Trip the Light Fantastic

This is part two of the story about William Ivers; part one is Golden Dome.

In last week’s episode we learned about William Ivers, the orphaned boy who became  professor of mathematics and law at Notre Dame and who played a key role in the reconstruction of the campus after the Great Fire of 1879. Today, we dance. Or at least we learn about Prof. Ivers’ love of the performing arts.

William Ivers began his studies at Notre Dame in the mid-1850s. In the following years he taught at Notre Dame, Chicago, and Philadelphia, joining Notre Dame as a full-time math instructor in 1865. He had not yet received a degree, however, and at the suggestion of Rev. Patrick Dillon, president of the university, he “read up some subjects of the Collegiate Course to which he had not previously given special attention.” He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1866, a Master of Arts in 1868, and a Bachelor of Laws in 1874.

That was a busy time in the life of Professor Ivers. He married Ferdinande Murjahn in 1870 and the couple welcomed a daughter, Margaret (named for William’s mother and known as “Maggie”) in 1872. The life of an academic is rewarding, but rarely in a financial sense, and the demands upon Prof. Ivers were increasing steadily. For years he had been a gifted surveyor, able to assist with civil engineering projects at a high level, and by 1874 he had been trained as a lawyer. When he found it necessary to supplement his Notre Dame income with a side hustle, it makes sense that he chose the role of … dance instructor. On July 2. 1874, a few weeks after receiving his law degree, Prov. Ivers placed an ad in the South Bend Tribune offering instruction “in the art of the light fantastic” at Veasey’s Academy of Music.

The Academy of Music was the brainchild of Daniel Veasey and was located on the second and third floor of his establishment. What was on the first floor? A meat packing business, naturally. Veasey would slaughter, process, package, and sell pork and beef downstairs, then purvey dreams of high culture upstairs, The facility was located where McCormick’s Coney Island Bar stands today, at the corner of W. Colfax and N. Michigan streets, west of the DoubleTree Inn.

The Academy was 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep, with a smooth maple floor for dancing; the third floor was reserved for balconies, as the Academy occasionally hosted stage productions. According to the South Bend Tribune, the “appearance of the place was quite attractive.”

[Note – Veasey’s Academy of Music was never very successful, perhaps because Veasey was not a showman at heart. The facility opened in 1865 with a stage production featuring Lawrence Barrett (the Lawrence Barrett). Veasey and Barrett had a dispute over Barrett’s compensation, Barrett refused to take the stage, and Veasey “swore by all that was holy and otherwise” then turned out the lights on a house full of paying customers. Veasey eventually relented and Barrett performed, but it was not a promising start. After a few changes of ownership, including a brief stint as City Hall, the facility was destroyed by fire in 1917.]

Prof. Ivers did not limit his dance instruction to Veasey’s; he also offered lessons in dance and deportment to boys at the St. Joseph Grade School. He did not restrict himself to teaching children; in 1876 he enlisted the Elbel Orchestra to support his lessons and “hoped that the parents of the little people will encourage them … by their own attempts at the light fantastic.” When the local German community held a masquerade ball, it was Prof. Ivers who called out the dances (the Tribune noted that “Germans are proverbially good dancers”).

The dancing-above-the-slaughterhouse business was tough, however, and in November 1876 Prof. Ivers attempted another side gig: he taught night school with his father-in-law, Henry Lewis. They offered courses in English, Mathematics, Bookkeeping, and Penmanship. His heart wasn’t in it. Six months later he announced the reopening of his Dancing Class.

This time Prof. Ivers framed his class as an opportunity for students to learn the “physical graces” including “dancing and calisthenics.” He emphasized the importance to a young man of “grace of carriage, ease of manners, politeness… and education of the body.” The public did not respond as enthusiastically as Prof. Ivers hoped. 

After several months the Tribune noted that it was “strange that, when we have an excellent teacher in our own midst, one of our own citizens, that his thoroughness is not sufficiently appreciated … The times may be hard, but when a thorough disciplinarian and enthusiastic instructor leads a school of any kind, the people should make an effort, and a strenuous one, to sustain and encourage him.”

William Ivers was not a fellow to be discouraged, despite low attendance at his dance courses. When the faculty of Notre Dame selected a spokesman to celebrate St. Edward’s Day 1879, a major university celebration recognizing the namesake of its founder, the Very Rev. Edward Sorin, they chose the always-positive Prof. Ivers. And when, at the conclusion of his teaching career at Notre Dame, a theatrical production was staged, who was chosen for the lead role? William Ivers. It isn’t his fault that the role was “Benjamin Blowhard” in the one-act farce “Slasher and Crasher,” but it is likely his doing that the play was followed by a dance.

We learned in the last episode that Prof. Ivers moved to Philadelphia in 1880 for family reasons. After a brief stint owning a drug store, he picked up where he left off: as a teacher. William Ivers joined the Broad Street Academy, which offered preparatory instruction to young Catholic boys. He taught mathematics, English, and gymnastics.

And dance.

Until next time,


For sources and additional reading see p. 2

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