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Elizabeth Burchenal

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Elizabeth Burchenal

BACKGROUND

Information: Elizabeth Burchenal (1876-1959), author and editor of dance books and a phonograph record.

Elizabeth was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1876, the second of six children, to Judge Charles Burchenal and his wife, Mary. She was educated in the Richmond public schools and attended Earlham College in Richmond as a "Day Dodger," received her A.B. degree in English Literature in 1896, studied at the Sargent Normal School of Physical Education (later affiliated with Boston University), and graduated in 1898. She taught in Chicago and New York and studied at the Gilbert Normal School of dancing.

In 1903, she became an instructor of physical education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she introduced folk dance into the curriculum. While there, her childhood interests in people from other countries took her into the many foreign settlements in New York City, which she found to be rich sources of folklore. Through her friendships with people from other countries, she constantly added to her store of knowledge about their lives, their music, and their dances. She left Teachers College to become Executive Secretary to the Girls' Branch of the Public School Athletic League.

She established certain principles regarding folk dancing: 1) there should be no solo dances; 2) no love dances were to be used, and 3) the exhibition element was to be avoided. A policy was adopted to offer free instruction in folk dancing after school. The work was successfully carried on by Elizabeth, and by 1907, 250 teachers were teaching folk dancing to 7,219 girls in 128 schools.

In 1909, Elizabeth was appointed inspector of Athletics for the New York City Department of Education, introducing folk dancing into the public school curricula as part of the physical education program. The folk dances themselves were those in which large groups took part; were easy to learn and pass on to others; provided vigorous action, forgetfulness of self, keen interest; and provided pleasure, team work, and the social element.

Elizabeth organized folk dance festivals, held annually in the borough parks, hosting as many as 10,000 girls of the Athletic League. The festivals attracted thousands of people from near and far, stimulating the folk dance movement throughout the country. It was during this time that Elizabeth began research in folk dance that became her life's work.

Aware of the need for reference material in folk dance, she published her first book, Folk Dance Tunes, in 1908. This was followed by Folk Dance and Singing Games, in 1909. She journeyed to Europe to research material for her next book, Dances of the People, which was published in 1913. Her sister Emma accompanied her and did the musical notation for many of the dances. During the succeeding six years, the sisters visited Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Other books followed, 15 in all, with dances collected, described, and sometimes translated by Elizabeth.

In 1916, Elizabeth formed and headed The American Folk Dance Society, a national folk dance organization. The society was established to study, encourage, and preserve the folk dances, music, and related arts of the United States. A secondary goal was to teach and popularize those wheich were especially adapted for general use, and to serve as a source of authentic information on folk culture, music, and dance. By means of lectures, demonstrations, and workshops, Elizabeth promoted folk dance as never before.

In 1929, the society became the Division of Folk Dance and Music of the National Committee of Folk Arts of the United States, with Elizabeth as director and national chairman. She and her sister Ruth developed the Folk Arts Center in New York. The center contained exhibition galleries, a reference library, a museum of American folk arts, a national information bureau, loan exhibitions, and an Archive on American folk dance.

Elizabeth represented the United States as an official delegate at several international congresses, including the Folk Arts Meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She was recognized in Who's Who in America and International Who's Who. She received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Boston University on May 24, 1943, the first academic recognition of its kind to the domain of Folk Arts as a field of study and research. In 1950, she received physical education's highest honor, the Gulick Award.

Elizabeth Burchenal died on November 21, 1959, in Brooklyn, New York. The legacy Elizabeth left to the world is many faceted. She was a teacher, researcher, writer, and founder of the American Folk Dance Society. Her contributions to the cultural life of America and to the poeple of the world are immeasurable and a tribute to the woman herself.


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