Murray, Arthur (1895-1991)

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Murray, Arthur (1895-1991)

The logo of Arthur Murray International Dance Schools is the stylized silhouette of a man and woman dancing. Drawn with broad and sweeping lines, it suggests movement, elegance, and romance, the very qualities that have been associated with the name of Arthur Murray for over eight decades. Combining his love of dance with a canny business sense and a shrewd perception of human nature, Murray first began giving dancing lessons to earn some extra money. By the time he retired, there were hundreds of studio franchises bearing his name—a name that had become synonymous with ballroom dancing itself.

Born Moses Teichman, the son of Austrian immigrants, Murray grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was a shy, hardworking youth who attended high school by day, studied draftsmanship by night, and worked as an errand boy in between. To overcome his shyness, he asked a girl friend to teach him to dance, and by the time he was 17, he was giving lessons himself. In the next few years he studied with the famous performers and dance instructors Irene and Vernon Castle and, through them, he got a job in the resort town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, teaching dance to upper-class vacationers. It was 1914 and World War I was imminent; a Germanic (not to mention Jewish) name like Moses Teichman might have made the customers nervous, and at Irene Castle's suggestion, the young man changed his name to Arthur Murray. Following his introduction to elite society in Marblehead, he went to college in Georgia, where he continued to supplement his income by giving dance lessons.

Before 1900 there was little ballroom dance in the United States beyond the fox trot and the polka, but the advent of jazz and ragtime in the early decades of the twentieth century brought a wave of new dances that swept the nation. The Kangaroo Dip, the Chicken Scratch, and the Turkey Trot were just a few of the new dances Americans were anxious to learn. With an acute sense of business timing and strategy, Murray rode the new wave of dance popularity, teaching lessons, organizing dances, and even tapping into the new mail order market to sell lessons by mail. His success prompted Forbes magazine to feature an article about him, headlined "This College Student Earns $15,000 a Year."

Murray owed the success of his mail order campaign to his innovative approach to dance instruction—his famous "footsteps." Rather than merely describing the movements of a particular dance, Murray invented the concept of diagrams, with silhouetted footprints illustrating the movements. His advertisement, under the banner "How I Became Popular Overnight," has remained a Madison Avenue classic. The combination of accessible learning techniques and their appeal to the socially insecure, made lessons "the Arthur Murray way" wildly popular.

Another trademark of Arthur Murray's approach had originated perhaps that first summer in Marblehead. Perceiving that social dancing was associated with both romance and refinement, Murray promoted those associations in his lessons. When he opened his first franchise studios in 1938, he continued the tradition of providing elegant instructors who would adhere to his philosophy of teaching dance "not as isolated feet or step movements, but as an integral part of social life and an expression and celebration of it."

From those first studios, Murray went on to build an ever-expanding dance empire. There was a dip in business during the Depression, but, by 1946, there were 72 Arthur Murray Studios nationwide, and in the 1950s he graduated from sponsoring early television shows to having his own. Arthur Murray's Dance Party ran from 1950 to 1961, and ushered in a new boom in ballroom dancing to accompany the country's new prosperity. At its height, the show brought 2000 new students a week to Arthur Murray Studios around the country. Many celebrities, from Elizabeth Arden and Katherine Hepburn to Enrico Caruso and the Duke of Windsor, learned to dance in an Arthur Murray studio.

Also in the 1950s, Philip Masters and George Theiss, former students of Murray's, joined the organization. Though their names would never be as famous as their mentor's, they would eventually take the helm of the organization that became known as Arthur Murray International (AMI). The Studio remained on the cutting edge of new trends, sending instructors to study in Cuba and bring back the latest in Latin dance. It was Arthur Murray instructors who introduced the Lambada to the United States in the 1970s, having discovered it in Paris where it was fast becoming the rage.

When Murray retired in 1969, there were more than 350 franchise studios internationally, pulling in a gross annual income of over $25 million, but the "no-touch" individualistic style of dancing that became popular in the 1960s decreased the demand for ballroom dancing. AMI persevered, however, capitalizing heavily on the skilled disco-style dancing of the late 1970s as popularized by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977). Happily, all fashion is cyclical, and the "retro" culture of the 1980s and 1990s once again came to admire the elegance, romance and agility associated with social ballroom dance. By the end of the century in which it was born, AMI was still there, holding out the promise of grace, style and popularity in its pricey packages of instruction.

The AMI statement of purpose calls dancing "the art that brings people together." With hundreds of franchise studios in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Puerto Rico, South America, Australia, and Israel, the organization spreads that art, teaching waltz, fox-trot, tango, samba, rumba, and cha-cha to students of widely varying skill, and diverse reasons for learning. Whether they are among the thousands who join to find a social life at the Arthur Murray dancing parties, or the few who continue the efforts to make ballroom dancing a competitive Olympic event, all are a realization of a shy young New Yorker's dream. In learning to overcome his own shyness, Arthur Murray found a magic solution to the universal problem of social insecurity—and, in true American fashion, he turned it into a multi-million dollar business.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Dannett, Sylvia G.L. Down Memory Lane: Arthur Murray's Picture Story of Social Dancing. New York, Greenberg, 1954.

Murray, Kathryn. My Husband, Arthur Murray. New York, Greenberg, 1954.

Arthur Murray International Web Page. February 1999.

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Murray, Arthur (1895-1991)

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