Burchenal, Elizabeth (1876–1959)

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Burchenal, Elizabeth (1876–1959)

American founder and educator who was head of the American Folk Dance Society. Born Flora Elizabeth Burchenal in Richmond, Indiana, around 1876; died in Brooklyn, New York, on November 21, 1959; the second of six children; obtained A.B. in English from Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana (1896); received diploma from Dr. Sargent's School of Physical Training (later part of Boston University), Boston, Massachusetts (1898).

As a child, Elizabeth Burchenal was strongly influenced by her mother, a musician and cultural enthusiast. In addition to six children, the Burchenal house was often filled with foreign visitors who were encouraged to join in the singing and dancing that provided the family entertainment. Burchenal recalled these early experiences as her first training in folk dancing, which would later become her life's passion.

After graduating from Earlham College, she studied at Boston's Dr. Sargent's School of Physical Training (later part of Boston University). Burchenal began her teaching career in Boston, moved on to Chicago, and took a position at Teacher's College at New York's Columbia University in 1903. At Columbia, she began to experiment with the theories of dance educator Melvin Gilbert, who advocated incorporating dance into physical-education classes. She subsequently worked for the city's public schools, holding positions as executive secretary of New York Public Schools Athletic League (Girls' Branch) and inspector of athletics for the New York Department of Education. During this period, she introduced innovative dancing programs for girls and organized folk festivals in Central Park that often attracted as many as 10,000 school children.

Retiring from the New York public-school system in 1916, Burchenal founded the American Folk Dance Society, through which she advocated her belief that folk dancing could be used to "bridge cultural and social gaps." As a national representative with the War Workers Community Service after World War I, she attempted to ease racial and ethnic problems through cultural and social programs that utilized dance. In 1928, she represented American folk dance at the first International Congress of Folk Arts, organized by the League of Nations in Prague, Czechoslovakia. A year later, the Folk Dance Society became a division of the National Committee of Folk Arts (NCFA), with Burchenal taking over directorship of the larger organization.

Throughout her career, Elizabeth Burchenal traveled and lectured in the U.S., Canada, and Europe and wrote numerous articles, as well as 15 books, on folk dancing. She established the Archive of American Folk Dance and was a fellow of the American Academy of Physical Education. In 1943, Boston University awarded her an honorary doctor of science degree. Burchenal remained active almost to her death at age 83 in Brooklyn, New York, where it is reported that her friends danced in tribute at her funeral.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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