Nowadays we learn the latest dance craze by watching how-to videos on YouTube. But in the early 1900’s, there existed no such way to easily spread cultural knowledge across the United States.
A casual comment to Arthur Murray changed all that. William Jennings Bryan probably had no idea that his words—“You know, I have a fine idea on how you can collect your money. Just teach ’em with the left foot and don’t tell ’em what to do with the right foot until they pay up!”—would have such an impact on American dance. Based on this offhand idea, Murray devised a scheme to sell dance instructions with footprint diagrams supplied by mail. Just a few years after becoming operational, the business had sold over 500,000 dance courses.
Murray’s ambitions didn’t end there. The dance instructor, whose notable pupils included Eleanor Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and Jack Dempsey, among others, began a dance studio that ultimately expanded to a global brand, making Arthur Murray the most successful dance instructor in history.
But Murray did not begin life as a dancer. In fact, the self-conscious and lanky child learned how to dance from a friend, believing it would allow him to better socialize with girls. To practice his skills, the Jewish immigrant attended all the weddings he could find in his childhood neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As his skills improved, he began teaching dance at night. Just 17, he worked as a draftsman by day and studied under the popular dance team Irene and Vernon Castle in his spare time.
Murray moved to teaching ballroom dancing full time, first in Boston and Marblehead in Massachusetts, then in Asheville, North Carolina. But with the outbreak of World War I, Murray felt the pressure of his heritage. He changed his birth name, Moses Teichmann, to something less Germanic in origin.
While studying business at Georgia Tech and teaching dance in Atlanta, Murray organized the first ever “radio dance.” A band on the university campus played “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech” and other songs, which were broadcast to 150 eager dancers on the roof of the Capital City Club in downtown Atlanta.
Arthur Murray was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 2007. He died on March 3, 1991 at the age of 95, leaving behind a toe-tapping legacy that spanned the globe.