbia College. However, Teachers College offered a coeducational environment since its official founding in 1887. As a caretaker, the teacher plays a role that is inherently maternal in nature, and it is therefore understandable why dance, a uniquely feminine art form, thrived in the care of teachers. Women utilized the experimental nature of Teachers College to introduce and develop new forms of movement and dance in a socially acceptable environment.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Dance (Barnard College)
Thesis Advisors
Garafola, Lynn
B.A., Barnard College
Published Here
February 20, 2012