Margaret Erlanger

Margaret Erlanger, 1970s

Margaret Erlanger was born March 1st, 1908 to a Nobel Prize winner in physiology, Dr. Joseph Erlanger. Although later in her life, she was well known as a pioneer of dance education, as a young adult her passion was not in dance or education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and zoology at Wellesley College in 1930. For further education, she received a master’s degree in physiology at the University of Rochester.

Her interest slowly moved from physiology to dance through her first volunteer job as a leader of children rhythm band in St. Louis. As she encountered a pioneer of modern dance, Margaret D’ Houbler, Erlanger decided to start the next important chapter of her life. Under Margaret D’ Houbler, she received a master’s degree in dance at the University of Wisconsin (1935).

Her strong work ethic was not only restricted to campus. During World War II, she worked with the American Red Cross as a hospital recreation worker in Europe.

Earning a master’s degree in the dance department fueled her enthusiasm for dance education. As she finished her education, she began teaching at the Agnes Irwin School of Dance in Philadelphia. A year later, she started her career as a modern dance instructor at the University of West Virginia and taught there from 1936 to 1948.

In 1948 Erlanger came to the University of Illinois. Erlanger left her mark at the University as a dance instructor. When Erlanger arrived, dance was in the department of physical education. Erlanger worked hard to fight for a separate dance department that would also highlight dance as an art form, and not just exercise.

At this time there were only ten colleges in the United States which offered dance as a bachelor degree. With Erlanger’s passion and leadership, dance instructors at the university joined together to build a dance department as an autonomous department in the School of Fine and Applied Arts. At last, in the early spring of 1968, with the completion of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Department of Dance in the College of Fine and Applied Arts was established.

Despite an enormous amount of effort from Erlanger, she initially could not become a head of the department due to conflicts with higher administrator staff. Instead, Jan Simonds, a dance faculty member, became head of the department.

Erlanger also started the artists-in-residence program and often brought professional dancers to hold faculty or guest lecturer positions. She felt it was important for students to learn from these artists and Erlanger pioneered this method for dance curriculum. Some of the artists that Erlanger brought included Willis Ward, Jan Stockman Simonds, Joan Skinner, Merce Cunningham, and Beverly Blossom. The artist in residency program allowed artists to experiment with new techniques while also giving the students an opportunity to interact with professionals.

The creation of the Dance Department was not enough for Erlanger to fulfill her eagerness to the education of dance. She continued her education by studying abroad in Japan during her sabbatical. Here she met Shozo Sato and invited him to be an artist in residence which turned into a lifelong partnership between Sato and the university.  The following year, she was assigned as an advisor for the dance graduate students.

Outside of the campus, she provided dance opportunities to people, especially students. Erlanger conducted dance programs, often for children and high school students. She encouraged students who majored in dance to teach in the program. By creating the program, Erlanger gave the younger generation an opportunity to learn more about dance and provided a chance for college students.

– Dance Administration Building – home of the department of dance

– Krannert Center for the Performing Arts – where many of the department of dance’s performances occur.


(1957, September 18) Children’s Classes To Begin. Daily Illini, p.12. Retrieved from——195-en-20-DIL-1–txt-txIN-erlanger——-

(1955, January 29) Professor, Student To Give Instruction. Daily Illini, p.3.  Retrieved from——195-en-20-DIL-1–txt-txIN-erlanger——-

Bernaki, E. (1975, June 24). Margaret Erlanger, professor emerita, dies. Daily Illini, p. 4. Retrieved from——-en-20-DIL-1–txt-txIN-erlanger——-

Hernandez-Cabal, C., & Anderson, B. (2017, May 12). Category: Exhibits. Retrieved December 6, 2016, from

Knowles, P. (n.d.). Rich Past. Retrieved April 1, 2019 from

Margaret Erlanger Papers. (1908-1974). Digital Surrogates. Record Series 12/13/20. University of Illinois Archives.

Sato, S. (1970s). Margaret Erlanger [Photograph]. Found in Record Series 39/1/11, Box 27, Folder Erlanger, Margaret. University of Illinois Archives.

Simonds, J. S. (n.d.). Personal Account. Retrieved April 1, 2019, from

Contributors: Jimin Lee