Home > Treasures A-Z > Margaret H'Doubler > Margaret H'Doubler - More Resources

Margaret H'Doubler - More Resources

Back to List | Related Treasures Back to Margaret H'Doubler

Margaret Newell H’Doubler (1889 – 1982)

By Dr. Janice L. Ross

Margaret Newell H’Doubler is widely regarded as the founder of dance in the American university, yet she was not a dancer and never took more than a handful of dance classes in her life. H’Doubler’s lack of first-hand dance experience proved to be a shrewd strategy for success, freeing her to shape dance education as a vital means toward social transformation for the American college woman. When she started the nation’s first dance class at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in the summer of 1917, the athletic H’Doubler’s most extensive qualification in movement was as a women’s basketball coach. In the climate of fear that was endemic in early- 20th -century society with regard to active women (physically, socially, and educationally), H'Doubler succeeded in making creative dance not only a safe discipline for college women, but a popular and respected one as well.

H’Doubler’s family valued the arts, invention and social idealism, although neither her mother, who was a normal school teacher, and her father, who was a writer, poet, inventor and photographer, had much formal education. Born in Beloit, Kansas, to Sarah Emerson Todd and Charles Wright H'Doubler (the surname is an Americanized version of the original Swiss family name Hougendoubler), Margaret Newell H’Doubler was the second daughter and the third and last child of this middleclass Protestant family. The Hougendoubler relatives emigrated from Switzerland to Illinois and Pennsylvania in the early 1700s and fought in the American Revolution, while the Todds arrived in America from England in the 1600s. H'Doubler entered the University of Wisconsin in 1906, intending to study either biology or medicine. However, when she took her obligatory freshman physical education class she discovered a passion for the physical that would animate her for the rest of her life. Since there was no such major as women’s physical education at the time, she put together her own comprehensive course of study. Four years later, in May, 1910, H'Doubler graduated with a B.Sc. in biology and minors in chemistry and philosophy. She was promptly hired as an assistant P.E. instructor.

H’Doubler’s search for a model of dance she could teach in the university actually began as an assignment she was given by Blanche Trilling, the chair of women’s physical education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In the summer of 1916, as H’Doubler was about to leave for a year of graduate study in philosophy at Columbia’s Teacher’s College in New York (she completed her M.A. at the University of Wisconsin- Madison in 1924), Trilling asked her to “find some dance worth a college woman’s time” (Ross, 102).

The result was that H’Doubler began teaching dance in the 1917 UW-Madison summer session with only the germ of an idea – gleaned primarily from watching children’s dance classes taught by an idiosyncratic children’s dance educator, Alys Bentley. H’Doubler had found Bentley at the end of her year in New York and was impressed with Bentley’s radical ideas of creative movement. The philosophy of John Dewey, with whom H’Doubler studied at Columbia, must also have helped inform what she knew she didn’t want: dance that was stiff and imitative and that sparked no special experiences or discoveries for the students involved in it.

In H’Doubler’s classroom, dance became a way for the college woman to find her expressive side and explore a physical self that was novel for the majority of women in early-20th-century America. H'Doubler belonged to the first generation of professional American women, women who substantially rejected traditional female roles to accomplish what they did. H'Doubler didn't marry until August 5, 1934, when she was 45. She and her husband, Wayne L. Claxon, a Wayne State University art professor, remained childless, so she led a life of deep dedication to a profession rather than to domesticity.

H’Doubler’s classes began with the students lying on the floor, a radical notion for proper college women in 1917. There on the floor, free from worries about balance and falling, the women (all of H’Doubler’s early classes were for women only) began to discover their bodies and movement. H’Doubler also imported her most famous prop from her experience in the sciences – a human skeleton -- which she used in all of her dance teaching to demonstrate to the students the anatomical logic of how the body moves.

By the time she retired from full-time teaching in 1952, H’Doubler had effectively succeeded in franchising dance education across America. H’Doubler’s students headed major dance programs in colleges, universities and public and private schools throughout the country, and her 1940 book, Dance: A Creative Art Experience, remained the most widely used book on dance education in the nation. H’Doubler’s approach to movement explorations informed not just college dance, but dance in public schools and the theater as well. H’Doubler was persuasive as a dance educator in part because she was able to argue compellingly for dance as a laudable and vital practice in every young college woman’s life. Most importantly, H’Doubler made her case for dance by showing what it had to offer in the way of lifelong learning, and by offering valuable lessons for how each dance student might use the experiences of the class to help shape her approach to the world outside. The 1917 summer session changed the course of dance in America. It initiated a new discipline known as dance education. Here, free from the negative associations of dance as a sinful, sexually promiscuous social practice, one mostly focused on displaying women’s bodies, H’Doubler could establish new links between female athleticism, health and morality, and all through dance. H’Doubler, however, had to invent the kind of dance that could do just this. In part because she was staunchly against the physically injurious training that passed for much ballet in America at this time, and because she was more focused on creating dance teachers rather than performers, H’Doubler gravitated toward creative movement, movement that resembled problem solving, movement that made the wondrous biology of the moving body come alive. In her lifetime H’Doubler received many awards, including the AAHPER Gulick Award, the Dance Magazine Award, and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1972. H’Doubler died from natural causes in a retirement home in Springfield, Missouri in 1982. Her ashes were scattered in the waters of Green Bay Wisconsin, outside Waymar, her beloved weekend home.

Janice Ross, Professor, Drama Department, and Director, Dance Division, at Stanford University, is the author of Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (UC Press 2007),winner of a de la Torre Bueno Award 2008 Special Citation, San Francisco Ballet at 75 (Chronicle Books 2007) and Moving Lessons: Margaret H’Doubler and The Beginning of Dance in American Education (University of Wisconsin 2001). Her awards include Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships. For ten years she was the staff dance critic for The Oakland Tribune and for twenty years a contributing editor to Dance Magazine. Her articles on dance have appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times among other publications. She is past president of the Society of Dance History Scholars.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Ross, Janice. Moving Lessons: Margaret H'Doubler and the Beginning of Dance in American Education. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

The major and only historical book about H’Doubler and the beginning of her classes in dance for women at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, this feminist, cultural history of H’Doubler and her moment in American education draws extensively on primary sources of H’Doubler’s own papers and photographs of her in the UW-Madison Archives as well as on interviews done with the 12 surviving members of the early years of H’Doubler’s program.


Remley, Mary.“The Wisconsin Idea of Dance: A Decade of Progress, 1917-1926.” Wisconsin Magazine of History, 58, No. 3 (Spring 1975).

A good overview of the early years of H’Doubler’s work.

Gray, Judith A. To Want To Dance: A Biography of Margaret H'Doubler. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1978.

A general and affectionate account of H’Doubler’s professional career as a dance educator written by a former student. 

Primary Sources

One of the best and most detailed primary resources is U.W. Madison faculty member Mary Alice Brennan’s unpublished 1972 interview with Margaret H'Doubler, on file in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library.

See also H'Doubler’s own writings about dance teaching, most prominently The Dance and Its Place in Education. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925, and Dance: A Creative Art Experience (second ed.). Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1940.