Local Case Study: Early Dance at Oberlin College

Dancing in front of Oberlin's Memorial Arch; Photograph from the papers of Delphine Hanna, Oberlin ArchivesJust as Irene Castle, Isadora Duncan, and Loïe Fuller influenced the fashion and movement of the times, the influences of “natural dancing” and Delsarte began to make their way into higher education. Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, proved to be a pioneer in this regard. While some colleges banned dancing as “indecent,” in 1885 Oberlin hired Delphine Hanna, making her the first female professor of Physical Education. Using her medical and dance training as guides, Hanna developed the first four-year degree program in Physical Education. The program was exclusively for women in its early days.

Inside the classroom, the students developed a strong, scientific basis of technique. They put on yearly pageants, often performed outside, which would allow the community to witness their dancing. The pageants were performed to classical music and often had natural or historical themes. Hundreds of students were involved in these pageants. The 1927 pageant “Our Lady’s Juggler” was so popular that a repeat performance was created in 1939.From the 1925 "Hi-O-Hi," the Oberlin College yearbook. "The Tree Lover" pageant saw dance students portraying  elements from the natural world.

However, fashions change. As the larger dance world began to experiment with more pared down movement, structure, and gesture, Oberlin followed suit. Dance at Oberlin has continued to evolve, staying at the forefront of movement of the time from the advent of Graham to the development of experimental dance in the 1970s.

For more on early dance at Oberlin, see Stephanie Woodard’s article, “Pioneers in Ohio.”

Classroom Activities

  • Move: In groups, read about and execute your interpretation of the movement test from University of Michigan’s 1928 issue of “Nike.” Discuss whether the instructions were familiar or unfamiliar. Do you have an equivalent examination system? What would you want to measure in a movement test?
  • Analyze: Review the images on the Program Covers for the “Natural Dancing Classes” at Oberlin College in the early twentieth century and discuss the intersection of grace and nature.
  • Read: Why Dance?, a poem written by Lorraine Maytum that was included in a program for the Natural Dancing Classes at Oberlin College. Read aloud in class, and discuss how the poem reflects the themes of this module, particularly freedom from social restraint and moral uplift.
  • Research: What is the history of dance and dance education in your local area? Go into the archives of your school, institution, theatrical dance venue, or public library and research the local history. Can you find dance in any yearbooks, programs, or photographs? Focus in on the early 20th century. Do you see any influences from Delsarte, Duncan, Fuller or other figures discussed in this module?

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