Arthur Murray’s life story is one of the quintessential American Dream. Born in a small town in Austria-Hungary in 1895 and raised in New York City, Arthur built a dancing empire from humble beginnings. What he initially saw as a great means to overcome his shy nature and meet girls transformed a modest and hard-working immigrant into a business mogul and dancing legend. Along the way, Arthur Murray inspired countless people to improve their lives with dance.
Born Moses Teichman, young Arthur accompanied his mother Sarah to America in 1897, where they joined his father and settled into life in the Lower East Side. Being self-conscious of his tall and lanky stature, Arthur accepted a popular friends’ assistance and through him learned his very first dance steps, practicing and refining his moves at weddings and other social functions. Through dance, Arthur discovered a joy and self-confidence, as well as a passion that he would share with countless others for the rest of his life.
By the age of 17, Arthur was studying under the popular dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle, and teaching dance classes of his own at night. While still in high school, Arthur won his first dance contest at the Grand Central Palace, where he later taught classes, before moving to Boston. In Boston, he taught ballroom dancing to patients at the Devereux Mansion Physical Therapy Clinic, where he inspired the love of dance in patients as they healed and strengthened from a variety of ailments.
A Star Begins to Shine
While studying commerce at the Georgia School of Technology, Arthur taught ballroom dancing at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta. Arthur also organized the world’s first “radio dance” in 1925. 150 people, mainly students, collected on the top of the Capital City Club to dance to the sounds from a live broadcast of a band performing on the Georgia Tech campus. The dance was a sensation, and people took notice of Arthur.
While Arthur was having a wonderful time spreading his love of dance, he realized he wanted to share his dance knowledge with as many people as possible. Inspired by a casual comment by a friend about teaching people to dance and making money from it, Arthur created a system of teaching people dance steps through the mail by sending out kinetoscopes, which created the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film revealing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. From these, individuals were able to mimic the dances portrayed. Arthur also distributed drawings he made of sequential footprints, which people placed on the floor and thusly learned dance steps that way. Within a couple years, 500,000 of these dance lessons had been sold. Arthur also began franchising dance lessons, teaching prospective dance instructors for the Statler Hotel chain.
On April 24, 1925, Arthur married Kathryn Kohnfelder, and the dancing couple soon gave birth to twin daughters, Jane and Phyllis. Encouraged by the positive feedback the couple received concerning their dance instruction style, the Murrays opened their first dance studio and began teaching the public in their own studio space. The Arthur Murray slogan was, “If you can walk, we can teach you how to dance.”
Everybody Wants to Dance
Business soared, particularly in 1938 and 1939, when Arthur selected little-known dances “The Lambeth Walk” and “The Big Apple” and turned them into dance trends. These dance crazes were taught in hotels across the country, and Arthur Murray became a household name. Also in 1938, the first Arthur Murray franchise studio opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and soon other franchises started popping up all across the country, promising prospective students the ability to dance with ten lessons.
After WWII, the Arthur Murray business grew more by offering lessons for Latin dances, a craze that was on the rise at that time. He even went to Cuba to teach dancing and had dances broadcast there throughout the 1950s.
It wasn’t just teens and housewives following dance crazes and interested in lessons, Arthur Murray had a number of celebrity clients, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duke of Windsor, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Barbara Hutton, Jack Dempsey, and Elizabeth Arden.
The Murrays retired in 1964, but remained cultural fixtures with the expansion of their dance studios and their presence on popular game shows through the 1970s. On March 3, 1991, Arthur passed away at the age of 95 in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 2007, Arthur Murray was posthumously inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.
There are now hundreds of Arthur Murray Dance Studios globally, each operated by specialty instructors whom instill in their students the confidence and joy dance can bring into their life. From his humble beginnings, Arthur Murray became the most popular dance instructor of all time, and his legacy is carried on by all the instructors and students who live life dancing, the Arthur Murray way.