In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Burchenal began to introduce folk dancing into the physical education curricula of New York City schools. In doing so, she sparked an interest in folk dance not only in New York, but across the country.
Elizabeth was extremely well educated and successful. She attended Earlham College, the Sargent Normal School of Physical Education, and the Gilbert Normal School of Dancing. In the early 1900s she taught physical education and was eventually appointed inspector of athletics for the New York City Department of Education.
Folk dance was perfect for physical education; it accommodated large groups, it was easy to learn, and it provided a social connection. Elizabeth taught folk dances in school and ran after-school programs with free lessons. She organized folk dance festivals featuring as many as 10,000 girls from the Athletic League that garnered attention from all across America.
In 1916 she formed The American Folk Dance Society, promoting dance through lectures, demonstrations, and workshops. She also started the Folk Arts Center in New York, which featured exhibition galleries, a museum, and a reference library.
Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for dance stemmed from a lifelong interest in other cultures. She visited foreign settlements in New York City, making friends and learning folklore and dance. She also travelled abroad to Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Sweden to learn about their dances and customs. She wrote a total of 15 books on folk dance throughout her life.