Doris Dannenhirsch began her competitive swimming career in Rhode Island, capturing titles in the 50 and 100 freestyle and also the 100 breaststroke at the New England Junior and Senior Swimming Championships. In 1935, she traveled to Israel, and then to Palestine, as part of the second Maccabiah Olympic Team.
From 1939-42, Dannenhirsch and three of her teammates comprised the “Formation Swimmers.” They delighted thousands of viewers attending Sportsmen Shows in cities like Boston, Providence, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with their water ballet presentation. This group was known as one of the pioneers and forerunners in what today is known as Synchronized Swimming, now an Olympic sport.
Shortly after arriving at the University of Pennsylvanian in 1943, she formed one of the nation’s first synchronized swimming clubs, the Pennguinettes, in 1946. Dannenhirsch graduated from Penn with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1947 and stayed on at the University to earn her Master’s degree in education and to coach swimming. From 1947-54, her teaching career spanned the field of aquatics. She coached the varsity and junior varsity swimming teams at Penn while also teaching courses in swimming techniques to the physical education majors. The Pennguinettes went from a merry band of eight participants at its infancy to a hearty 51 student-athletes by the 1950s. In 1950, Dannenhirsch was selected to serve as the guest speaker at the “Synchronized Swimposium” held at Brooklyn College. She spoke on the approach to synchronized swimming at Penn and the teaching of the progression of skills. After her talk, Dannenhirsch directed a clinic on synchronized swimming skills.
In 1955, the Pennguinettes helped found the Association for Synchronized Swimming for college women. The Penn group was a charter member of this organization and took part in many of its conferences. Dannenhirsch remained with the University as the director of the Pennguinettes until her retirement in 1977. Throughout those years, she put together 25 consecutive water shows, with shows taking place both on and off campus. Dannenhirsch also served as a member of the Academy of Aquatic Art, secretary of the Executive Examining Committee and as a judge and referee for swimming and diving competitions.
From 1982-83, she sat on the University of Pennsylvania Athletic Advisory Council and the National Board of the United States Committee for Sports for Israel. In recognition of her extraordinary service, achievement and contribution through aquatics, Dannenhirsch was inducted into the Rhode Island Aquatic Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984. She was also inducted into the Rhode Island Jewish Hall of Fame as its first female member in 1975. Following this honor, she was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
During her career, Dannenhirsch collected nearly 500 swimming/aquatic-related cartoons and in 1994, her collection was donated to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale.
“Each Pennguinette group was responsible for their own choreography, making their own costumes, props and stage sets as well as direction many of their own compositions. A great deal of time, planning and effort went into each production. Besides all the hard work, it was really fun. Sometimes things didn’t go as planned ad we had some riotous errors. It’s a really difficult skill to master; it is the interrelationship of the arts and athletic prowess that is unique, unusual and at the same time, the added bonus is that it is relaxing and provides excellent exercise, all the while enjoying the music!” –Doris Dannenhirsch/Beshunsky