Margaret Erlanger was the first Dancing Fulbrighter to visit New Zealand. Head of the Dance division and Professor of Physical Education at the University of Illinois, she came here in 1953 as a Fulbright US Visiting Lecturer/Researcher on the invitation of Professor Philip Smithells, head of the School of Physical Education at the University of Otago. “PAS”, as Smithells was affectionately known to colleagues and students, had in 1948 founded that school.
In proposing Margaret Erlanger’s visit, Smithells stated his hope that she might help drive the introduction of dance into the New Zealand school curriculum. This would be initially through Physical Education, though PAS had from the start a far-sighted view of the related arts and historical perspectives combined in the scientifi c and expressive aspects of dance. Thus began the stalwart contribution of many educationalists to a fifty year quest that has only recently seen dance in its own right introduced to the general school curriculum in New Zealand. PAS was right, Erlanger could share the American experience of how to begin this process.
Smithells was a remarkable and inspirational teacher. It has been said that “in his work lay the seeds of all the ideas we call new in the 20th century.” He encouraged early initiatives to introduce games and dances of Maori into the curriculum, and these in fact proved of particular interest to Erlanger who made a special study of them during her year here.
Erlanger gave lectures as well as practical classes to students (“despite the freezing winter temperatures in the studio”) but also gave generous press interviews and talks to many interest groups. One of these was entitled “How I started in my professional career” – with a moving account of her years of service with the Red Cross in Europe during the last years of World War II and its aftermath.
It is clear that Erlanger took genuine interest in the cultural context that feeds dance practice in different countries.
Back in USA, and with no jobs available, Erlanger had volunteered to mind children in a community crèche in a low decile neighbourhood centre. Using her musical ability she played the piano while the children were to sit on chairs and play percussion instruments in accompaniment. Of course it soon became clear that the children could not resist the rhythmic drive in the music so they jumped down from their chairs and moved about the room. Although untrained in dance, Erlanger could see that this was such a natural response to the music, so she followed
where the children led her – eventually to a lifelong career in dance pedagogy. Her father had been a Nobel Prize winner in Science for achievements in Physiology, and this interest in the way the body works seems to have been inherited by his daughter.
After Margaret Erlanger’s death in 1974, her many boxes of archival material were deposited with the Library at the University of Illinois. Amongst them is correspondence with the Fulbright Foundation and with Smithells commencing in 1952, her lecture notes from Otago, numerous scrapbooks and photographs from her time travelling throughout New Zealand – Mt. Cook, McKenzie country, Rotorua, Tarawera, Waikaremoana, Waitomo, Taranaki. She also visited Samoa and Fiji on the way home, and some years later travelled to Japan. It is clear that Erlanger took genuine interest in the cultural context that feeds dance practice in different countries.
Erlanger also kept extensive clippings and correspondence with luminaries of the dance world in America – with Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, José Limón, Doris Humphrey, and particularly with Merce Cunningham for whom she arranged a residency at Illinois, and a following honorary doctorate.
Other correspondence, with Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg of Germany, was deposited in the Dance Collection at the New York Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Centre – all of it evidence that Erlanger had brought to her colleagues and students at Otago a rich awareness of dance as an expressive activity for all to participate in, as well as an inspirational art form for all to appreciate. The divides between educational, recreational and professional dance were just not interesting to her.
It is sweet coincidence that in this same year, 1953, Poul Gnatt, celebrated Danish dancer, had arrived in New Zealand to form a national ballet company. In touring the company throughout New Zealand, he received stalwart support from the Community Arts Service based at each university college. Thus tertiary education support for Dance, whether in Physical Education training and curriculum, or through administration of a touring ballet company, were in place from the early years.
In one of Erlanger’s archival boxes is listed the title of a play script – written in 1941, presumably by Erlanger herself, entitled The People with Light Coming Out Of Them, words which could describe the luminous contributions of Erlanger and Smithells themselves.
By Jennifer Shennan, Fulbright alumna