Like Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller and Mary Wigman, Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) is considered one of the matriarchs of modern dance. Moving seamlessly between popular entertainment and theatrical dance, Eastern and Western influences and the spiritual and sensual, St. Denis not only made great strides in elevating American dance to an artform, but also presented women as complex and autonomous. Similarly, Ted Shawn (1891–1972), St. Denis’ husband and partner, was one of the first American male dance artists to earn national recognition and champion dance as a valid form of expression for men. Together, the pair created Denishawn, an ambitious performing company that toured extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad from 1915 to 1931, as well as a school with an impressive roster of students, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In addition, Shawn founded Jacob’s Pillow, which has become a critical venue for dance in North America.
St. Denis was born Ruth Dennis in New Jersey, where she was raised on a farm. Her father was a chronically unemployed machinist. Her mother, who had a medical degree, exposed her to various philosophical and religious movements, such as theosophy and Christian Scientism (St. Denis eventually converted to Christian Science), and introduced her to the principles of François Delsarte, a French opera singer who invented a system of gestures that connected physical actions with metaphysical states. These early encounters ignited St. Denis’ lifelong fascination with mysticism and greatly impacted her formulation of dance as a vehicle for the expression of emotional and spiritual truths.
St. Denis began her career before dance became an established art in the U.S., a period in which female dancers were often associated with sexual availability. She started performing in vaudeville and dime museums as a skirt dancer named “The Only Ruth.” In 1904 she encountered a poster advertising Egyptian Deities cigarettes that depicted the goddess Isis. The image inspired her early choreography, including Radha (1906), a solo that presented St. Denis as a goddess in a Hindu temple surrounded by male worshippers. Divided into seven sections based on the five senses, as well as the “Delirium of the Senses” and “The Renunciation of the Senses,” the dance chronicled the deity’s progression through various states of physical and spiritual rapture. The solo was sensuously evocative, with its navel-baring costume, serpentine arm movements, full arches and suggestions of self-pleasure.
The piece was critical not only because it marked the dancer’s emergence as a serious solo artist (she adopted the name Ruth St. Denis to perform it), but also because it embodied key, often contradictory elements that would pervade her subsequent work.
For example, although Radha may have projected an aura of authenticity, it actually emerged from a conglomeration of images and principles St. Denis culled from visual art, travelogues, “Oriental” dances at Coney Island and Hindu philosophy. Indeed, many of her dances tapped into a turn-of-the-century colonialist fascination with the East, which, to Western eyes, represented unbridled sexuality, the exotic and the possibility of cultural renewal.
This mélange of the physical and divine infused both St. Denis’ dances and lifelong study of various religions. In her view, dance was a ritual and spiritual practice. As she wrote, “I have always tried to ‘dance’ . . . things that ordinarily are spoken or written, or preached or lived. The eternal quest for truth, the ecstasy of an instant’s communication with a divine being, the harmony of rituals, beautifully performed, was the story of my art and my religious life.” It was this fusion of dance expression and spirituality that ultimately attracted Ted Shawn.
By 1911, when Shawn first saw St. Denis perform, she had become an internationally renowned artist. Shawn, who grew up in Denver, shared with his future partner a strong religious background (in fact, he initially planned to become a minister). He began his dance study as physical therapy after diphtheria left him with short-term paralysis, and later moved to Los Angeles, where he established a small ballroom-dance company. A cross-country tour in 1914 led him to NYC and a meeting with St. Denis. Twelve years her junior, he found himself instantly enamored. Despite St. Denis’ objection to marriage, which she believed would hinder her artistic and personal autonomy, the two were wed within the year.
Though their partnership was tumultuous (she did not believe in monogamy and he hid his homosexuality for years), it was highly productive, resulting in a successful touring company and, by 1915, one of the first major training grounds for art dance in the U.S. Shawn’s belief in the validity of all dance forms throughout the world and across time led to an eclectic curriculum that combined ballet, yoga, Delsartian principles, exotic dance styles, improvisational explorations of physical and emotional dynamics (a hallmark of early modern dance), dance history, religious philosophy, repertory and even practical instruction in everything from electricity to crafts. The school became a popular destination not only for emerging dancers but also for Hollywood actresses such as Louise Brooks and Lillian Gish.
St. Denis and Shawn drew from their students to assemble Denishawn, a company that included Graham, Humphrey, Weidman, Pauline Lawrence (who later married José Limón) and Ernestine Day, as well as Louis Horst as music director. Denishawn aimed to demonstrate that dance could be a serious art while maintaining the interest of mass audiences through the use of costume, spectacle and entertainment. Its varied repertory incorporated spiritual exotica in solo, duet and group form, as well as large-scale presentations such as the “Dance Pageant of India, Greece, and Egypt” (1916). Premiering at this event was the couple’s signature duet, Tillers of the Soil, a stylized rendition of an ancient Egyptian couple harvesting the earth. Shawn contributed to these spectacles but also choreographed nearly 200 of his own works, ranging from the comedic Betty’s Music Box (1922) to the ethnic Japanese Spear Dance (1919). His infatuation with ancient Greek philosophy and physical ideals led him to create such dances as Death of Adonis (1924), in which Shawn, nude and painted white, embodied a moving classical sculpture.
While the company enjoyed great success, St. Denis and Shawn struggled with each other on both artistic and personal levels. She continually undermined his contributions, while he hampered her staunch individualism. The pair parted ways from 1918 to 1922, during which St. Denis and her own group, the Ruth St. Denis Concert Dancers, experimented with musical visualizations. Meanwhile, Shawn toured with an ensemble, receiving accolades for such works as the Native-American Xochitl (1921), which featured Graham. The pair reconnected briefly in the mid-1920s for a tour of Asia and India. St. Denis’ faux Indian works were surprisingly well-received by Indian audiences, who saw dance as a means to reassert a national identity distinct from colonial influence.
The mid-1920s also heralded the company’s transformation into a franchise, or in author Suzanne Shelton’s words, a “Denishawn Empire,” which included not only the company but also schools throughout the country, a magazine and a compound in the Bronx. By the late 1920s, however, key performers, including Graham, Humphrey and Weidman, decamped to establish their own careers. As modern dance developed, St. Denis’ work in particular began to seem dated, overly aesthetic and excessively exotic. She in turn criticized new directions as being too minimal, propagandistic, negative and sexless.
Denishawn also attracted negative attention when it established a quota in order to reduce the number of Jewish students in its New York school. Such restrictions were in keeping with the xenophobia and nativist bias of the period. In the end, the company and school folded in the early 1930s. In 1938, St. Denis founded the dance program at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY.
Although Shawn and St. Denis performed together on occasion in the late 1940s and early ’50s, she primarily performed as a solo artist and composed for movement choirs in churches. In the 1960s, she was honored with the Capezio and Dance Teachers of America awards.
Despite the demise of their company and marriage, St. Denis and Shawn never divorced, because, as critic Walter Terry surmised, rumors of Shawn’s homosexuality would have harmed his reputation. Indeed, while the split marked the decline of St. Denis’ career, Shawn’s was just beginning to take off. Starting in the 1930s, Shawn dedicated himself to legitimizing dance as a masculine form. In 1930, he bought a plot of land in Massachusetts that he named Jacob’s Pillow and began teaching dance as physical education to male students at Springfield College. A number of them ultimately joined his company, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, which toured throughout the nation from 1933 to 1940, after which many of them left to join the armed forces. The company took up residence at the Pillow, where they took daily classes, worked the fields, repaired and built the facilities and even participated in a nude sunbathing hour during which Shawn would instruct them in philosophy. Living hand-to-mouth, they survived through support from local wealthy women who would enjoy the performances by the youthful dancers.
Like other early dance pioneers, Shawn sought to create an American dance style. But he distinguished his mission from that of his female peers (and former students) by arguing for a purely masculine form. In an essay entitled “Dancing for Men,” included in one of his many publications, Shawn detailed the differences between characteristically masculine and feminine movements, exhibiting the sexist biases of his time: Men, he felt, should demonstrate a stance with a “forward thrust,” move in a full-bodied manner and extend into space, while women should display enclosed “movement of a small range” and “concave receptivity.” His translation of these principles into motion demonstrated, as one critic put it, that “dance is an art-form for men in action.”
Author Julia Foulkes has in fact argued that by advocating for masculine movements that were virile, athletic and strong, Shawn was suggesting invincibility, heroism and nationalism, which won over even the most conservative of audiences. Furthermore, at a time when homosexual men were believed to be effeminate, he succeeded in dispelling conventional notions that male dancers were effete.
While critics championing emerging modern dance often responded negatively to St. Denis’ and Shawn’s work, the duo’s contributions to American dance singly and together—as artists, teachers and visionaries—is undeniable. As Shawn wrote, “We intended to experiment with dance techniques of the past, to recognize dance movements of all ages and lands and to adapt new dance styles as they emerged. We could not have foreseen that our creative achievements would leave an indelible imprint on the history of American dance.” DT
Rebecca Rossen, PhD, is a dance historian and choreographer working in Chicago.