For many years, dance at McGill University was not only an extracurricular pursuit, but an important part of the Physical Education program. The Department of Physical Education began offering dance classes when it was established in 1912 and by 1929 the Womenís Department of Physical Education offered, both modern and interpretive dance. Ethel Mary Cartwright, the Departmentís founding director, taught nearly all dance classes during this period.
In the 1930s, dance had become a major attraction at McGill, and its annual recitals were covered by Montrealís English dailies. The Department of Physical Education was instrumental in the early development of modern dance in Montreal (itself a very dance-friendly city in those days), bringing a new approach to the fundamentals of American modern dance. With the arrival of dance teacher Thelma Wagner in 1938, McGillís dance community further intensified its focus upon contemporary and experimental aspects. Wagner also founded the Dance Club, which continues the tradition of yearly performances today. Under her direction, the Department of Physical Educationís dance elements continued to thrive for several decades.
When movement classes became part of the Faculty of Education, starting in 1967, dance began to lose its visibility at McGill. Finally, the dance Diploma program shut down in 1990. However, dance continues to be an integral part of the arts at McGill, as the members of the Dance Workshop still perform to sell-out crowds every year.