Elizabeth Burchenal was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1876, the second of six children, to Judge Charles Burchenal and his wife, Mary. She was educated in the Richmond public schools and attended Earlham College in Richmond as a "Day Dodger," received her A.B. degree in English Literature in 1896, studied at the Sargent Normal School of Physical Education (later affiliated with Boston University), and graduated in 1898. She taught in Chicago and New York and studied at the Gilbert Normal School of dancing.
In 1903, she became an instructor of physical education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she introduced folk dance into the curriculum. While there, her childhood interests in people from other countries took her into the many foreign settlements in New York City, which she found to be rich sources of folklore. Through her friendships with people from other countries, she constantly added to her store of knowledge about their lives, their music, and their dances. She left Teachers College to become Executive Secretary to the Girls' Branch of the Public School Athletic League.
She established certain principles regarding folk dancing: 1) there should be no solo dances; 2) no love dances were to be used, and 3) the exhibition element was to be avoided. A policy was adopted to offer free instruction in folk dancing after school. The work was successfully carried on by Elizabeth, and by 1907, 250 teachers were teaching folk dancing to 7,219 girls in 128 schools.
In 1909, Elizabeth was appointed inspector of Athletics for the New York City Department of Education, introducing folk dancing into the public school curricula as part of the physical education program. The folk dances themselves were those in which large groups took part; were easy to learn and pass on to others; provided vigorous action, forgetfulness of self, keen interest; and provided pleasure, team work, and the social element.
Elizabeth organized folk dance festivals, held annually in the borough parks, hosting as many as 10,000 girls of the Athletic League. The festivals attracted thousands of people from near and far, stimulating the folk dance movement throughout the country. It was during this time that Elizabeth began research in folk dance that became her life's work.
Aware of the need for reference material in folk dance, she published her first book, Folk Dance Tunes, in 1908. This was followed by Folk Dance and Singing Games, in 1909. She journeyed to Europe to research material for her next book, Dances of the People, which was published in 1913. Her sister Emma accompanied her and did the musical notation for many of the dances. During the succeeding six years, the sisters visited Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. Other books followed, 15 in all, with dances collected, described, and sometimes translated by Elizabeth.
In 1916, Elizabeth formed and headed The American Folk Dance Society, a national folk dance organization. The society was established to study, encourage, and preserve the folk dances, music, and related arts of the United States. A secondary goal was to teach and popularize those wheich were especially adapted for general use, and to serve as a source of authentic information on folk culture, music, and dance. By means of lectures, demonstrations, and workshops, Elizabeth promoted folk dance as never before.
In 1929, the society became the Division of Folk Dance and Music of the National Committee of Folk Arts of the United States, with Elizabeth as director and national chairman. She and her sister Ruth developed the Folk Arts Center in New York. The center contained exhibition galleries, a reference library, a museum of American folk arts, a national information bureau, loan exhibitions, and an Archive on American folk dance.
Elizabeth represented the United States as an official delegate at several international congresses, including the Folk Arts Meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. She was recognized in Who's Who in America and International Who's Who. She received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Boston University on May 24, 1943, the first academic recognition of its kind to the domain of Folk Arts as a field of study and research. In 1950, she received physical education's highest honor, the Gulic Award.
Elizabeth Burchenal died on November 21, 1959, in Brooklyn, New York. The legacy Elizabeth left to the world is many faceted. She was a teacher, researcher, writer, and founder of the American Folk Dance Society. Her contributions to the cultural life of America and to the poeple of the world are immeasurable and a tribute to the woman herself.
Elizabeths's publications include
- Folk Dance Tunes, 1908.
- Folk Dances and Singing Games, 1909.
- Dances of the People, 1913.
- Folk Dances of Denmark, 1915.
- American Country Dances, 1917.
- Folk Dances from Old Homelands, 1922.
- National Dances of Ireland, 1925.
- Three Old American Quadrilles, 1926.
- Four Folk Games from Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia, 1928.
- Five Folk Dances, 1929.
- Folk Dances of Germany, 1938.
Some of the dances Elizabeth taught are Ace of Diamonds, Aland Girl, All Black Brothers, Alle Schwarzen Bruder, America's Polka, Angelin, Arkansas Traveler, Arm Hook, Artlander Contra Dance (Artlander konter), Augoneli, Bean-pot (Rose polka, Rosenpolka, Bohnenpott), Beaus of Albany, Berlin Contra, Besentanz, Big Hamburger, Bitte Mand i Knibe, Bjorko Polka, Black Nag, Blackberry Blossom, Bleking, Blue Flag, Bluff King Hal, Bobbing Joe, Bonjour Belle Rosine, Boston Fancy, Bowing Dance, Boyne Water, Bridge of Athlone, Bridge of Avignon, Broom Dance, Buffalo Girls, Bummel Schottische, Camptown Hornpipe, Captain Jinks, Carrousel, Catch Dance, Chase the Squirrel, Chorus Jig, Cincinnati Hornpipe, Circle, City Dance, Clap Dance, Clapping Dance, Clapping Quadrille, College Hornpipe, Come Let Us Be Happy (Freut euch des lebens), Come Let Us Be Joyful, Contra-Dance, Contra-eight, Contra-March, Contra-Swing, Cor Na Sideog, Cor Seisir, Court Dance, Cousin Michel (Vetter Michel), Creep Through the Fence (Kup dor'n tun), Crested Hen, Cross Four Dance, Csárdás No. 1, Csárdás No. 2, Dal Dance, Dance of Greeting, Daniel, Den Toppede Hone, Devil's Dream, Die Schone Wulka, Dominion Reel, Drops of Brandy, Durang's Hornpipe, Eight Men's Dance, Eight Men's Reel, Eight-Dance, Every Boy's Polka, Fairy Reel, Fandango, Farandole, Favorites, Favorites Change, Feder Mikkel (Father Michel, Island of Rugen, Vatter Michel), Feiar, Fifteen Pretty Girls, Figure-Eight Dance, Fine Hems, Firetur, First of May, Fisher's Hornpipe, Fist Polka, Five Geese in the Straw (Fief gans in hawerstrow), Five-Dance, Fjällnäspolska, Fohr Contra Dance (Fohringer Contra), Forward, Four Corners, Four Dance, Four-and-a-Half Dance, Four-Dance, Foursome Reel, Free Choice, French Reel, Freut Euch des Lebens, Gah von Mi, Gallopad, Gardener, Gemutlichkeit (Kirmess dance), Girl's Pleasure, Go from Me (Gah von mi), Gossiping Ulla, Gotlands Quadrille, Grandmoter's Dance, Granma's Old Sparrow, Green Mountain Volunteers, Grossmutter Will Tanzen, Gustaf's Skoal, Halbmond, Half-Moon, Halihja, Handkerschief Dance, Hand-Organ Hornpipe, Harvest Dance, Haste to the Wedding, Hattemageren, Hatter, Haymakers' Jig, Heart of My Heart (Harten min harten), Heidilit Turn Around!, Herman Bosses, Highland Fling, Hollola Polka, Hopgesvejs, Hornpipe, Hukgestok, Hull's Victory, I See You, Im Sommer, In the Shade (Dunkelschatten), Irish Washerwoman, Jefferson and Liberty, Jew Dance, JIbi-di Jibi-da, Jig, John Brown, Joice's Hornpipe, Joiner's Bench (Hobelbank), Jydsk Paa Naesen, Kakkunassi, Kamarinskaya, Kanafaska, Kerry Dance, Kikkinaes Girls' Polka, Klappdans, Knurrifas, Kolomeyka, Komarno, Kontra, Krakoviak, Kristen Gad's Four-Dance, Kull-Dansen, Kydholm Dance, La Jota, Lady of the Lake, Lady Washington's Reel, Lamplighter's Hornpipe, Lanes, Langenhager, Lassie-Dance, Laudnum Bunches, Limber Reel, Linen Dance, Listening Game, Little Hamburger, Little Jutlander, Little Man in a Fix, Long Polka, Lovely Wulka, Lumparland's Trot, Magnolia Reel, Maid in the Pump Room, Maike, Mallebrok, Mands Reel, Marleborough, Martin Wappu, Ma's Little Pigs, Matadora, May-pole Dance, Merry Dance, Merry Haymakers, Merry-Go-Round, Mie Katoen, Mikael's Day, Mine Persons' Posts, Miss McCloud's Reel, Miss Mountan's Hornpipe, Money Musk, Morning Star, Morris Dance, Mother Wittsch (Bummel schottische, Mudder wittsch), Mountain March, Mountain Polka, Mr. Schmidt (Herr Schmidt), Mrs. Monroe's Jig, My Man Is Away in the Hay (Mein mann ist gefahren ins heu), Net Dragging, Nikunakua, Noriu Miego, Norwegian Mountain March, Noutan Refianen, Oh Susanna, Old Berlin, Old Cartman, Old Dan Tucker, Old Maid's Song, Old Man Loikka, Old One from Laucka, Old Zip Coon, On the Bridge of Avignon, One Two Three Four and Five, Osterbottnisk Four Corners, Our Little Girls, Oxcow, Oxdansen, Palpanilli, Parikkala Dance, Parisian Polka, Pear Waltz (Dreiseitig Kontra), Peat Dance, Pellinge Quadrille, Plane Quadrille, Ploughman's Waltz, Polonaise, Pop Goes the Weasel, Poppy, Portland Fancy, Post Dance, Potato Peelings, Pretty Sister-in-Law, Puttjenter, Quadrille, Quinardo Hornpipe, Raisala Sappo, Rakes of Mallow, Reap the Flax, Red Cap, Reinlendar, Ribbon Dance, Right Hand, Rinnce Fada, Rocking Waltz (Wirgewaltzer), Roman Soldiers, Sa Pater, Safbon, Sailor's Waltz, Saint Patrick's Day, Sappo, Sateček, Saw Quadrille, Seven Jumps, Seven Pretty Girls, Seven-Step Polka, Shoemaker's Dance, Sieben Sprunge, Siege of Ennis, Sir Roger de Coverley, Six Hand Reel, Six-Dance, Sjalaskuttan, Small Herrings, Soldier's Joy, Sønderho Dance, Speed the Plow, Spitfire, St. Petersburger, Stamping Dance, Staten Island, Stick Dance, Stigare, Strašák, Strip the Willow, Suktinus, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, Sweet Kate, Sword Dance, Syvspring, Tailor's dance (Schneidertanz), Tantoli, Tarantella, Tea-Dance, Ten Persons' Polka, Texarkana, The Chimney Sweep (Broom Dance, Schornsteinfeger, Besentanz), Three Dance, Three Men's Polka, Three Men's Reel, Three Step Hopsa, Thrush's Nest (Drosselnest), Tinkers' Dance, Tippan, Treading Dance, Trekarlpolska, Trenderup, Tretur, Triangle, Tribi Dansin, Trip to Nahant, Turn Around Me, Turning Dance, Twin Sisters, Two Jumps, Two Steps Polka, Uncle Steve, Uncle Steve's Favorite, Uncle Steve's Quadrille, Vackra Svagerskan, Vanha Laukaalainen, Vanha Loikka, Vira, Virginia Reel, Vrt sa Divca, Wagging dance, Walls of Limerick, Washing the Clothes, Waves of Tory, We're on the Road to Boston, White and Nice, White Cockade, Wind That Shakes the Barley, Wolgaster (Der Wolgaster), Young America Hornpipe, and Zaradniček.